I’ve spent the last two days in Fort Bragg at the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. There are these thoughts roiling around in my head today and I don’t know how or where to start. I don’t know if what I have to say is meant for one post or two. There are so many topics I want to touch on, I’m afraid this will be a mess or that I’ll miss something fundamental.
So … I … will … start … with … this …
The beauty of the California Coast. And move on to this …
There are dangers in vacations. And there are dangers in writing workshops as well. Most of the classes, lectures, workshop sessions are led by writers who are, well, for want of a better way to describe it, not best sellers. They aren’t Stephen King or John Grisham or … well, you get the idea. They are writers who focus on mastering the craft rather than mastering the market. They are the writers who can’t quite eke out a living with their works and so they travel the countryside, earning a few thousand dollars here and a few more there, speaking to us writing masses. About the secrets of the masters, the tricks of the trade, the fact that there are no rules when in fact maybe there are.
I won’t share the names of the instructors because i don’t want this to come across as a criticism of them. They are plying their craft, doing something I hope to do some day, making a living writing and talking about writing. However, what they are doing in these workshops is a little bit like being a snake oil salesman.
The chances of any of the 100 or so people participating in this conference ever becoming a Faulkner, a Welty, a Richard Yates (more on him later), or a Henry Green (look him up — but he apparently is one of the most revered yet unheard of writers among the writing glitterati) are somewhere between … here’s where I say slim and none, but I think it’s more likely to be none and none.
And yet, these are the authors held up as the examples we should strive for. We should create landscapes with our words, trust our intuition, do this, do that. All of which I find it impossible to disagree with. And, then I begin to dream of being able to write like that. A story where every word matters, every sentence has meaning, every character is artfully crafted and each exchange of dialogue isn’t just an exchange of information, but is a conversation that goes deep, revealing more about the characters than the mere words on the page.
There was an odd coincidence about this conference. Last week, I sat down to talk with Olivia about her first novel. It’s still in manuscript form. It’s about finding happiness. It’s, as I think she would describe it — an antidote to Revolutionary Road, a novel written by Richard Yates in 1961 and which Olivia describes as so depressing. She loaned me her copy of the book and I packed it in my bag with three other novels as possible candidates for my reading pleasure while I’m off on my own for a few days.
A day or two before the conference started, the instructor of the Short Story “master class” that I was in the past two days and which will wrap up tomorrow emailed the participants a short story to read. Builders by Richard Yates. Yes, the same Richard Yates who wrote Revolutionary Road. During the discussion these past two days, the instructor has had great things to say about Mr. Yates. And, so, last night I began to read the novel. And tonight, while I had a beer or two and a pizza at a great little pizza place in Fort Bragg, I read the following. But first the set up.
The town where this story is based has established a community theater and it is putting on its first performance. And, it’s a disaster. As the play ends and the performers retreat backstage, the husband of the woman who had the chance to be the star makes his way to greet her and this is what Mr. Yates writes about the husband’s thoughts as he reaches towards his wife, hidden somewhere behind the stage:
The trouble was that all afternoon in the city, stultified at what he liked to call “the dullest job you can probably imagine,” he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight: himself rushing home to swing his children laughing in the air, to gulp a cocktail and chatter through an early dinner with his wife; himself driving her to the high school, with her thigh tense and warm under his reassuring hand (“If only I weren’t so nervous, Frank!); himself sitting spellbound in pride and then rising to join a thunderous ovation as the curtain fell; himself glowing and disheveled, pushing his way through jubilant backstage crowds to claim her first tearful kiss (“Was it really good, darling? Was it really good?”); and then the two of them, stopping for a drink in the admiring company of Shep and Milly Campbell, holding hands under the table while they talked it all out. Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing (“Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?”), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.
It’s amazing, really. In that one paragraph there is everything about this story revealed. On page 13. But the reader doesn’t know that unless, like me you know a little about the gist of the story because Olivia told you. 😉 I read that paragraph and was just absolutely blown away by the sheer scale of what was covered in those few words.
Which leads me back to the point.
Let’s fill those three chairs with three versions of me. (The picture, by the way, was taken just a few hours ago by yours truly, just a 1/2 mile or so from the conference location.) Imagine that the chair facing the camera is filled by the me that wants to write like Mr. Yates.
“There is,” he says, “a depth in stories that is possible. Write what you feel, Feel what you write. Trust yourself and let the words bleed out of you.”
“Really, you think you have the talent for that,” says the me in the chair with its back to the camera. “Do you really think you can write as Mr. Yates does? With the poetry and passion. With the meaning. Who are you fooling.”
“Yes, but,” the facing chair me replies, “if I just spend enough time on it, I too can master the art of making every word and sentence count. I, too can write a piece that will have literary value decades from now. A piece that the glimmering literati of decades in the future will speak of in hushed tones filled with excitement. Isn’t that what I should want? Isn’t that why I write?”
And that’s when the me that occupies the third chair, the one facing the ocean, pipes in, “Is it? Is that why you write? To write paragraphs and phrases, stories and pieces, that have literary merit.”
“I don’t know,” replies the me in the chair facing the camera.
The me in the chair with its back to the camera helps clarify things a bit more, “Do you … do you really have the time for that? To sit and write, worrying over each word, each twist of a phrase? Do you?”
“I’d like to.”
“What you’d like is not what matters here.”
The me that sits in that chair facing the camera sighs. “You’re probably both right. But then why do I write if not to create a masterpiece? Aren’t these instructors on to something? Shouldn’t I try, at least try, to be like Richard Yates?”
The me that sits in the chair with its back to the camera ponders this and leans forward, “Yes, you can, but is that what you want? Is that what you really want?”
“I don’t know.”
“I believe you write because it is a part of you. Hence, you write.”
“You have no other choice, do you?” adds the third chair. “Write what you can, what you know, what you feel. Write it the way you see it. Everything else will come in due course.”
“But will it?” whines the me in that chair facing the camera, the one that starts to look like it’s set off just a bit, just a little more lonely than the other chairs.
Why do you write? Really. Why do you write?