What I learned at the IU Writers’ Conference
By Sarah Berry
“To have a firestorm surrounding your work, that’s what you want. You just have to weather the storm.” So says Samuel Autman, the speaker of the Craft and Business of Nonfiction panel at this summer’s IU Writers’ Conference. He was talking about personal nonfiction, specifically memoirs, and his advice ranged from don’t be afraid to get really personal to don’t go on Amazon and look at reviews, because they may make you never want to write your memoir or anything, ever.
Internet trolling and ridiculous reviews aside, the writer’s conference provided advice that ranged from how to make yourself sit down and actually write something to writing strategies to how to best market your work once you’ve actually managed to crank it out. Beginning with a series of personalized workshops (Chris Abani, novelist and poet, taught fiction; Mary Robinette Kowal, novelist specializing in science fiction and fantasy, appropriately taught sci-fi/fantasy; Morgan Parker, poet, taught the poetry workshop), then transitioning in the afternoon to the panel with Autman, and then to talks given on poetry, graphic memoir, and fiction, taught by Rickey Laurentiis, Amy Kurtzweil, and Alexander Weinstein, respectively. The day was full of useful information, quirky tips, fun personal stories, and writing exercises.
“Who reads literary magazines?” Samuel Autman
However, it was interviewing the authors about their personal experiences with writing that I found the most informative. After the day’s panels were done, there were readings in which the authors read their works. This was followed by a small reception with light food and plenty of wine. I spent these receptions awkwardly attempting to interview the writers (while most of them were trying to talk with the actual conference participants who had paid to be there), but all were accommodating and took the time to answer my questions as I limped along on my journalistic training wheels.
Here’s what I learned….
Writing is like the energizer bunny
“It’s energized, but it must be exhausted because it goes forever.” That’s Ricky Laurentiis’ description of the energizer bunny, which, for him, closely parallels writing: writing itself is draining, but finishing a piece and having it appreciated or published is energizing. Writing is full of ups and downs and learning how to reconcile the two and work through them. But it all seems to depend on the writer: Samuel Autman, who both teaches and writes, found the combination tiring. As a teacher, he says, it’s not just making the students enthusiastic and willing to write; it’s about making sure that in teaching, you don’t lose that drive either. Autman says, “I had to learn to try to find things that would energize my writing.”
There are different ways to express emotions
Writing is often cited as a great means of self-expression. From emotion to memory to shared experience, writing gives us a means to connect with others while examining ourselves. For Samuel Autman, the way to connect most deeply and personally with people was to write memoirs. While working as a journalist, Autman began to write personal columns. “I would write periodic columns, and I found that readers really connected to those columns.” People loved the narrative details, even something as small as what someone was wearing, because it helped them connect to the story. And through this, Autman was able to tell stories that could connect to more people because these narratives created a powerful empathy, and, ultimately, redemption for those whose story was being told.
On the flip side, Amy Kurzweil found drawing to be a stronger way for her to convey emotion. “I feel like with graphic memoir and with drawing I’m able to communicate emotional information that, in writing, doesn’t come as easily to me.” Just as I find drawing excruciating, many people feel the same about writing. It’s not for everyone, but most of us have the same desire to express ourselves in ways that others can readily understand. There are multiple mediums through which to do this, and they are all capable of telling powerful narratives. For Amy, drawing allowed her an emotional directness that she couldn’t find in writing, where in a piece of art the smallest change in a facial expression could speak paragraphs. As Kurzweil told me: “I have a lot of feelings and I want people to know that!”
Writing personal nonfiction is scary
Personal nonfiction means opening your life and experiences to everyone. Whoever happens to pick up your book or click on your article suddenly becomes privy to some of the most intimate details of your life. Autman says he started publishing his memoir stories in literary magazines, which have a very limited readership (“Who reads literary magazines? Because they’re so rare,” Autman remarked to me). Then his writing was out there, but he didn’t have to worry about it being everywhere and read by everyone. Eventually, he reached a turning point, realizing that nonfiction was what he wanted to write, and that passion was enough to overcome his fear. But, regardless of anyone’s passion for writing memoirs, everyone has to face the fire eventually (“get ready to be crucified” was Autman’s advise). You need a thick skin, and you have to decide how you want to deal with the fire. For Autman, it’s like this: “I’m not gonna fight with people if they wanna attack. If they don’t want to read it, don’t read it…This is my truth. This is what happened to me. And if it doesn’t work for you, find books that do work for you.” Just remember: whatever you do, don’t read those Amazon reviews.
Write in your own voice and for the right reasons
People often try take on a persona when writing, attempting to write in a voice that isn’t their own. Not only can this make it more difficult to actually produce writing, but “it often leads to not being vulnerable or not risking something because what you’re trying to do is create a style that’s not necessarily your own,” said Alexander Weinstein. Writing in someone else’s style because you think it’s what readers want will not only hamper your ability to express yourself, but often change what you’re writing for. Writing for money is an issue that plagues many writers. “You think you’re just going to write the bestseller and it’s just going to be accepted right away. That means that you’re looking at the product, the end product, rather than the process, too early” said Chris Abani. The best way to overcome this is by two things. Morgan Parker advises: “don’t be afraid of yourself.” And, Mary Robinette Kowal reminds us that we’re readers first, so “write something you want to read.”
Science-fiction isn’t a camp genre
So often we’re tempted to pass sci-fi off as fluff, camp, low-brow. It’s the stuff of B serials, cheap, cookie cutter novels, and bloated blockbuster films. But it can be much more. Alexander Weinstein thinks of his work that would typically be classified as sci-fi as speculative fiction and social critique. Examining how our world may be in the near future through the way we utilize and depend on social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, can convey our relationship with technology and question if we’re losing ourselves to these inventions. Weinstein cited Tinder as an example: “if you look at, for example, dating apps, the way that we swipe people into the trash is very closed-hearted and horrible, but we don’t think of it that way, so if you take it just a step further it can reveal some of these both disturbing and humorous underbellies of our current technologies.” Ultimately, science fiction allows to examine our own world through a different, perhaps more objective lens. For Kowal, science fiction “tips the natural world to the side so that you can see the connective tissue, which I think allows us to talk about some social issues and just the human condition in ways that more naturalistic fiction doesn’t because it doesn’t come with the same kind of baggage.”
You are your own worst enemy when it comes to writing
If you’ve ever tried to write anything, you’ve experienced some form of writer’s block. You sit down at the computer and everything you were about to write evaporates in a second, so you go watch TV. Your thesis suddenly sounds stupid so you decide you might as well give up writing. Someone asks you a question and your hour-long writing streak is over. Weinstein would identify the cause of these issues as the inner critic and the slacker. The inner critic is the one that will tell you “you’re no good, why should you bother writing.” The slacker says “nah, we’ll do it tomorrow.” Sometimes it’s one of these that plagues you, sometimes both. They’re also impossible to get rid of. Therefore, Weinstein declared, you must give them the time they deserve. As much as they cause problems, they also have their own merits: “The inner critic becomes a good editor once trained, and the slacker becomes really good after you’ve done a lot of work.”
Writing can seem lonely, but it doesn’t have to be
We’ve all had that experience where we’re writing something, be it school essay, work application, personal memoir, magazine article, and we’re doing it alone, in our house, at the desk, in the corner, feeling very isolated from everyone, trying to figure out how to put into words feelings that aren’t easily expressed. And it’s often harder when we feel alone. That’s why these writing conferences are so special. “What’s really great here is less that actual tangible classes, although I think those are important. It’s the sense of community, because writing is always already so isolated and lonely. So it’s good to be reminded that you have a community of writers across the world, across the nation, who are just as weird as you,” said Rickey Laurentiis. That was my biggest takeaway from this conference: whether we were laughing at Autman’s anecdotes or struggling to fill Weinstein’s writing exercises, there was a sense of togetherness there. And there’s something about that energy that makes writing, at least in my experience, much easier, and a much more enjoyable experience.
In conclusion, writing is hard. That sounds trite, but it’s true. You have to sit down at a blank page and pluck words from the ether to create something wholly original that makes some sort of sense and is actually enjoyable to other people. Writing conferences like IU’s can help; words of wisdom from the experienced (and published) can aid not only with motivation, but skills and general practices. But, ultimately, it comes down to personal enjoyment. Write (or don’t write; art comes in many forms) what speaks to you, what you like. If it’s terrible, who cares. Just have a good time, and remember: you’re not the only one toiling away out there.