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Getting Serious About Writing, Part Deux

Last week's writers conference at Northwestern was a great experience. It was very positive and inspiring, and only increases my commitment to my writing.

I could have listened to Bill Savage talk all day (and he probably would have, with little provocation--he's a very enthusiastic instructor) about Chicago and its spatial impact on writers. I hadn't ever read any Gwendolyn Brooks before (I'm slapping my own wrist as we speak) but will definitely do so in the future. Interestingly, Bill's own life has been shaped by Chicago's physical characteristics from day one--he was born in the vestibule of his parents' Rogers Park apartment building because the paramedics couldn't find the building due to the way the El tracks are configured.

Barry Silesky gave us an interesting exercise, asking each of us to jot down a series of remembrances of Chicago. Then two of us were asked to read our entire list, with the rest of us asked to jot down the most memorable item from each list. Then we had to write two paragraphs which incorporated those two completely unrelated items. My two items involved chickens scratching around the yard next door, and a man with a Southern accent; the resulting story fragment is oddly intriguing, and may very well prove to be the basis of a full-length story.

But as good as Savage's and Silesky's classes were, the highlight of the day for me was the workshop class run by Joe Meno. Unlike the cutthroat story workshops at MFA programs, Joe's class was based on positive reinforcement. Each writer read the first chapter of their novel-in-progress, and the class was invited to first offer their positive reactions to the writing, followed by questions about areas which required clarification. In other words, no harsh criticism of either the writing or the writer, both of which could prove debilitating. All of us in the class were fledgling writers, and the last thing anyone of us needed was a major blow to the ego which would likely result in abandoning writing altogether.

I got a lot of good feedback on my novel "Eden"--everyone seemed to like my writing ability and where the story was going, and Joe commented repeatedly on the epic sweep of the narrative I'm daring to attempt. But I also got great suggestions on how to improve the structure to draw the reader more deeply into the story, and I've already begun incorporating the class' ideas.

And afterward, there were author readings from my hero Aleksandar Hemon, Elizabeth Crane and the highly entertaining poet Calvin Forbes. I asked Hemon if we could expect to see any more of Josef Pronek, subject of both a long story in The Question of Bruno as well as the protagonist of Nowhere Man . He replied at this point in time, no, but that he said the same thing after Bruno--he said he'd never write about Pronek again, and then he went ahead and wrote an entire novel about him. He says that's the way the muse goes for him. He's never sure which direction he'll suddenly veer off to. And he very nicely inscribed my copy of Nowhere Man, one of the best novels I've ever read.

All in all, a great experience. I hope Northwestern runs this program again next year, and brings back all the same instructors. And other universities in the Chicago area would be well advised to launch similar programs.

July 28, 2005 in Fiction | Permalink

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