Author events let you learn from the best
Published: February 8, 2001
|Writing words of wisdom, up close and personal|
You can learn from the best writing teachers in the world without ever signing up for a class. In the past few years, I have heard about believing in your dreams from Jacquelyn Mitchard, and what it's like to immerse yourself in another era from Margaret Atwood. Ray Bradbury exhorted me to stretch my imagination, and Isabel Allende taught me that passion must ignite my work. Jane Hamilton talked calmly about confidence, and Scott Turow weighed in on luck versus talent.
I didn't pay to hear these writers speak at expensive writers conferences, and I didn't go to a university that attracts the literary world's biggest and brightest. I simply scoured the book sections of my local newspapers for upcoming author events.
Most such events - usually readings and question-and-answer sessions held in bookstores - are free. Those that do charge admission are often fund-raisers for libraries, museums and other cultural institutions. The average ticket price for events in my area - Chicago - is $20, although more expensive ticket options are sometimes available for front-row seating or an opportunity to meet with the author.
While it may help that I live near a large city, literary luminaries do not limit themselves to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Their book tours take them to cities large and small, from Fort Meyers, Fla., to Fresno, Calif., and many points in between.
Isabel Allende came to Chicago to accept a literary award for her book Paula. Since Allende is one of my favorite authors, and I had read the book straight through in three days, I knew I had to go. I read in the book section of the Chicago Tribune that she would be taping an interview before a live audience for National Public Radio.
The free event was held at the downtown Harold Washington Library in an elegant auditorium that seemed made for such occasions. When Allende first stepped on stage, there was excited applause, then a hush as we leaned forward in our seats in anticipation of what she would say. Would she sound just as she does in her books? Would her spoken words have the same poetic cadence as her writing? She opened by saying softly, "The library is inhabited by spirits that come out of the pages at night." And right away, we knew the answer to both questions was "yes."
Allende spoke of the courage it took to write Paula, a wrenching narrative of her daughter's illness and death. She was lyrical, poetic and emotional. She spoke of coming to writing later in life, after trying many other things. She spoke of her mother and how they write each other daily, and have done so for as long as she can remember.
She talked of leaving her beloved Chile and finding a new home--and a new life--in the United States. All of these things weave in and out of her writing, much as they weave in and out of her life. And she posed a question: "Is anything I've lived during the day any more real than what I've dreamed? In our writing, we can interweave reality, myth, dreams and memories."
|I have heard Ray Bradbury speak more than a dozen times, yet every time, I learn something new about writing. Some writers I know don't bother to see him because "he would just talk about science fiction." My advice is to never close yourself off to an author just because he or she does not write in your preferred genre. While writers will discuss their work, they also will dissect the writing process for you. And in doing so, they are trying to solve the mystery of writing as much as you are.|
Bradbury inspires for the sheer volume and quality of his writing. He has written short stories, novels, plays, poems, screenplays, nonfiction and essays. Once I heard him read a poem that nearly moved me to teaars. I furtively glanced around to see if anyone shared this response and found the entire audience sitting in awe, cheeks glistening. I'll never forget it.
In closing his talks, Bradbury always gives the best advice I've ever heard one writer give to another: "Now get the hell out of here and write!"
Jane Hamilton once said during a reading, "I always knew writing would be a part of my life. But I was always advised on not writing as a profession." To those of us who haven't quite reached the level of success of Hamilton, whose books include The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, these are encouraging, honest words. Perhaps we need to hear that others have gone before us, against the odds, and triumphed.
Such is the message Jacquelyn Mitchard shared at a community center. "My book is an old-fashioned novel by an average woman," she told us. "Believing in ourselves is the hardest thing to do. You can't give up on your dreams." She didn't, even in the face of incredible adversity; her perseverance and belief in her work landed her a lengthy stay on The New York Times bestseller list, and her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was Oprah Winfrey's first book club selection.
|Margaret Atwood spoke for an hour in a high school auditorium. She was charming, witty and brilliant as she talked about the writing process and her book Alias Grace. She opened by saying, "I'm not a pundit; I'm just a lonely fiction writer. They don't pretend to be experts on anything. They stare out the window and bump into furniture." Atwood has since won the prestigious Booker Prize 2000 for her book, The Blind Assassin.|
She spoke about immersing herself in the past, as she did for the writing of Alias Grace. "The past has the appeal of time travel," she said. "It appeals to the cultural anthropologist in all of us." And, she said, "The past belongs to us because we are the ones who need it. Just as the poem belongs not to the poet, but to those who need the poem."
Atwood advised writers to create a biography for each character. "What did they wear, what did they eat?" she asked. "With Alias Grace, every major element had to be suggested by the research. Then the novel filled in the gaps."
Scott Turow told a group of writers at a luncheon, "The principal ingredient in having a successful bestseller is ... luck. Mere merit is never enough. I spend a lot of time puzzled and confused about how I became a writer. And I decided if you don't write, you are not a writer; if you do, you are."
Turow first attempted to write a novel when he was 11, "copying from 7th-grade reading books." He cited the great importance placed on reading and writing in his family when he was growing up, and the influence of a high school journalism teacher who told the class, "You will learn to write under inclement circumstances." Which is just what Turow ended up doing - it took him four years to complete Presumed Innocent, writing the novel in longhand on the train while commuting to work as a lawyer.
As writers, we work mostly in isolation. In my daily life, I rarely come into contact with other writers. It nourishes my writer's soul to steal away from my computer and hear stories about the writing life from others who are doing the same thing.
It doesn't matter that the authors I see are light years ahead of me in publishing credits. Each of them once sat down and wrote the first sentence of their first book, just as we all must do.
--Posted Feb. 8, 2001