Wednesday, November 08, 2006

AML Writers Conference

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Well, the Writers Conference of the Association for Mormon Letters’s Writers was very poorly attended, which was actually rather heartbreaking, since I helped to plan it. But once I got over that, I had a blast. Here are some of the highlights:

I. Plenary Session: “Can Writing Be Taught?” by Dr. Michael Collings

First, we had a keynote address by poet and professor Michael Collings. Some of you fellow Orson Scott Card fans might recognize his name as the author of the most famous paper about Card. His topic was, “Can Writing Be Taught?” That’s something I am always wondering. His answer to this question was “Yes . . . and No.” I have to agree with him. Here are some things I jotted down: “Writing education is not so much teaching but opening the eyes of people who are already interested in words.” That makes it sound like writing can’t really be taught. What I think Dr. Collings was saying, and what I believe myself, is that writing SKILLS can be taught. But there’s some sort of fundamental part of being a writer that can’t be taught. Maybe that’s what he meant by “people who are already interested in words.” Yes, there are a lot of “writers” who AREN’T writers. You can tell who they are when you read their stuff. And what factor sets them apart from those who ARE? I bet it’s this: what do they read? There are just so many “poets” out there who READ NO POETRY!!!!! I’m not sure they are interested in words—more like they are interested in the sound of their own voices. Just a theory, there. I’m not sure I believe it, but I’ll try it out for a while.

More from Collings:
“The fundamental difference between prose and poetry? Lines.” (I was pleased at that one, because I knew the answer. I knew it because I had taken Creative Writing independent study from BYU, and the author of the text for the class was Bruce Jorgensen. And Bruce says in his text that lines and the breaking of them [and making of them] are basically the only real difference between prose and poetry. Bruce was sitting in front of me during this lecture and he provided the answer to Dr. Collings’s question—but not before I REMEMBERD IT MYSELF from his class. So there.)

“Everything that we talk about in regards to writing poetry applies to writing prose—just not as much.” He pointed out that, for example, the last two lines of key scenes in Card’s Ender’s Game are rhymed couplets: “He just didn’t break them.”

When you’re writing, you need to consider four things: Persona (who are you?), Purpose (why are you writing this?), Audience (to whom are you writing?—his example was a young person describing what happened on his date last night . . . to his roommate, to his mother, to his professor, to his boss=a change in tone, obviously), and Argument (the meat and bones of the issue).

He showed us a fascinating example of a poem in progress in which the student attempted to remove all of the prepositions from the piece.

II. Breakout: “Treasure Hunting: Mining Your Life for Writing Ideas” by Segullah

Mostly I just have to say that I love these chicks. IMO, they are all beautiful and talented and hilarious. I’m so glad to be involved with them. Sharlee (Glen) talked about how poetry engages the reader’s intelligence, senses, emotion and imagination. Wow—what a description. (She must be a poet.) Poor thing had a bad example and a good example and one woman in the class preferred the bad example. (Someone always does.) Sharlee taught us to avoid the sentimental, the rhetorical (unwarrantedly flowery language), and the didactic (AMEN!).

Here’s something just for you, Sharlee (I wrote it myself, just now):

A little hint from which to learn:
Avoid sentiment that you fail to earn.
And a poem to teach is usually bad,
So please avoid this Mormon fad.

There. Great poetry, ain’t it?

And Courtney (Kendrick-whom-I-idolize) talked about learning from the scriptures that she should find her own voice and speak in it. (She spoke of Nephi, whose soul delighted in plainness, when he talked about the Lord speaking in each individual’s language so that each can understand.) Courtney said, “I want to write essays that I would like to read.” The cool thing about Courtney is that she is a master at using her own language and the result is that EVERYONE loves to read her stuff.

I BELIEVE THIS IS THE KEY TO GOOD LITERATURE!!!! Tell the truth as you see it, as accurately as you can, in your own language, and the result is GOOD! Because it comes from God, through His creation (you!).

III. “Fact or Fiction: Writing the Spiritual” by Tessa Meyer Santiago

The truth is that it was my idea to ask Tessa to present because there is such a hole in my life from the last time she presented and she RAN OUT OF TIME. I’ve always ached to find out what else she would have said. Literally, I hang on her every word. I want to be her.

Predictably, she didn’t disappoint. Tessa began by having us list the things that we want to tell about in our writing but that are so darn hard to get right without being manipulative. Things like a meeting with the divine, the onset of remorse, a moment of grace, a changing point, hearing the voice of God, conversion, seeing the face of God in the world around us, dreams, visions, communion with others, confirmation of things.

Her biggest point was that we MUST respect the reader’s agency. She read us some examples of language that does not manipulate. For a starter, she quoted Arthur Henry King on his analysis of Joseph Smith’s description of the First Vision. (And then compared it to Oliver Cowdery’s (?) description, which was obviously meant to persuade.

She read fantastic examples from Levi Peterson (“Confessions of St. Augustine” from Canyons of Grace) and Bruce Jorgensen (who, incidentally, was sitting next to me, and whose story, “A Song for One Still Voice” I had read in the text to my creative writing class) of spiritual moments in fiction that are described so delicately as to WORK without hitting people over the head.

An important question to ask is whether the CHARACTER believes what’s happening, not whether the reader does.

But the sad thing about this session was that I still felt that Tessa ran out of time just when she was about to address my biggest concern: how does an essayist create order out of experience in the crafting of the essay without attempting to create order for the reader? I am so weak at essays for just this reason. I can’t figure out how to structure an essay, how to really make it go somewhere or make some kind of point, without it feeling didactic and manipulative. I think Tessa is so good at it. WHAT IS HER SECRET?

One thing she said that helped me: “The true work is finding the RIGHT story. After that, it’s a matter of simple language.” Also, that her biggest prayer when she writes is, “Help me be unashamed to tell the story.” Amen and amen.

IV. Conversation with Bruce Jorgensen
Well, it wasn’t really a session, but I thought I’d tell about it here since hallway and post-session conversations are actually the most valuable part of writers conferences to me. Taking advantage of the fact that I was sitting next to Dr. Jorgensen, I accosted him and had a nice conversation with him. He says that periodically he and other English faculty members do make an effort to get an MFA program going at BYU, but that there is great reluctance from the powers that be. I restrained myself from falling on my knees at his feet to beg him to throw his weight around for another attempt. I am SO FRUSTRATED that BYU doesn’t have an MFA program in creative writing. As Bruce says (yes, we are on a first-name basis, thank you very much—although I don’t think he knows mine), the program is sort of already there and they would only have to change the NAME of it, really. I just can’t stand the thought that the church professes a desire for more great LDS artists but that there are NO PROGRAMS IN THE STATE where a person who writes mostly LDS stuff can get an MFA!!!!!! Isn’t BYU the exact institution that should RECTIFY THIS PROBLEM?????? HUH? HUH?

So I mostly was preaching to the choir with Bruce and it looks like nothing will change.

I also talked to him about his story, which Tessa read part of, because when I read it the first time I had thought, “Hey, this is a lot like some of my stories because it sounds like a poem and doesn’t have a lot of action.” I wanted to know how he decides to make his poems into stories or his stories into poems, because lately I have been taking all my story ideas and making them into poems. He didn’t really have much to say to that and I came away with a renewed belief in the mystery of writing. None of us really knows how or why we do stuff. (Unless we are formulaic best-seller-writers, I guess.)

V. Lunch

was fajita bar and mighty tasty if I do say so myself (having been the person who ordered it). And did you notice that we each got a CHURRO???? Nay, more than one each, probably, since I ordered food for 75 people and I counted 40 max. in the room. (Arrgggh. There goes our money.) I got to sit by and chat with my favorite up-and-coming LDS novelist, Angela Hallstrom. Then we listened (or rather, tried to listen, since the people on my OTHER side were yapping the WHOLE time until I very nicely asked them to be quiet and they promptly left the conference never to return—OOPS) to representatives of a few new or small LDS publishers (those who deigned to show up, that is). I was interested to hear that Faustus Publishing and Push Publications are both interested in poetry. We also heard a little about Juniper Press, Parables, Rosehaven, Spring Creek, and my friend Chris’s Zarahemla. (Chris, it wouldn’t hurt for you to not emphasize the spiciness of your offerings QUITE so much. I mean, you could still offer some “less-spicy-but still literary and good” books, but you’ll limit your audience if you make “we’re not afraid of profanity and sex” your calling card.) I have high hopes for Chris’s press. He has a good head on his shoulders and might do some great stuff. (Have you talked to Scott Bronson about Whipping Boy?)

During lunch I also got to harangue—oops I mean “address respectfully”—Lisa Mangum, a representative from Deseret Book who made the unfortunate mistake of sitting at the table with Angela and me. I understand her fix, but still I find DB hard to forgive for not taking an interest in boosting the literary tastes of Mormons. I really think they could find it in their hearts and budgets to once-in-a-while publish something that might be difficult to sell just because it SHOULD be out there. (I also believe that there really is a market for these but that it takes time to reach it and build up their trust. Exhibit A is the LDS bookgroup phenomenon. Most of these groups are reading classics and literary stuff, darn it!)

VI. “Poetry Workshop” by Dr. Michael Collings.

More good stuff from Dr. Collings. He talked about the benefit of writing poetry regularly (we see differently—an answer from the audience from, well, yours truly). He had some good ideas for assignments that I want to look up in his book. He spoke of formal forms supporting the poem instead of poems being hung on forms. Some other ideas: “If you’re not sure about the poem, remove the first part and the last part.” “When you cut lines, save them somewhere to use elsewhere.” “When you look at your poem, analyze whether you have addressed language, compression, emotion, music and imagery.”

VII. More poetry workshop.

I had passed Dr. Collings some poetry that he had agreed to look at in a private conference later. So I sat down with him and had a great conversation. We spent only two minutes on my poetry because he had nothing to suggest—he thought I’d already done a fabulous job of revising. (“Post Partum” from original free verse to a sonnet.) So we talked of other things. He said he’d love to have me send him stuff to look at occasionally, and even gave me a challenge: “If you will write one poem a day for thirty days, and send me the poetry thirty days from today—December 4th—I will send you a free copy of my textbook.”

So I decided to take him up on it. I’ve written four poems already and hope to keep going.

He also suggested the cinquain form for me to check out.

VIII. “Turning Research into Writing,” by Scott Parkin.

I can’t comment too much on Scott’s topic because I came in late (after the conference with Dr. Collings), but I really like Scott and the others who were there, Paul Swenson, David and Cheryl Pace. I think we were rather a rowdy audience for him and got him off topic too much (poor guy). But he has some really interesting ideas and I would have liked to follow them to the end but I had to leave to catch Scott B’s session. He was talking about knowing our market. I’m slightly uncomfortable with this idea (hence my need to follow him to the end before I make a judgment) because I worry about thoughts of marketing hampering the creation process. I’m sure he addressed that after I left, darn it.

IX. “Acting Principles for Writers” by Scott Bronson.

I absolutely believe that if I had a better understanding of acting principles I would be a better writer. Scott showed us a fascinating demonstration by taking a really horribly boring dialogue and acting it with his lovely assistant in a way that made the scene electrifying. What I learned from this is that when I write a scene, I should imagine how it would be played out, and then pick certain details of the ACTION to emphasize. This is obviously what is meant by “show, don’t tell,” but it was a new way of looking at it for me. I think if I could master this technique, it would get me away from being so much in my characters’ heads (and also make me less preachy). Acting is really story-telling, and I am fascinated by it. I wish I were an actor (and, really, I always have). But I am really, really BAD at it. (Sigh. I wonder if there are “beginning acting for stifled adults” classes? It seems really clear to me that actors have more fun, in general.)

Scott Bronson’s 7 Elements of a Story: Character. Situation. Character Wants Something. Character Tries to Get it and Fails. Character Tries to Get it and Fails. Character Tries to Get it and Gives Up or Succeeds. Wrap-up.

X. Wrap-up.

I’m actually glad that I HAD to be there in my official capacity because it would have been a hard decision whether or not to go, otherwise. (The mono thing.) I was very, very tired. But also exhilarated. I’m sad that the turn-out was so darn bad, but by golly I sure got my money’s worth. I love these people—they’re why I’m involved with AML. I learned a lot and grew another layer of friendship with many of these people I admire. I guess I decided long ago that if I’m never really great at writing, I would at least be a great fan. And I’ll keep showing up at these things and cheering these people on all I can.

So there you go. Now you’ve experienced the AML Writers Conference. For free. (Next time, pay your money and attend with me, will you?)


Jennifer B said...

Sounds so fun. Wish I could've been there.

scott bronson said...

On the subject of DB stepping up to the plate with some more challenging publications: I once asked Cory Maxwell (when he was still managing editor at Bookcraft before Bookcraft was bought by DB and he became a DB VP), "Don't you think you guys have built up enough consumer trust that you could publish a more difficult book and get people to buy it simply by telling them--in some special marketing strategy--you think they should buy it?" Cory said, "Yeah, probably." "Then why don't you do it?" He smiled enigmatically. I interpreted that to mean, If I could I would but I can't. I guess these things are decided further up the chain.


Marj said...

Hey, look! I'm on your side bar. That made me feel special. Thanks!

Christopher Bigelow said...

Jeez, I was really just trying to joke around when I said the bit about Zarahemla being more open to sex and swearing and I thought I backpedaled nicely from it, but it didn't go over well, did it...

Darlene said...

Jen: I wish you could have too, Eternal Roomie. You would have liked the churro. Oh, and the literary offerings as well. Why oh why don't you move to Utah?

Scott: Yep, I got the same enigmatic smile as you did.

Marj: Uh . . . hope it's OK that I did that. It is, isn't it?

Chris: I knew you were just joking around. But someone else commented to me that day that you mention spiciness every time you talk about your offerings. (And she was confused.) I know your point--but consider that NOT ALL of your offerings will be spicy necessarily (or maybe they will?). And a lot of people will go for "challenging" but not "spicy." I'm probably one of them, at least to an extent. So I think it would be worthwhile for you to make efforts not to get your label categorized in people's minds that way. You don't need to limit your audience. Experienced readers know how to pick and choose, but if they think the whole label is that way, they might not bother. Just a thought. (I am SOOOO rooting for you--can you tell?)

Just waiting for you to open the door to poetry.

Yeah, I know. Lost cause. (Sigh.)

Angela Hallstrom said...

Hey Darlene! I found this even though the address you posted on the AML list had misspelled "Eunice" and didn't include "blogger" -- but I'd been here once before and figured it out. Loved your analysis, your insight, your honesty . . . and the fact that you refrained from mentioning the reason the whole DB/publishing conversation got rolling at lunch was because I recognized the woman's name as the one who'd recently signed my rejection letter. Ha! One of the highlights of my day, actually, that whole conversation. We had DB cornered, at least for a good 15 minutes!! So I loved that AND the churros. And Tessa's session, too, and watching Scott and his wife act. I've always wanted to be an actor as well. Writers want to be actors, actors want to be rock stars, rock stars, well . . . seems to me they're usually pretty happy being rock stars. I wonder if rock stars have conferences, and, if so, are they well attended?

I hope that anybody out there who didn't come and reads this decides to come next time. It's so worth it! And thanks to Darlene and the AML board and a big BIG thanks to Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury--the quintessential woman behind the curtain--for pulling the whole thing off. I loved it.

Darlene said...


I was glad there were two of us. Mob mentality, you know.

And . . . that wasn't Scott's wife acting with him. His wife is very nice, though, and worth knowing. My guess is you might meet her if you come to Scott's reading at my house on Saturday night.

Stephen Carter said...

Hi Darlene,

You asked:

"how does an essayist create order out of experience in the crafting of the essay without attempting to create order for the reader? I can’t figure out how to structure an essay, how to really make it go somewhere or make some kind of point, without it feeling didactic and manipulative."

This is something I struggled with for years while I was pursuing my MFA. I think one of the main things that makes it so hard for Mormons to figure out how to write non-didactic stuff is because didacticism is pretty much the only thing we're exposed to.

This is what I started to figure out. First, my work needs time. The way I usually compile essays is by writing down narrative versions of important times, or unimportant, whatever strikes me. I keep the ones with similar themes in the same document hoping they'll come together someday. Then I let time pass. I let things fement. I don't try to rush the essay. And finally one day, I see a connection that brings everything together. Then i have to work. Which stinks. But I do it.

Second: I learned from Gene England that the best writing is that which can draw maximum tension between contraries. So far it has worked for me to, instead of resolve contraries in my essays, to stretch their tension as tautly as possible. The resolution of the tension is a question, or a launching pad. I want the end of the essay to launch the reader into his/her own thoughts.

The most recent essay where I tried to do this is online at:

It's kind of funny, but I'm struggling with an essay right now that doesn't want to end with a question - the heretical little thing.

Third thing: I quit taking myself so seriously. I finally came to the conclusion that the way I looked at the world had no claim on anyone else. This was difficult for me to achieve because of my Mormon idea that when we preach the truth other people are bound to obey or stand condemned. This idea is bad for the kind of essayist I am. It's essential that I openly acknowledge just how subjective what I'm writing really is. Essays are not a way of establishing truth or convicting the guilty. An essay is only one story of many that you draw out and perfect.

One idea that really helped me in my work was Eisenstein's theory of montage. His idea is bascially that when you juxtapose two pictures of different things, you can bring up a third idea in the viewer's mind. For example, a picture of a book in a bookstore window, and a picture of a man reaching into his pocket. The idea that comes up is, the man wants to buy the book.

This has been a helpful structure for my essays. I carefully put sections or paragraphs, or sentences, side by side that point to a third idea. An idea not directly expressed in the essay.

I think Gene England wrote an essay on that too once. That the best art points at the divine, rather than tries to embody it.

Darlene said...

Wow, Stephen, thanks for some fantastic insights. I really feel the truth of what you've said here. It's that being willing to leave questions unanswered that is so difficult but which is the key to a good and non-manipulative essay. The difficulty is finding a way to make the essay feel finished, feel as if it has said something, while leaving the most important thing unsaid.

I really like the idea of juxtaposing things and letting the reader insert the third thing. Another example of preserving the reader's agency--and another proof that writing is RISKY, and that to eliminate all risk in my writing would be to squelch it.

Thanks for your insights.

Sharlee said...

I was deeply moved by your poem, Darlene. (wiping away a tear)

Why don't you give up that other stuff you write and take up sentimental, didactic poetry full time? Hey, I even know of this great new online magazine where you can submit it! :-)

Wonderful overview of the conference. Thanks.

Patricia Karamesines said...

Hi Darlene,

Just dropping by to say I appreciate your posting on the AML conference and apologize for not making it. I had looked forward to it for months. I registered but then experienced a series of unfortunate events: disabled daughter hit a rough patch, our phone and Internet service went out (not much to choose from where we live--service providers have their way with us), and finally, Thursday afternoon, while I was debating whether I dare drive 250 miles away from family when I wouldn't be able to contact them to find out how things were going, my 9-yr-old started a house fire by tossing an afghan over a space heater. I beat the fire out, but the adrenaline rush poisoned me for days! Just seemed too risky to drive off. I moped all weekend. In fact, I'm still moping.

So may I please be excused and forgiven? I am now looking forward to the Feb/Mar meeting and hoping fate does not conspire against me as it did last week.

Darlene said...

Sharlee: Thanks. But it doesn't touch yours for quality. You are a master ("Oh wicked world").

Patricia: Well, I suppose you can be forgiven. (Without the phone going out, you would have been cutting it close, though. A fire alone won't do it.) I did miss seeing you, though. I hope your daughter is doing better.

And, to Patricia and anyone else who lives out of town but longs to attend an AML shindig, I say this:

I bought this big house SPECIFICALLY so that I could entice people to come visit us and stay in our spare room (with queen-sized bed AND bathroom to yourself).

So, Patricia, next time come up and stay with me.

Patricia Karamesines said...

WOW! What a generous offer! I might just take you up on that one day.

Are you in S.L. or Utah Valley?

Darlene said...

South Jordan, about 1/2 hour north of UVSC (unless it's game day).