November 3, 2010

A Long Way Around to Why Writers Are Like Pioneers

What I’m Reading Today: I recently had a wonderful email exchange with Jack Todd, who was born and raised in Nebraska and Wyoming and is now a writer in Canada.  I've started his Sun Going Down.  Amazing.  It starts in 1863 with a white man and a black man on the Mississippi River finding a dead Confederate soldier thumping against their hull.  For some writers, it would be easy to fall into cliche in this scenario - NOT Jack.  Not in the setting nor the relationship between the two men nor the idea of war or moving west.  I'm so psyched to read the rest.

I went to a writers’ craft talk yesterday given by the great writer Brad Watson. (Check out his story "Visitation" here in the New Yorker.)  He started by making the distinction between mere craft and ~ what a lot of us writers attempt to do ~ make great art.  He said so many smart things (though I’m not doing his words justice):

You have to find the black hole in your story to which everything is attracted.

There is never only one way to tell a story until there is.

Writing teachers guide, not teach. You learn from reading great writers and trying to imitate them.

Writing is art when it’s put together so well you can discuss craft.

And so much more.

But, in addition to going to the talk and seeing lots of great writers, mostly from the U of Wyoming MFA program, I also met another Wyoming writer from Torrington, Court Merrigan. We got to know each other on Facebook (via Brad Green, another Facebook writer friend), and then Court emailed me (and my great and lovely writer friend Nina McConigley) and we went down to the Union Gardens to chat.

Court grew up on a farm/ranch in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. He got a bachelor’s in philosophy at Creighton and then a master’s in Japanese in England. Then he went abroad to teach English, first to Japan and then Thailand where he met his future wife Nok. He lived in Thailand for about 10 years before returning to Torrington, Wyoming, with Nok and their three-year-old daughter. Now he teaches at Eastern Wyoming College and writes short stories and novels. Just last week, Court and Nok welcomed a new baby, a son!

Have I sufficiently beaten it into the ground how much I love hanging with other writers and talking shop? What our talking today brought home to me was that there is no one way to be successful at writing, whatever that means. There’s no one path to publishing. There’s no one way to learn how to write. You can take other people’s advice but, ultimately, you have to make your own path.

It’s like the pioneers. They may have bought guidebooks. They may have hired guides. They may have stowed lots of food in their wagons. However, when it came down to it, no one could make the trip for them, each one’s journey was very different from others’, and some of them gave up ~ or died ~ along the way.

Questions of the Day: Do you take the opportunity to meet other writers? How’s your trip been (so far)?

PS I tend toward hyperbole when I talk about other writers but it's because I'm as much a fan of the miracles they create as I am a writer trying in my small way to create my own.


Brad Green said...

Thanks for posting about Jack Todd. I've never heard of him, but after looking at the book covers on his website, I'm highly intrigued. Looks like exactly the sort of stuff I like.

Meeting other writers is mostly always fun. I do wish it happened for me more in real life sometimes, but then I realize I'm shy and that I live in the literary armpit of the world, so thank goodness for the Internet.

Tamara said...

Yes - Jack Todd! I'm so glad you're intrigued.

Thanks, Brad, for introducing Court! It was great to meet him in person.

I understand about literary armpit, but you're doing a great job online of extending yourself! And some day I'd love to hang out with you at a conference!

(There are a lot of us who don't come across as shy but really are and are just massively overcompensating. :-) )