Guest Post: Start your writers' conference learning now with a series of guest blog posts from some of the conference faculty. This guest post comes from Mary Volmer, basketball player turned historical novelist and teacher at Saint Mary’s College (CA). Author of Crown of Dust and Reliance, Illinois.
Click here to check out my last post about the importance of claiming the title of writer.
Today: learning the rules of your craft and finding space to work.
Learn the Rules
Ever seen tennis played? Imagine a tennis court. Now, take away the net, the boundary lines, and the rackets. What’s left?
Tennis and fiction are governed by rules and conventions. How can a tennis player compete with no racket, net, or boundary lines? How can a writer share her vision without at least a rudimentary understanding of point of view, story, sentence structure, or the conventions of genre? Maybe you fancy yourself a rebel, determined to break rules and challenge the form. Great, but you first must know the rules to break them.
In high school, I coached a youth basketball team of 9 and 10-year-old girls. I remember, first practice, walking into the high school multipurpose room—imagine two temporary baskets propped on either end, little girls in gym short ping-ponging here and there, and the smell—you know the smell—rotting bananas, corn dogs, lemon-scented cleaning fluid.
“Ok!” I shouted, blowing my whistle. “Everyone on the baseline!"
One little girl scrambled into place, the rest looked sideways up at me. What on earth was a baseline? My detailed schedule of drills, useless. They needed rules, the most basic rules, before they could play. So we made a game out of learning and raced from baseline to half court, to sideline in a squealing frenzy.
Granted, this isn’t a perfect analogy for writers. Even if you have never written anything but a grocery list and never studied the conventions of the craft, you already know more than you think because you have grown up with stories, and because you read widely and ceaselessly. Right? You’re already aware of how stories affect you. How exciting to learn to create that effect!
How to play.
|Video: How to play tennis without a racket ... or a ball.|
Be active within a community, literary or otherwise, but don’t mistake living in literary circles with literary work. Literary work, "needs solitude. It needs concentration without interruption,” says poet Mary Oliver in her essay “Of Power and Time.” “It needs the whole sky to fly in and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy…a place apart.”
This place apart is not just a physical space, but also a space inside of you, a sacred space of “otherworldly awareness” from which creativity rises.
Finding this double solitude in which to work—the space within and the space without—has always been difficult, especially for working women and women with children. Today, social media imposes another gamut of seductive distractions. How often do I find myself spirited away on the internet when I meant to look up one small detail? Strangely enough, the modern web’s allure reminds me of ancient Greek temptresses, the Sirens or Homer’s Odyssey. This is the story:
After leaving the island of Circe, Odysseus (who like most writers was easily distracted) sailed through seas inhabited by beautiful nymph-like women called Sirens, famous for seducing sailors with their sweet meaningless songs and sending them plunging to their death in the sea. Odysseus, curious about the sound, ordered his sailors to stop their own ears with bees wax, but to bind him to the ship mast so that he might hear the song not leap into the sea.
Tether yourselves to the mast, my friends, or better yet, stop your ears with bees wax.
And if you don’t have hours in a day (who does?) set aside fifteen or twenty minutes to be alone, and unplugged. Writer Susan Straight wrote a good portion of her last two books in parking lots, ferrying daughters between events. Drag yourself from bed twenty minutes early in the morning and write before the day imposes its concerns. Keep a notebook with you because insights and ideas grow wild in the cracks of time between responsibilities—and during faculty meetings, conference calls…
The important thing to know is that your work, even if like me you write research heavy novels, rises from within you. The story and most of the answers you need, will rise from within, if you give yourself the space you need to create.