The Best Writing Advice I Ever Received

In my first workshop in graduate school, John Yount looked at me across the table after about thirty minutes of class discussion about my story. He said, “Clark, this is draft five of a ten draft story.” My heart sunk–it was a stupendous slice of life story! Probably pure genius!–but he was right of course. One of the characters in the story studied his fingers when he was talking, each knuckle separately. John said, “That moment, when the character is studying his knuckles, that is the only moment I really see these guys. You need to get out of their heads. Concentrate on stuff like this.” Later, in his office, he told me that I was still in the beginning stages. He said I had a lot of work to do but if I worked at it hard, I might get there. He said there were some nice moments in the story but that it didn’t work as a whole. All of this was hard to hear, but it was spot-on, all of it. Thanks John.

Retrieving at the AWP

You have to pay for internet in this hotel, but the elevators are blazingly fast. Going up, I feel as though I have the bends.

Yesterday,I spoke with the editor-in-chief of One Story. We chatted about the same things everyone was chatting about–the magazine, how it started, writing in general–and as I was getting ready to let her move back to her table, I looked down at her name-tag and saw: Hannah Tinti. If it would have been a movie, I would have done a double-take. “You’re Hannah Tinti!” I said, as if she might not know. I’d just finished her book The Good Thief, and had been wanting to tell her how much I loved it. Not fifteen minutes earlier, I’d been talking with someone about the book. I fear that I probably gushed a little bit about the book–but it was one of those books that got under my skin–and I guess if that doesn’t warrant a bit of gushing, what does? I often write authors whose stories or novels I admire, but rarely stumble upon them this way. I’m glad I didn’t know it was her when we started talking, because I, like almost every writer I know, have trouble walking up to the writers we admire and saying hello without feeling like children at the feet of the “master” and I probably would have muttered a few words and then felt as though I must retreat.  Hannah Tinti seemed a very gracious and humble writer and I’m grateful to have been able to express my love of her book in person. That little moment was the highlight of the conference for me. It made me want to write something. Plus, it sort of revealed to me the theme of the conference: being in the right place.

Before I left, I told my friend Paul that I was on the fence about the trip. He said, “Go and see what you can bring to the conference and don’t worry about what you can get out of the conference.” Good advice.

I was in the right place almost on accident several times in the past few days. I couldn’t get into one of the panels I wanted to hear, so I wandered around until I found a reading from writers who’d been in The Sun. I walked in as Steve Almond was reading from a little book he self published that contained 30 essays about writing and creating–and good Lord! He sounded as though he was reading my mind!–and he was followed by three excellent poets. It was where I needed to be.

Last night, I went to hear my friend Hayden Saunier read at a local restaurant a few miles away. I went because I like Hayden and because she’s an excellent poet. I didn’t know the other poets. It was downstairs at this place and the upstairs was a pretty rollicking restaurant/bar and after about forty-five minutes, I was getting tired of the atmosphere and the reading seemed a long way off. The people there to hear the reading were very nice, but bars aren’t really my scene, and the reading finally started mere minutes before I had made up my mind to leave. Even then, I was going to leave right after Hayden. But the poets were excellent (and the fiction writer, too) and I found myself wanting to stay and listen. It was were I was supposed to be.

I’ll go home tomorrow.

A few weeks ago, after I found my desk, I started writing again. I told myself that I was writing a short story. But I think I lied. I don’t think I can contain it in a short story.

Michael Chabon, the keynote speaker on Friday, said that ideas are all around us and finding an idea is not a big deal. Sticking with that idea is, however.

If there is one lesson I’ve retrieved for myself at this 2010 AWP conference from the vast backlog of my recently untapped writing experiences, it is this: I must practice the habit. I no longer believe that I will become the writer I’ve always imagined myself to be. I can only be the writer I am. I can only do the work I can do. And I can’t blame people, places, or events when I don’t write. It is all me, habit, persistence. For today, I feel ready.