Thursday, June 12, 2008

Finding One's Inner Ishmael

Since approximately 1980, I have been involved with at least one writers' conference. My longest continuous tenure has been with one of the top three or four in the U.S., the week-long Santa Barbara Writers' Conference which, until about 2005, was owned, operated, and propelled by one of my most long-term and dearest of friends. When said friend decided it was time to cut back and find an appropriate buyer, I counselled another friend who in fact became the new owner.

I write not to impart a history of the SBWC or to recount incidents of sometimes raucous detail but rather to chronicle the gray humors that descend upon me like an invasive marine layer coming in off the ocean each year at this time. Like Ishmael then, I wander about, an oppressive gloomy June in my soul when in fact I should be free of teaching responsibilities and opportunities and free to pursue the writing sides of my personality. Since about 1985 I have found myself on the receiving list of manuscripts to read and comment upon from those attending the conference. True enough, I have forged many warm friendships from suc reading and commentary, but more often than not I have found myself wondering if writers conferences can help wannabe writers. It is a question I also ask from time to time in the years I have taught at various undergraduate and graduate venues. The answer is always yes, but the crux of the matter is the number of individuals one must deal with (including one's self) or to put it another way, to rely on the baseball analogy of the batting average, and to realize that there are two basic types of individuals who come to writers' conferences and to writing programs, those who wish to learn technique and those who want a sounding board, a more-or-less laissez faire kind of encouragement and acknowledgment with occasional suggestions occasional bits of psychology, and continuous challenges that will result in produced material.

Some beginning writers will certainly improve merely from developing the habit of continuous writing. Some already accomplished and technically dazzling writers can be jiu jitsued into using their own voice to the point where it becomes muscle memory. Having achieved that plateau, they will surely publish. Whether they will make much money from it is a matter of whim and luck and sometimes even irony, but nevertheless, they will have splendid technique with which to freight splendid, often challenging stories.

In the mean time, I am reading three-thousand-word samples, submitted for this year's SBWC and indeed along with the marine layer that is drawn in from the ocean, the wannabe layer of grayness is drawn over me by the manuscripts I read. The remarkable thing about these submissions, some from locals, some from about the US, is the yearly consistency of thematic similarity. Last year the stories were all about terrorists, this year the emphasis is on improbable plot, done in excruciating detail. Having been raised on genre fiction, written at it and edited in it, I am of the opinion that most genre plots are borderline dumb or, failing that, attempting to be remarkably shrewd, as though the very complexity was a eon sign flashing the words Super Bright Author. Good writing can make any plot seem plausible. The better writers in our midst can even shove a pretentious plot kicking and screaming its way into literature.

There it is, in apercu. The better angels of our nature and the better writers in our midst. We must try to become both. I am encouraged on my own behalf because I am so splendidly awful at plotting that I have long since given up approaching story from that approach, instead focusing on someone who wants something to the point of despair, then undertakes to achieve it or cause it to happen or put himself or herself in the way of meeting it head on. Then I quickly bring forth one or more characters who are at the very least resistant to the goals of the protagonist. Then I cause them to collide in one manner or another, comfortable with the tension and outright suspense brewed in this crucible. From such pressure comes discovery and from discovery comes much of the stories I produce and/or admire.

There are not too many more of the manuscripts left for me to read and comment on, and so there is some strong chance for a break in the Ishmael layer of heaviness that has descended. I will soon be at the point where I am beyond threatening that this will be my last year at SBWC or any other conference. Manuscripts from early stage authors can be oppressive, a testament to the power of writing in general, which in specific makes the gyre turn in the first place, appropriate recognition to the emotional effect and power of the story at any stage of quality.

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