This past week, from June 4 through the 8, I had the distinct privilege of attending the Indiana University Writer’s Conference (IUWC). You can find IUWC online at http://www.iuwc.indiana.edu. This was my 5th year attending (I’ve been going since 2011, only missing 2013). Every year I’ve gotten a lot out of the conference. Like last year, this year I attended absolutely everything, which was a hectic 5 days. It started with the SFF workshop from 9-11:30 a.m., then the lunch panels from noon-12:50, then classes from 1-5 p.m., then readings during the evenings at 8. A great program! What follows are some highlights from the experience.
SFF Workshop with Wesley Chu
This year was the first year IUWC included a genre workshop and I was enthusiastic to see it was in SFF, as I just happened to have a manuscript to submit (the first 25 pages). Wesley Chu turned out to be a fantastic leader. He spent some time engaging us in writing, as well as discussing the business side of writing (the upshot of which was that he’s had quite a bit of success in traditional publishing). The workshop was a good size, at 10 people total (including Wesley). We workshopped each other’s stories, which involved reading an excerpt aloud and then listening to commentary by the other people in the workshop. I got some decent feedback which will hopefully enable me to rewrite the first 25 pages much more dramatically and enticingly. The weather played nice and one day we even went outside and workshopped in the Beck Chapel graveyard, amidst the bugs and shadows, under the fresh breeze.
I had read Time Salvager prior to the conference and was pleased to have it autographed. One of my favorite quotes follows.
“James sat her down and then filled in the gaps with the major events that had transpired on Earth since her time, from World War III devastating the planet to the decaying plague that had rotted the planet to the ice-caps melting and eventually swallowing 14 percent of the world’s landmass. Elise was so stunned that she had to sit down and then stand up multiple times.
“‘How did you idiots let this happen?’ she demanded…”
Micromacro: The Prose Poem as the Best Nest with Amelia Martens
The first class after the lunch panels was by Amelia Martens. It was about prose poetry. I came in not even knowing what a prose poem was, other than a free-flowing block of text that usually broke the rules of grammar. Amelia gave us plenty of time to explore our own ideas with prose poems, and also gave us copious examples of the form. So what is a prose poem? It is a piece of text that is brief, humorous, compact, and psychologically intense. It’s a subversive, hard to define form, canonized in the style of (for example) Edson. I particularly like Amelia’s prose poem about Jesus working as a TSA employee. Here’s a punchy excerpt:
“By noon they pull Jesus from the line; his eyes and beard are making people uncomfortable.”
That’s from her book, The Spoons in the Grass are there to Dig a Moat. She did a fantastic reading Sunday night which included that poem.
The Improvised, Critical Self with Walton Muyumba
The second class (from 2-2:50 p.m.) was with Walton Muyumba, a soft-spoken, extremely eloquent faculty member of IU. In his class, we studied some examples of modern essays which comprised socio-political critiques. Walton set up a framework in which to view the texts and in which to write our own short pieces linking two socio-political viewpoints. I really appreciated his perspective, as I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced such rich interpretations of the pieces. Perhaps the methods he discussed will be helpful in future blog posts, too, should I attempt to delve into socio-political commentary (eek). Thanks Walton!
Finding the YOU in Your Story with David Crabb
The next class (from 3-3:50 p.m.) was given by David Crabb. He is a brilliant and funny storyteller; this class was a laugh a minute. It really woke me up during a time in the afternoon when I am usually crying for either coffee or a nap (or both). I suggest you run, don’t walk, over to The Moth and listen to the stories David has up there. You could also get his book, Bad Kid, which I bought and got signed. It is a tradition for me now, to collect IUWC autographs.
The class was about storytelling, and how to tell vignettes from our own lives in such a way as to really reach an audience. I loved David’s concise forms, such as the canonical story arc: (1) setup, (2) inciting incident, (3) rising action, (4) climax, and (5) resolution. It’s an arc that will be familiar to any writer, but one that bears repeating until we all know it by heart (and then some). I liked the links between (2) and (4) David posited for a chain of stories. It was a good class.
Better Words for Better Stories with Salvatore Scibona
Finally, occupying that difficult spot over teatime (from 4-4:50 p.m.) was Salvatore Scibona. His class looked at the micro level of a work, the actual words and sentences composing the text. I loved the adage he got from his teacher, Frank Conroy, that the problems of a story grow from the micro level of language, and what works grows from there too. In other words, if you want to fix problems in your story, focus on the words, focus on grammar and syntax, because sensory images, character, metaphor, symbolism, and all the fancy stuff of good writing grow from there. This gives me hope! All I have to do is edit, edit, edit at the word level and the work will improve. I always have issues revising; Salvatore gave a very doable approach to it.
As a bonus, I got the first couple paragraphs of my manuscript intensely studied in class. That, and the piece-by-piece critique of other works helped me understand the method. I have some of his points noted in my workbook:
- Locate the action in the physical world,
- use action verbs rather than being verbs,
- trust the reader’s intelligence and knowledge (don’t teach),
- police the perfect tenses,
- use the active voice,
- specify place in detail,
- police your danglers (get the modifier close to the thing modified),
- listen for false echoes,
- look for comma splices (should be “.”),
- police your commas, and
- avoid ending on prepositions.
Those are only some of the great points Salvatore had in his class.
Overall, I learned a lot. I met a lot of people. I also met some people I’d seen before, such as Mary Anna Violi, a charming blogger from South Bend. It was great to see her and we had some fantastic dinners in beautiful Bloomington.