>Our Serious Play: Making the Personal Universal

>Two years ago, following the 2008 Creative Nonfiction Conference, I wrote a lengthy, journalistic blog post,trying to capture all the events of the weekend. I’m not going to do that with this year’s conference, for several reasons. For one thing, I just don’t have time, as I’m immersed in writing a novel and have only 9 days left here at the beach during the writer’s retreat to move the plot forward as far as I can before returning home to “normal life.” But that’s not the only reason. If you want a play-by-play, come to a conference. For today’s post, I’m going to try to capture a few of the “soul moments” of the weekend.

During her keynote talk on Friday night of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, this past weekend, Beth Ann Fennelly opened with a quote from Nietzsche:

“A poet should be as serious as a child at play.”

She was speaking on the personal essay (and she’s had quite a few essays published) but she brought all her talent and experience as a poet to the message she shared with us. “Writing is our serious play.”

Everyone who has tried to write knows how hard it is. Beth Ann said that “essay” means “to try.” One reason it’s so hard to write essay is that it the essay writer has to be open to discovering answers to central questions that bother us as we write. “The end product will be personal, but also sociological and universal.”

Lee Gutkind spoke to this point during his lecture Saturday morning on the “5 Rs of Creative Nonfiction:

“This is what we look for in creative nonfiction—the universal chord—to touch as many readers as possible.”

During one of the panels over the weekend, the best-selling author, Robert Goolrick, said that we write memoir “because we want to leave our mark: I WAS HERE.” A good memoir author, according to Goolrick, has a “deep need to be known.”

David Magee, whom I met at the Seaside Escape to Create Writers Workshop in October of 2009, commented during the panel on “The Writer’s Life: Off the Page,” on Sunday morning that the writer needs a delicate balance between the following things in order to work:

Vanity—None
Ego—Some (in order to believe in yourself and your work)
Patience—Very Much

(Robert Goolrick added, on the need for patience, that his novel, The Reliable Wife, was turned down by 34 publishers over a two-year period. It’s now a blockbuster.)

There was much talk about publishing during the conference, which included a workshop with two literary agents, and an opportunity for everyone to pitch their work to agents, editors and publishers one day. At the end of the conference, one participant came up to me and asked, “Did anyone get a book deal?” And while I hope that a few emerging writers did make a good connection with the folks from the publishing industry who were there, I also hope that all of us were touched, to the bottom of our souls, by the wisdom that was shared by Beth Ann during the final panel:

“You must think and write accurately if you want to change the world. Focus on your writing and you’ll find joy. Focus on success or rewards from outside yourself and there will never be enough.

Something shifted inside me when I heard those words. And on my eight-hour drive from Oxford to Seagrove yesterday afternoon and evening, I thought about the novel I’m writing and how much I want to see it in print. But then I began thinking about each of my characters and the stories I’m trying to tell about their lives and the universal chord that I hope to strike and yes, my very own, deep need to be known. These thoughts and feelings stayed with me for the entire drive, followed me into a deep sleep, and were there on the pillow beside me when I woke this morning. And as I sat at my computer with my morning coffee, I realized that there was a stirring of something in me that I haven’t felt very much of in my life. I’m not certain, but I think—I hope—it might be joy.

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