I had barely two days at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference because of all the other commitments that came due in my life at this time in the year. I met up with old friends, made new friends, had all kinds of lovely and provocative interactions. Heard some fine writing, and many times said to myself — wish I’d written that!
I wrote in my previous post that I found this conference a delight and I’ll try to say why. You might think that since I have an agent, and I have a contract for my first novel (planned for publication this coming September) I have no need to be haunting the halls of the Hyatt-on-the-beach and staying up until the wee hours in the company of a lot of odd characters.
First of all I’d argue that a good writer will never stop studying the craft. Just as no novel is ever so honed that it that couldn’t be better for another tweak or another jostle, so too, no writer ever hits a static perfection until death.
Hearing excellent work humbles me, makes me try harder. How wonderful and varied the work of all these other writers! Critiquing makes me think hard about where I’ve made similar errors in my own work, or where I may have stumbled on other wonders as they have, and I realize anew that of all sins, I cannot afford to be lazy. I return to self-editing with new violence.
Yesterday I hesitated in the science fiction/horror class over whether I wanted to read my own piece aloud, a rough draft of a chapter around page 80 in my new horror manuscript I Haven’t Seen Him. Fortunately I opted to have another student read it. He read it superbly, made it sound better than it was, but what I heard convinced me of where I needed to cut, and where I needed to shift the focus. You simply can’t hear your own work the same way if you are trying to juggle your voice and intonation, project, and not stumble…. So one opportunity in a conference is the chance to hear your own words in someone else’s voice, in the company of strangers.
In the critique, various other students and the teacher all gave me advice that I’m going to take far beyond that short chapter. The principles apply. They saw things I didn’t, both strong and weak. Living people have more of an impact on a writer than do all the fine books about writing. We’re still animals, mammals, warm blooded furry creatures that care about our community, so this community of learning from other breathing beings remains important through all our lives. I have favorite books on writing, Browne and King, Stein, Wheat, and Thomas McCormack. They are necessary, not simply valuable, but there is this different thing that happens when you are nervous and excited, (think adrenaline and pulse racing,) when you’re in the company of writers you respect and they are all focused on the product of your labor, all intent on making it even more of what you want it to be. It’s a rush, it’s sometimes acutely embarassing, mortifying, humbling, painful, but nothing else will fast forward you as effectively on the way to become a better writer.
More than this, you will make friends who know what you are talking about when you agonize over issues of violating point of view. On-line writers groups can be arranged. Your best supporters can be discovered, and then they fan back across the world like ambassadors. In the end even writing books comes back to the personal, the relationships we make.