Sharpening The Saw (Part II)

St. Jane contributor Kim Norris is a writer based in the New River Valley region of Virginia. This is the follow-up to her first essay leading up to the Roanoke Regional Writer's Conference. You can follow her writing at Four Good Ideas and follow her daily thoughts on Twitter.

Kim Norris

I finally attended my first writers conference.

At the beginning of a stunning sunrise I set out with my friend, Alice, to metaphorically sharpen my saw (better image, my pencil) and pamper my muse. Attending a writers conference felt outside my comfort zone, but on arrival, my sense of awkwardness didn’t last. The speakers and attendees at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference aren’t shy, but they are friendly.

My final take-away from the January 30 conference was this suggestion: “You know that nasty, mean gremlin in your head telling you terrible things about yourself? Name it so when you are writing, you can tell it to shut up.”

I leaned over to Alice, and whispered, “I’m naming mine Dick” (as in “don’t be a….”).

Alice chuckled. We were sitting in the final session of the day in a class called “Self-sabotage: How to cut it out, create internal and external support, and get to work” given by Sarah Beth Jones. Sarah had opened the class by instructing us all to get up and dance to “Uncle Jonah’s Band”, a good move for the hour of the day; it got blood flowing to my brain again – there had been so much information to absorb.

At the beginning of the conference, when the speakers were introduced, I recognized Sarah. She and I had met once before at the Jacksonville Center for the Arts in Floyd, Virginia. I reminded her of our brief, prior acquaintance while munching a blueberry muffin before the first session started, and I thanked her for turning me onto Lee Chichester’s hawk talk. “Glad it worked out,” Sarah said, as she finished a banana. She mused, “How many falconers do you meet in your life, really?”

My first take-away from the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference was satisfaction for working up the nerve to read part of Novel Number One out loud for Andrea Brunais, an author, journalist, and editor, to critique, along with the rest of the group. We had all chosen to begin the day with Andrea’s class, “Editing: Vital to a Book’s Acceptance – Tips from a Pro.” I had not expected to share my work, but when Andrea asked for manuscripts for her to read aloud and critique, I pulled The Process (working title) up on my phone from its place on The Cloud. My phone’s viewable area is average, but when I tried to hand it to her to read from, she said “Would you mind reading it for me? I doubt I can see the words on that little screen.” 

“I’m not sure I can either,” I quipped. As if to guarantee it, while I shared my words to the room full of strangers, my hands shook, turning the phone’s display into a bright blur. I am surprised I managed to read it at all.

No one wept tears of joy at my prose, but I appreciated the suggestions for improvement. And in spite of what the mean voice I now call Dick wanted me to think would happen, no one told me I was too stupid to write. In fact, a couple of people told me it sounded interesting – something they would read more of. It felt good.

The take-away I least expected and most appreciated came from Ed Falco’s afternoon session, “The Character Driven Story.”

First, full disclosure: As an M.A. English student at Virginia Tech in1990, I studied creative writing under Ed Falco. Before the semester concluded, Ed brought his friend, lawyer and novelist, Scott Turow, to address our class about the perils of success and fiction. Ed also assigned us to read The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, for which I will be forever grateful. And he encouraged me to enter my first fiction contest. I did not win, but his belief in my words meant the world to me. Twenty-six years later I gladly anticipated one more hour under his tutelage.

As the session progressed from building characters to working with unique character voices, I worked up the courage to ask him, “What do you do when a character won’t cooperate?” 
Ed cocked his head in curiosity, so I plunged on, all too conscious of all eyes in the room on me.

“I have a Grandmother character who refuses to die. Grandmother needs to die or the story is stuck. I don’t know what to do.”

I wasn’t trying to amuse the class; Grandmother’s refusal to succumb to her terminal illness has vexed me for two months now. I didn’t expect the character’s resistance – her demise has been inevitable since the novel’s first outline, but I’ve learned it goes easier for me if I just let my characters tell me what to write.

Everyone laughed, especially my friend, Alice, who has already written for me a lovely grandmother death scene. (She was beating me handily at #NaNoWriMo last November and offered up some of her spare writing time.) The problem is, the story stalls every time I try to write the scene that leads to the scene where Grandmother dies, and I have not yet been able to bully her into to arriving at that point.

“Let Grandma live,” one person suggested. 

“She can’t,” I explained. “The rest of the characters can’t resolve their stories until Grandmother resolves hers.”

I saw people nod with understanding before I turned back to Ed.

He was chuckling. “Maybe Grandmother needs to do something she hasn’t done yet.” He put his hands in his pockets, and the gesture transported me to late spring afternoons in Williams Hall when my younger self sat taking notes about using all five senses to set a scene and adding humor through contradictory conflict. (“Just write down lists of opposites – there’s a potential conflict and humor in all of them.”)

Ed’s observation made sense. I told him, “Thank you. I think I can work with that,” and he moved on to the importance of creating characters with choices who can convincingly surprise the reader. I wrote in my notebook: Grandmother needs a bucket list.

When I finally got home, at the end of a stunning sunset, as I shared my day with my husband, I felt the keen edge of each session hone my thoughts. Grabbing my clipboard and a pen (never far from reach) I wrote Grandmother’s bucket list. As if the knowledge bushwhacked a clear mental path, the other characters immediately let me know what they planned to do as soon as I could contrive the conclusion of Grandmother’s funeral. I dutifully took notes by hand.

Grandmother has still not agreed to die, but at least I know why now – I know what Grandmother needs to do before she can go.

With clarity like the keen edge of a blade – the muse sits me down to write.