Takeaways from Chuckanut

chuckanut view with rocksWhile some of my writing friends attended the Rain City Writing Seminar which featured Beth Jusino and James Ziskin and others attended the Historical Novel Society conference in Portland (and I’d love to learn more about those events), I was at one of my favorite conferences: the Chuckanut Writing Conference in Bellingham, co-sponsored by Village Books and Whatcom Community College. Here’s what I came away with:

  1. From Anis Mojgani’s plenary, some gems: “Everything is for the first time.” “The ghosts that enter us are not always ours.”
  2. Tod Marshall, Washington State Poet Laureate, gave a brief history of the essay in his class on “The Elastic Boundaries of Nonfiction” and showed us samples of adventurous recently-published essays. I thought my essay that pretends to be Book Club Questions for an essay I haven’t yet written was rejected, the one time I sent it out, because it was so odd but when Todd showed us an essay that was only footnotes, I realized it probably wasn’t odd enough. tod marshallI also recognized after Tod encouraged us to adopt another written form (what Brenda Miller calls the hermit crab essay) that I should give out a list of suggestions for forms to use in hermit crab essays to my Essay Experiments class, after having them brainstorm for a while. I also got the bright idea to try using a synoptic key as a form for an essay. Tod talked about essays as both a journey (which is how mine usually work) or a space to inhabit, which has some interesting possibilities. Is an Abecedarian a space to inhabit formed by the letters of the alphabet? Also realized (after Tod talked about jargon) that I should assign lexicon work much earlier in the online Boot Camp classes I teach for Creative Nonfiction, along with the 15 minutes a day of writing, both practices recommended by Priscilla Long in The Writers’ Portable Mentor.
  3. In this class, I sat next to Iris Graville who I first met at the Outpost writing workshop in 2013. She showed me an advance copy of her forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked. Her publisher, Homebound Press, is interested in books about the environment so I might query them once I’ve revised my proposal for my nonfiction book of essays, My Year in Flowers.
  4. sam ligonSam Ligon demonstrated how to dash around and scramble up and overlap time frames by doing just that in his plenary that was simultaneously about 9/11 and his wife’s death and his children’s grief and a pony named Lightning. The trick is grounding in place or taste, in his case, the electric taste of the ashes in the air in New York City after 9/11. Ligon quoted a lot from Forster, for instance, how a novel should end with expansion, not completion. It’s been a long time since I read Aspects of the Novel and I think it’s time to read it again. He also quoted extensively from Stuart Dybek who says that the great subject of fiction is time, in his interview with Ligon in Willow Springs.
  5. Village Books provided an opportunity for the participants to buy books during the conference. I really fell in love with Ready, Set, Novel! which contained great exercises I could use in the Novel Immersion class I usually teach at Hugo House during National Novel Writing month. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy it because, like most workbooks, it was mostly blank pages. I’m going to try to get it from my library (Seattle Public) but they don’t like workbooks either. Still they will usually order books that patrons request.
  6. meatchuckanutWhile teaching my class on Points of View in the afternoon, I figured out who the murderer is in my current historical mystery—and it’s the person you are least likely to suspect which is great because everyone who has read my previous historical novel has figured out who the murderer is right from the start. I wrote my way into the discovery during one of the three ten-minute writing sessions I assigned.
  7. Read something humorous (or sing) when you’re reading with a bunch of great and powerful authors (for instance, at the faculty reading on the first night of the conference). Every presenter had five minutes to read. The whole audience laughed at the humorous essay/poems about cocktails delivered by Sam Ligon and written with Kate Lebo from the upcoming book Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze, an anthology of work he and Kate compiled.  And Jonathan Evison’s second-person excerpt from his novel was also entertaining, as well as a stunning example of second person used well. Priscilla Long sang renditions of old bluegrass songs in her essay on banjos.
  8. Do not read after Ijeoma Olou. She delivered a powerful and scathing piece about the difficulties she faces as the “white people whisperer” as she promotes her upcoming book about race while dealing with the constant, sorrowful, unacceptable news of police brutality (Charleena Lyles, a black mother of four, had just been shot by the police in Seattle a week earlier). All I wanted to do, was sit in stunned silence, absorbing her message. But Rena Priest, poet and essayist, came next (we were reading in alphabetical order by our last names) so she closed the faculty reading with her poems, and she did so cheerfully and professionally. And then I went home and found this powerful article by Ijeoma: “White People I Don’t Want You to Understand Me Better, I Want You to Understand Yourselves” so I could spend more time pondering Ijeoma’s words.
  9. Saturday morning I was on a great panel on the topic of Inspiration with Priscilla Long and playwright Dan Larner and moderated by Paul Hanson, who did not prep us with questions ahead of time because his goal was to encourage a conversation, which is what happened and quickly expanded to include the audience. When he asked what inspired our work, I realized most of my historical novels were inspired by books (one non-fiction, one fiction) I read while an adolescent, while my Victorian ghost novel was inspired by a memoir of a turn-of-the-century psychic and the stories she told about her experiences. So books inspire books.
  10. elilzabeth austenElizabeth Austen’s plenary, “A Contrarian View of Feedback,” provided much food for thought. She opened with Don Colburn’s hilarious poem “In the Workshop After I Read My Poem Out Loud”  written at the Centrum Writing Conference in 1991, which was around the time I first attended that conference (and never went back mostly because of the critique I got on my (still unpublished) essay about why my father stopped talking). Elizabeth talked about the power of banning the words “I like” and “I love” from critiques because they are so vague, thus forcing the feedback to be more specific. I realized it’s just as important for me to teach the writers in my online Boot Camp class how to give each other useful feedback as it is to encourage them to write. Elizabeth suggested beginning with phrases like “This is what I noticed” or “This is how the writing affected me.” And questions like: What is the writer attempting to do? What is the apparent subject? What is the implied subject? What is the relation of the poem to the title? (Which reminded me that I should require my Boot Camp students to always give their pieces titles.) What’s the point of view? Where does it take place? What’s the diction? What’s the emotional center of the piece? She also suggested that in learning new ways to deliver critiques it might be valuable to critique a published piece by a known writer first, rather than the work of a writer in the group. Notable quote from Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
  11. One of the things I love most about Chuckanut is the friendliness of the conference and the spaciousness of the schedule. There’s plenty of time to talk to other writers between sessions and over lunch and at the reception. At lunch on Saturday, I mentioned that I wanted to do a letterpress version of My Year in Flowers and Jacyn, who was sitting at my table, recommended a letterpress press she knew about.
  12. In his workshop, agent Andy Ross had us view the first few paragraphs of several submissions he had received and guess which ones he had accepted and which ones he sold. Andy mentioned that he gets 20 query letters a day, and only offered representation on one book in the last few months. He also shared a good piece of advice he got from an editor: “Use search to find all of your uses of ‘that’ and get rid of them.” He says he got rid of 500. Several insights came from this session.
    1. A first paragraph is important
    2. An agent can love a book and not be able to sell it
    3. My disdain for bad writing might not serve me well as an agent as one of the opening paragraphs I would have dismissed for its overuse of cliche and adverbs sold in the YA category
    4. The young woman in front of me, who had the opposite opinion about the value of the samples from most of the (mostly middle-aged) audience, is probably the person reading my submission when I send my work to literary magazines and agents. Which means I really have to get through the generation gap in terms of preference before having a chance to be read by readers more like me.
  13. Paula Becker, author of Looking for Betty MacDonald, delivered a thorough presentation on sources available to writers working on history, including how to research house histories. She reminded me of the glories of city directories (I used the Seattle directories to try to identify the ghost in my last apartment building). Her mention that the entire New York Times was digitized encouraged me to search for “orphanage” in New York City which is supposedly where two Filipensky daughters were left when the family arrived in New York from Czechoslovakia but I found only two references to orphanages in the entire New York Times. That seems odd. Maybe they called them something else? Foundling homes? Paula also mentioned that the Seattle Public Library has a subscription of Ancestry which patrons can use, which would save me a lot of money (I had a subscription I didn’t use at all (due to fear of research addiction) for several years). Notable quote from Paula: “Research is the candy.” So true!
  14. Kathleen Dean Moore closed the conference by exhorting us to advocate for the issues that mattered to us. For her, the dire news about extinction and climate change have inspired her to give up lyrical nature writing and become more of an activist in words and deeds. She quoted Robin Wall Kimmerer: “A thrush is given the gift of song—and so has a responsibility to greet the day with music. Salmon have the gift of travel, so they accept the duty of carrying food upriver. So when we ask ourselves, what is our responsibility to the Earth, we are also asking ‘What is our gift?””
  15. The conference was over but there was still more to learn from my friends who chose to attend different sessions. I didn’t go to Dan Larner’s class, and I probably should have because I heard it was wonderful, but one of the problems of great conferences like this is that you can’t go to everything. I learned from one of my friends who did attend that he paired up writers and had them work on conflicts between two characters. One has to “want” something and the other has to keep saying no. Then he asked people who won. In every case, it’s the person who says no. An important lesson for novelists as well as playwrights.
  16. Also heard about how Rena Priest raised energy in her class when everyone was depleted after lunch. She had everyone play rock scissors paper in pairs and then the winner of each pair played the winner of another pair, while her companions cheered for her, and so forth and so on until the whole room was watching the final battle and cheering the winner. A great way to create bonding and enthusiasm. Not sure I could pull this off though.
  17. As a lovely postscript to the conference, Priscilla Long and I stopped for lunch in Mount Vernon on our way home on Sunday and discovered both a great bakery (Shambala) and a fabulous used bookstore (C.L. Easton’s) where I stumbled upon a book about the Verney family which is not only delightfully readable but also packed with information about the seventeenth century (like how the mail service worked and what young men studied at Oxford) that I can use in my historical mystery.

Hope some of these thoughts are useful to you and that you get as much out of every writing class, workshop and conference you attend this summer.

All of the photos are courtesy of Iris Graville. She also wrote a summary of Elizabeth Austen’s presentation that is quite different from mine and provided a link to Elizabeth’s list of resources.

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