This past weekend I attended the biennial writing conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. Nearly exactly 2 years ago, during a very cold spell in February 2012, I attended my first one… and its effect on me cannot be exaggerated. It inspired me to start writing seriously once more (every day), made me fall in love with poetry all over again and was the decisive factor in starting up this blog.
So I was eagerly awaiting the new event – and it did not disappoint, even though this time I was not quite as addicted to meeting every single person and exchanging cards. What I lacked perhaps in wide-eyed wonder, I made up for in deeper connections with fewer people. I can only talk about the sessions I attended, of course, but all of the instructors read to us during the conference dinner and I can assure you they were all excellent. Huge congratulations to Susan Tiberghien (the founder and driving force behind the Geneva Writers’ Group) and her conference committee for organising the event so well.
Here are some of the pearls of wisdom I have tried to capture (apologies to our tutors if I have misinterpreted or misquoted):
From Mimi Thebo, who writes predominantly for YA and children (‘it might be harder, but it’s more fun’):
We writers are not the navy, we’re pirates. I’ll tell you what to do in this class, but if you don’t want to do it, go ahead and rebel.
Young people feel as deeply and suffer everything that we do but without the power to make any changes, to make things better for themselves.
When I sell a book, I don’t get the opportunity to go home and sit on the armchair and tell you how to read the book or explain away all of my many mistakes.
We only write half the book and the readers write the rest when they read it.
From Brenda Shaughnessy, award-winning poet and just a really generous and sweet person, whom I think of as a kindred soul:
Metaphor is key to poetry. This is that – but how do we get from this to that? One of the best ways is to think of it as two balls linked with a tether and you throw them as far apart as you can without ripping the tether.
If you ask a question which can be answered, that’s too easy a question for a poem.
Write and read beyond your own comprehension level. Your poems should know more than you do.
From Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, poet as well as novelist and memoir writer, I learnt:
Words have become devalued. In today’s world we are flooded with information and words, at such a volume that we find it hard to bring them back to their basic level, to give words their proper weight and meaning.
When you want to capture that moment ‘that needs speech’, that wrinkle in reality which catches our attention, you need to make it visible with words, but not imprison it. So don’t force your words. Trust your instincts, your impulse, take time to amble and write down your untethered impressions. You can always revisit those first words many years later, as long as you have written enough to capture that feeling.
A poem won’t fall apart with our interpretation. It can take whatever we project onto it. That’s why it’s nice to read poetry together and allow everyone to contribute.
Last, but not least, from Henry Sutton, author and lecturer of crime fiction, I learnt about asking that next question of your plot and characters, always digging a little deeper into yourself and your novel.
Be prepared to deviate from your plan if that allows you to find your own territory.
We always need to ask questions of why we are doing things the way we are. Why is this book being written? Why are the characters behaving this way? What is the question that best describes my WIP?
Abstract themes and broad concepts are all very well, but surely all literature needs to be concerned with that to a certain extent. It’s the specific, personal stuff that readers want, that they can project their own experiences upon. The personal stuff contains the broader stuff – and abstract concepts have to come through your character, otherwise you might as well write an essay.
I can also tell you what I did not do at this conference: attend the Q&A sessions with the agents and publishers. Not that I’m not curious to hear what they have to say, but I think I’ve heard a lot of it before, some of it on Twitter and in blog posts. And I didn’t want to hear just how discouraging the publishing landscape is at the moment, nor how the odds are stacked against me.
All I want to do is sit down and apply all this wisdom. Finish my novel. Improve my poetry. Write as well as I can, and getting better all the time. Two years is too long to wait for such an inspiring, fun and productive conference! I know that, ultimately, the hard work is down to me, but I am curious to see what effect this conference will have had on my next two years…