Fair warning: this is the first of what will no doubt be several posts connected in one way or another to the experience I had at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers fiction workshop a few weeks ago. SVCW was my first big indulgence as a writer: an out-of-state gathering where I could learn from top-notch authors, agents, and editors. The sense of community there was beyond anything I could have imagined. I felt welcome everywhere, and I loved it all: the intense workshops; the afternoon craft talks; the panels of professionals; the readings, the dinners, the parties.
Among the best of the best was an onstage conversation between authors Anne Lamott and Mark Childress. It was this sort of conversation we had in mind when we began our Crosscurrents series earlier this year. Take two great authors – Dani Shapiro and Sherry Simpson, for instance – put them onstage to chat about writing and ideas, and you get something close to magic. (Yes, that’s a plug for tomorrow’s big event at the
at Rasmuson Auditorium at , when Shapiro and Simpson talk on Exposure and Betrayal: Writing Memoir.) Anchorage Museum
Lamott and Childress are longtime friends. He asked her what it was like to be a third generation writer; she said it taught her to write every day as a “debt of honor, by pre-arrangement.” They agreed that much of writing has to do with trying to capture the person inside of you who feels so deformed, admitting how often they’re scared they’re not good enough, how often the sense of being so different that they explore in their fiction is exactly what they feel like in “real life.”
The writer’s life is a lot about nothing happening for a long, long time, Childress said, except that you sit down and do it. Lamott asked him how he rebounded from a painful publishing experience, the time the prints were pulled on a movie based on his novel a few days before its official release – an eighteen million dollar project gone belly-up. Remarkably, the film went on to become a cult hit and is now in the black. Regardless of the stakes, Lamott and Childress agreed that writers have to put themselves out there; they have to be determined.
“You own what happens to you,” Lamott said. “Be strict with yourself. There’s a thing on your shoulder saying this is not good enough, but this is what you do.” She advised writers to give their work to people who will be strict with them. “The hugest gift one writer can give to the other is the truth,” she said. “About the third draft you might be able to show it to someone you trust,” she said. “Cultivate that person who tells you where it really starts, where it really ends.” As an example, she pointed to her latest book, Imperfect Birds. The project had gone to copy editing when Childress told her it needed to start in a different place. And he was right, she said. She cut the beginning and it’s a better book for it.
We’re not alone in this game. Hard questions, difficult truths, poignant revelations – those are what happen when writers talk. It's what you can expect tomorrow at when two fine writers tackle tough questions on memoir.