Sunday, November 21, 2004

Remarks at the Writers' Conference 2004

(So here are some of the things we talked about at the recent Gulf Coast Writers' Conference, which took place in a lecture hall of the Language Arts building at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City... My topic was supposed to be "Idea, Instinct and Interaction." I have inserted some of the audience interactions in italics.)


Let me tell you something. Being up here is not what I’m about. I’m the guy who sits alone in a room and writes. I’m the guy who’s most comfortable with some music, some tea, and some words on paper.

But they tell me this is part of the gig — standing up, talking about myself and the craft, and eventually signing books, if I’m lucky enough to do that. I’m divided about that. Writers long to be recognized, but are best known by the thing they do when they’re all alone. They want to be loved for what they create — and yet, the creation is only perfected when the writer is invisible, when the experience is one of the reader and the words.

When the writer gets too clever, or too beautiful in his work, it takes the reader outside of the experience. Maybe the reader says, “What a wonderful turn of phrase,” or, “What a beautiful passage that was.” That writer has been too clever, has drawn the reader out of the work — has failed.

We’ll get back to that idea in the end of this talk — it’s a writer’s trick called circular construction.


I’ve brought a few things to share with you. One, is the homemade binding of my novel project — thank my wife for this.
Second is the homemade binding of my column collection, which was inspired by the first.
Third is my Bartlett’s Famous Quotations. I love this book.
And fourth, Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art.
These were sort of instinctual choices, and I hope they bear out. Stick with me here, because they’ve asked me to talk about my work process, which Michael has labeled IDEA, INSTINCT, and INTERACTION.

One thing this novel project has taught me, and which I always knew but seldom let myself believe or act upon, is to follow my instincts. Let me give you an illustration from the columns.

(and at this point I turned to a column in the collection and read. I will post a link to the column in the News Herald archive as part of this entry's comments.)

Following where the story leads

The high concept for CENTURY was to do a series of short stories that have interwoven characters and subplots. The hero of story One would be a minor character in story Three, for instance. Point of View and style would vary wildly. Each story would be able to stand alone, but taken as a whole would form a loose tapestry — something like Ray Bradbury’s classic Martian Chronicles.

That plan altered as the stories grew more complex. The pieces became more integral to one another, and some of them made no sense without having read others first.

But all of it was leading up to some catastrophe toward the end of the collection — a terrible incident based upon a real thing from my experience — when a horse ran loose through the crowd at a Sawmill Day celebration in Century and trampled several people. I don’t think that’s telling too much — just enough to let you know where I was going with the chapter called ...


I knew what it was supposed to do, but had no idea who my narrator was, what POV, what the plot was beyond a single random and inexplicable incident. So I sat down with my keyboard and described the celebration, the parade, and was no closer to making it a story.

So I looked into the magic book for inspiration ... looking up the title, THE FOURTH HORSEMAN, to see exactly how it was used in the Bible. And here’s what I found ... Nothing. But a pale horseman, that I found, and it led me to read more from Revelations.

And that led me to my main character, his thought patterns, how he saw the world. And that led me to this — just a taste. I promise not to read too much...

(And here I read a few pages of The Fourth Horseman, leading up to the beginning of the parade...)


All over the newspaper are ways you can interact with us. Writers, editors, page designers. Our names and phone numbers and e-mail addresses are at the tops of stories, the tops of pages. We want to hear from readers. Even those who disagree with how we did something. It validates the work.

Early on, I became so caught up in the process that I took notes on each version of stories, kept copies of them as they evolved rather than saving over them all the time. And I decided to begin blogging about the process itself. Knowing at some point that it would validate the work.

If you want more of that stuff, including emails to various writers I know, questions raised by early readers of the manuscript, plans for potential publication, plans that fell through, and so forth, you can visit the blog at

Why would I want to expose myself like that? Well, indulge me for a moment. It’s like God leaving us a note to us inside our gene map — and I don’t mean that to sound as conceited as it came out. If you ever read Cosmos by Carl Sagan, you might recall the code discovered billions of decimal points into pi; the universe's way of saying, "I'm here." Or, there's a grand design. What I mean is this:

Why do we write? Because we can’t NOT write. It’s not for money or fame, it’s because we’d go mad if we didn’t get the words out. Writing, for those of us in this room, is probably a mental illness from which we hope never to be cured.

But that leads to another idea: Can you be a writer if no one reads your work?

(At which point someone interrupted with "Is that like the tree falling in the forest?" not knowing that what I had written was...)

I think that’s kind of like the tree falling in the forest. Not only does no one hear the tree, but no one cares. No one can marvel, disagree, suggest differences, conceive alternatives. Communicate.

MADELINE L’ENGEL in her book on writing and spirituality, Walking on Water, says Art is Communication, and "if there is no communication, (then) it is as though the work had been still-born.”

That creates in us the paradox of creating art — in this case, literature. That’s because the artist is not the point of the work. The work is the point of the work.

(A member of audience disagreed. She said her journal-writing is still writing, and it is not meant to be read by anyone. I agreed with her that it was writing. It just was not art. When she was gone and someone else found it and read it and was moved by it, then it would be recognized as art.)

E.M. Forster said that “all literature tends toward a condition of anonymity” — that it is “always tugging in that direction, saying in effect that ‘I – not the author – really exist.’”

Think of those moments when we see God in Nature — when something so beautiful and sublime presents itself and says “There is a God, and only God could have made this.”

Only then we see the signature of the creator, and marvel. Otherwise, we see only the creation, not the invisible creator.

And though the creator longs to be loved and appreciated for what he has wrought, the creation is only perfected by making him seem unnecessary — that it would have existed, in fact must have existed, quite by itself and without outside influence.



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