The 2015, tenth anniversary, edition of the San Miguel Writer’s Conference ended on February 15. The weather, aside from some modest promise on the first day, was not cooperative, offering chilly winds and rainy skies for most of the other three. It was better than staying home in Escanaba or Yellow Knife, but then, most people come for the workshops, the keynote speakers, and the ambiance. This is felt to be a place where writing is a respected occupation, and where, for once, crowds of his fellow scriveners break the solitary condition of the writer.
My own position is that of the bookstore hanger-on, hovering over my titles, where I like to talk to people who have read my books to find out what worked for them, or talk to those that haven’t to tell them what has worked for me. This is an opportunity to make real contact with your readers, and I’m always surprised at how few of the sixty or so writers on sale come by for a chat with their public, a group that would often like to meet them.
Beyond this meet and greet phenomenon is the pastime of watching all the people, some 330 or so who signed on for the conference package. They represent every degree of progress, from those tentatively contemplating a writing project, to others halfway through a book and stuck, or some with a finished manuscript circling the agents in attendance. Then there are the dozens of small-session presenters, offering everything from the ABCs of Dramatic Action to Write What You Eat. These folks are generally writers with more polish and experience who are mostly there to promote their books or services as well.
One of the side effects of all this energy is that burgeoning writers can, often for the first time, feel that their project might be worthwhile, and that there are many others in the world who share their dream. This is in lieu of the blank stares and head scratching they normally get at home when the subject of their book comes up.
I found myself at this year’s conference wondering about all those points of progress among those writers. They have all learned something from their varying degrees of experience. It is a process that never ends. Certainly after 22 books it goes on every day when I sit down at the keyboard. But does everyone learn the same thing? Far from it. So how can we presume to tell people how they should write? I’ve done it myself in my book, A Writer’s Notebook, and I’ve counseled people hundreds of times in personal conversations. But does anyone need to write the way I do? I think that what I’ve come up with are things that work much of the time, but they don’t work for every book or every writer, and there are many other things that also work that I haven’t come across.
Sometimes the problems can seem intractable. In my recent book about a bioterror attack on the United States, I used as central characters a man and a woman who met on the road as they fled the epidemic with tens of thousands of other people. While the possibility of a romantic relationship exists in fiction any time you have two strangers thrown together, they were truly an unlikely couple, and the book itself was about survival, not relationships, although I wanted them to get together because I needed to end the book on an upswing.
Try as I did, and I worked on this book off and on for over two years, I could not bring their relationship alive, although the rest of the story worked fine for me. I had a friend read it, one who has long experience as both a writer and a teacher of fiction, and she pointed out the fundamental problem.
This couple wanted the same thing that everyone else in the book wanted––to survive. As individuals their goal was exactly the same. Many of their conversations became simple agreements on what to do next. All the tension came from outside threats, of which there were many, not from their interaction, so whenever they had a scene by themselves, the narrative went flat.
After a couple of months puzzling about how to bring their connection alive I hit on the solution. I made the woman African American. It was natural because the story took place in the South, a state much like Louisiana. All at once their interaction was loaded with a complex and problematic history, much of it baggage not their own. Their attitudes were both suddenly in question every day. They have not chosen each other, since their meeting was solely by chance. One of her telling statements is, “I’m not sure I’d want to be with another white guy again. On top of being a woman, it just gives me one more way to come in second all the time.”
This change was the key, and it forced me to engage with my own attitudes and unconscious preconceptions toward African Americans. Could I really see them? Could I really write an individual who differed from me both in race and gender? Could I get inside her head and bring her alive? It put me personally and my skills both on trial, not only to understand others with a background that I had never been very close to growing up, but to understand myself from a perspective I hadn’t looked at before.
The idea I took from this is that it’s not only the reader that learns something as the book goes on. I have written nonfiction books that turned out to be about something a bit different from what I thought when I started. This does not suggest that my process is wildly out of control, but rather that it’s open to adjustment as the story evolves. Books are what they are. They wait for us as we work through the process of writing them. It’s like peeling an onion––we may find something inside, as I did, that we didn’t expect, and the task is to use it as we continue, even when it slightly alters our original course.
Writing is, after all, a creative affair, and it does not follow the rules and laws of physics. Improvisation can be as valuable as a careful outline, and the operation of one does not exclude the other. Define your structure, but remain loose within it.
I find that I need to remain curious as my own work progresses. It can surprise me, and it is for this reason that I don’t want to have too much nailed down when I start out. To maintain that essential curiosity to see how it all resolves is far better than to know all the answers from page one.