That Time I Talked To A Gnat

When is the last time you spoke to nature? Out loud? The last time I talked to something in nature was a couple of weeks ago. It was to a gnat flying around my computer. I apologized, and then I smashed it to guts with my bare hands.

Yes, I am a gnat-catcher. And no, gnat guts do not bother me.

But smushed gnats is not the topic of today’s wonderful, awesome post. No, on September 20th, I attended the Second Annual Creative Writer’s Conference of Middle Tennessee held at MTSU by the resident non-degree writing program MTSU Write, formerly (and I think betterly) known as The Loft. This is where connoisseurs of poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction come together to impart wisdom, inspire, and flex some writerly muscles. Last year’s post is HERE.

Poet Jeff Hardin started off us with “address poems” aka poetry that talks to something, and then he challenged us to address a poem to an object. I wrote one to a mirror I’m calling “Break Me.” I would post it, but it came out kind of dark. I’ve always wanted to break a mirror on purpose. Perhaps I should. But here is one I addressed to a glass bottle:

There
Swimming in a sea of midnight silk
A bottle, a note
empty, unknown
restless, waiting
The waiting is endless

Try not to be too blown away. Then we got to come up with titles for poems. That was super fun! Here are a few of mine.

“Oh, Muscadine: To the sweetness that bursts on my tongue.” (Don’t make me have to tell you what a muscadine is!)
“For the Kitten Who Didn’t Make It”
“Ode to Snooze Button”
“What Am I Without You, but A Mindless, Wandering Mute”
“For the Tree That Has Fallen Down, Heavy with Age”

Next up, creative non-fiction with newly agented writer D.T. Lumpkin. Yep, lumpkin. I think they said the D was for David. He talked about how getting repeated rejections on his memoir made him a better writer. It went on for 18 months, and he said it finally got to the point where he wrote it for himself. That it no longer mattered what other people thought of his story. He was no longer trying to impress or “hook.” It only mattered what HE thought.

I could SO relate to this. A couple of months ago, I entered the query trenches for the 7th time, (well, technically, 9th time, but this is the 7th story), and I have also gotten to the point where I just gave up and decided to let it all go and write what I wanted to write and stopped worrying about what other people would think and what I thought other people wanted. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that now, after losing hope, I’m finally starting to get requests.

Nothing may come of it, still, but if nothing else, I know now that it is possible to get your story scooped out of the slush pile. That it happens to real people. I’m a real people. ^_^

Waiting for responses is driving me crazy, but I just need to remember my new cardinal rule moving forward: “Write like no one is ever going to read it.”

As D.T. said, You can’t write to please others. You can only please yourself. That’s when you write your best work. It frees you to be more honest. And I want to add, don’t despair if you’ve lost hope. Losing hope frees you to write without pressure. Pressure doesn’t exist when you think your work is never going anywhere. Silver lining for us crazy folks on the traditional publishing path.

Next on the list was Darnell Arnoult, fiction writer and professor of Creative Writing. She talked about this thing called “Applied Characterization.” It’s like a way to get to know your characters, get inside of their minds! Because, as you know, THAT is where the stories lie.

She said, give yourself 30 minutes for each one of these: List 100 things your character sees in a room, List 100 things the character wants, and write a 500 word sentence from your character’s point of view (kind of like an interview).

Honestly, the room exercise was horrible for me. I picked a terrible room. But it gave me an interesting prospective. The character I picked was in a room she’s never been in before, one she’ll be sleeping in while she gets her life together. None of the objects were her own, and I felt myself feeling lost, like my character, as I made the list and stared around at all these unfamiliar things.

The want list was much easier. Arnoult told us that what the character wants, their wants and needs, propels them forward in the story. “Desire is about what you don’t have that you want.” Doing these exercises puts us in their world and gets them moving and speaking and doing. Here are some of the wants on my list for Safara Rama of “Phantom Silence”:

To go home
To know what her sister is thinking
To play the harp
To go skinny dipping
To eat fresh boiled clams
To go to a football game
To wear a corset

Then she closed with this niffy thingabob: PLOT = CAUSE = EFFECT — Which means, Plot = A does this because of B and it results in C. I love that. It makes things so simple in the clutter I have for a working brain.

Lastly, we were treated to a hilarious short story by author Tony Early, but before that, there was a Q&A Publishing Panel. They talked about how to go about getting poetry and short fiction published, and they also talked about agents, editors, and small presses. One thing Arnoult said that really stuck out to me is, Yes, your work has to be amazing. Agents and Editors are busy. They aren’t looking at your manuscript and thinking, “Oh, boy! Let’s read this ENTIRE THING!” No. They’re looking for a reason to set it down so they can move on to the next manuscript in their (literal or virtual) heap. People were, how you say, horrified. But so goes the truth. And don’t think it only applies to publishing, because it doesn’t. Readers don’t want to spend time with something mediocre either. Think about a crappy book you’ve read as a reader. Wouldn’t you much rather spend that time in a world that’s amazing? As writers, we have to write a story that can’t be put down.

But seriously, no pressure. ^_^
Really. It’s hard to not be disappointed, dejected, and even offended when someone turns down our work, but it’s really not personal, however often (so very often) it feels that way.

And this wraps up another awesome conference experience! I have to say, I just may have to keep going to these things. Plus, between panel conversations with the other writers were fantastic. ^_^

Side note: I got a tiny can of orange juice when I was there! As a hoarder of tiny objects, I was just so excited. I can’t bring myself to drink it! So freaking cute.

12 Responses to That Time I Talked To A Gnat

  1. That sounds like so much fun! I’m going to have to find something writerly and panel-ly to go to around here. That 100 list thing on characterization sounds brilliant. I’m SO doing that tomorrow for the new protagonist.

    Also, I think I could write “Ode to the Snooze Button.” Oh, my God, I totally could.

    • “Ode to the Snooze Button” would also make a good theme song for some of us, I imagine. Lol!

      You should totally find something! I’m sure you have plenty to choose from. I made it to about 40 things in the time limit we were given. It did do something quite nice to my brain. Have fun with it! ^_^

  2. Sounds like you had a blast!

    Now I’m thinking of two things, poetry titles and the fact that I need another cup of coffee NOW. So this is my thought: poetry + coffee = Ode To A Coffee Bean. 🙂

    …and I think I need to apply that Applied Characterization thinggie. Sounds good!

  3. Great post! Sounds like a great event. I can totally hear the gulps in the room when he talked about agents looking for a reason not to finish your work. Totally true. I think at last count one of the best agencies out there got 40,000 queries last year.

    • It was great! 🙂
      40,000! Goodnight! Yeah, there was visible cringing at the news. Even worse when Darnell dropped the bomb that some agents don’t respond at all. Guess that’s one of the many reasons why they say writers need to develop thick skin. It’s so tough out there!

  4. That sounds like it was so much fun. AND interesting! Love your ode to snooze button. I’ll have to try out that characterization excercise and see where it lands my MC. And the ”no pressure’ thing is bitter-sweet, but true. Well, sort of. Polishing the MS and getting it as perfect as possible still has to be a part of the game – so I guess our hope never dies.

    • It was fun! ^_^
      Yeah, I guess there might be a thread of hope somewhere after the draft is done, because while I’m writing it because I want to, I’m certainly not editing those stories for myself.

  5. Your conference sounds AMAZING. *steams with jealousy* (the friendly kind, not, like, the green oozy stuff)

    “Ode to Snooze Button”–you really need to flesh that one out because the snooze button definitely deserves our reverent tribute.

Hi! ^_^