I’m still processing the four days I just spent helping direct the 2013 Oxford (Mississippi) Creative Nonfiction Conference, with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes. I’m not going to do a recap here. The sessions and workshops were full to overflowing with wisdom on the craft of writing as well as the business side of publishing and marketing your work. And the evenings were just as full with social events and after parties that went late into the night as about a hundred writers and publishing professionals gathered in the town where William Faulkner lived.
But I want to share a few reflections and nuggets from the final morning of the conference. The panel included Virginia Morrell, Dinty Moore, River Jordan, Lee Martin, Jessica Handler, and Lee Gutkind. The topic was “The Writer’s Life: Balancing Work, Life and Writing.”
The topic was especially interesting to me because of my lifelong struggle to balance anything. And my recent leaning into the dark thinking that writers (and other artists) just might not get to live balanced lives. That maybe it’s more important to live colorful lives.
Anyway, we asked our panel of busy, successful authors—several of whom also teach writing fulltime, host radio shows, edit and publish journals—to share a bit of their personal stories as writers trying to balance their work with the rest of their lives. I could have listened to them all day.
Lee Gutkind’s remarks were sobering. He talked about sacrifices—WHAT YOU MISS if you live your life in your head—as many writers do—and spend all your time writing or traveling and not paying attention to your family. Lee confessed that his obsession cost him one of his marriages. He was telling it true, and we were listening.
Dinty Moore is another author with a full time day job, so he was actually glad when his wife was working weekends, so he could write on weekends without ignoring her. Dinty also said you have to STAY IN THE ROOM—if you set aside two hours at a time to write, sit there whether or not anything happens. By the third day of staying in the room, the words might finally come.
Virginia Morrell added to Dinty’s comment by saying you need a really big tube of BUTT GLUE, which called forth much laughter and a thread of related comments throughout the auditorium that I won’t share here.
Jessica Handler said that most of her friends are artists or writers, and she has a bit of a remove from people who don’t get what she’s doing. I think I’ve been experiencing this in the past few years—bonding more with other writers and having some disconnect with people who don’t understand the space that’s needed to produce this art.
Lee Martin says he carves out protected times during the day to write, “giving myself the gift of solitude and spending time with the page.” He said he is “most whole when I am with the page.” See? That’s not going to win him any friends in the “real world,” but his writing is kick-ass wonderful. (P.S. I’ll be your friend, Lee.)
River Jordan says you have to be so determined if you’re going to write that you might have to leave home to do it. Take your laptop somewhere else. She told us that when Andre Dubus III was writing House of Sand and Fog, he took his laptop to a graveyard and sat and wrote there. Guess no one bothered him.
A few more tips:
Jessica told us about “Freedom,” a program that locks you out of the internet while you are writing. You can set it up for as little as 45 minutes, or for several hours at a time.
Dinty suggested that those folks who don’t have deadlines (who don’t have a book deal and are not working with an editor, for example) create your own deadlines. You might get a serious writing buddy and hold each other’s feet to the fire by deciding to send a certain number of pages or chapters by a certain date.
River motivated us with her story of planning her death during the weeks between her annual mammogram and the day she receives the results in the mail each year. “You are all going to die, so write.” (Or as Annie Dillard said, “Write As If You Were Dying.”)
There’s so much MORE I could share, but another lesson I learned about writing this weekend is to always leave the reader wanting more. Stay thirsty, my friends.