Five things I learned about writing (and one thing I learned about Alice Munro)

This weekend I travelled to Edmonton for Words in 3D, a conference on writing, editing and publishing. The conference offered workshops, speeches and panel discussions on where these worlds intersect and how they interact. I couldn’t possibly convey how useful, welcoming and inspiring the entire experience was for me, so I won’t even try.

But in an attempt to offer just a glimpse of my weekend, here are five things I learned:

1. “There’s no such thing as writer’s block.”

Friday’s keynote address was delivered by best-selling author Andrew Pyper, who was chock-a-block full of quotable, tweetable nuggets of wisdom. (On that note, another nugget: “You can’t tweet your way out of a bad book.”)

Pyper proceeded to break my excuse-loving heart by proclaiming that writer’s block is just a myth. A distraction. A roadblock that can be easily circumnavigated with just three easy steps! Well, actually, no, but waiting for the idea fairy to land on your head and bore a great big epiphany hole in your skull isn’t going to happen (ouch).

Also, Pyper says, you’re never too busy to write. Or more accurately, everyone is too busy. Alice Munro wrote short stories on her ironing board while her young children fluttered about. (As if you needed another reason to fall in love with Alice Munro.) Head down. Hard work. Keep writing.

2. “Good writing will always stand out.”

I love big, bold inspiration as much as the next person, but I also love concise, practical advice. Literary Agent Carly Watters, whose blog was named by Writer’s Digest as one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers for three consecutive years, hosted a breakout session on getting published in the 21st Century. This session was a must for me, and she didn’t disappoint.

One of Watters’ many points on the nitty-gritty of getting published was about good writing. No matter how deep your manuscript is buried in the slush pile, good writing always rises to the top. This is comforting, not because I have an unabashed belief in my remarkable writing abilities (far from it), but because of Watters’ admirable belief that the system is fair. You don’t need a gimmicky query letter or a slew of writing awards and accolades as long as your arm. If you build it (a good manuscript), they will come.

3. “It’s about voice.”

In my previous post, I mused about a missing link in my collection of poems. Identifying a connection, a story, a well-paced emotional and narrative arc has been tricky. Well, why not seek advice from the City of Edmonton’s first poet laureate? Award-winning poet Alice Major was part of a hilarious and helpful panel on structuring your manuscript. Her advice: “It’s about voice.”

It was my first ah-ha moment of the weekend. I had been searching for an over-arching theme in my collection, but the real connective tissue is voice. Regardless of the subject of the poem or the point of view of the narrator, the poems must share the same voice to seamlessly transition the reader from beginning to end. After hearing this, I could almost immediately identify the series of poems that belonged together. Looking back at my previous post, I can see that I had tried to articulate this, but I couldn’t quite find the right words. Which is a little ironic, considering the answer was essentially finding my voice.

4. “It’s worth reaching for the stars.”

Douglas Gibson, known affectionately as the godfather of Canadian publishing, delivered Saturday’s keynote address. To be honest, it left me a little star-struck. This is the man who pried the manuscript for No Great Mischief, a work thirteen years in the making, from Alistair MacLeod’s reluctant hands. This is the editor who encouraged Alice Munro to continue writing short stories when the rest of the literary world wanted a novel. You can read about these anecdotes and more (told humbly and humorously) in Gibson’s book, Stories About Storytellers.

Gibson’s love of all things literary was palpable. Whether he was at a podium, on a panel or just charming an awkward attendee (yours truly) into buying his book, he was equally encouraging and sincere. Another thing I learned from my encounters with Doug Gibson? I’m easily charmed.

5. If you write, you’re a writer.

While inscribing the inside of my freshly bought book, Douglas Gibson asked me if I was a writer. As I often do when in the presence of impressive people, I mentally calculated the least lame answer I could give. I decided to say yes, I am a writer. He then asked, “What kind?” (I wasn’t ready for follow-up questions. Although normal people would probably call this a conversation.)

I had been asked questions like this all weekend. Everyone who attended the conference had some connection to putting words to paper, whether it was writing, editing, publishing or simply being a fan of writing, editing or publishing. We were all there for something. Me? I think I was there for courage. (And a night away in a hotel.) I wanted to learn, sure, and I wanted to connect with other writers. But I also wanted the courage to keep writing. So when Douglas Gibson asked me what kind of writer I am, the only thing I could think to say was, “Aspiring.”

I’m not sure what he said after that. It would have made a great story if he said something like, “Aren’t we all?” but that didn’t happen. Or if he had cradled me in his arms as I sobbed uncontrollably about my fear of rejection (luckily, that didn’t happen either). He just winked and handed me his book and I walked away in a daze, evaluating whether or not I had just embarrassed myself. It wasn’t until I was a few feet away that I thought to look at the inscription.

IMG_2936 copy

It reads: For Shannon. Good luck with the writing! Doug

Luck and a weekend full of lessons? I’ll take it.


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