Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Chautauqua Musings

Update: The Highlights Foundation holds all its workshops in Honesdale, PA now. I had the wonderful opportunity to attend Sharing our Hope workshop with Kristi Holl and Paula Morrow three years ago but what I learned at Chautauqua still holds true.  

From the web archives: Chautauqua Musings

Chautauqua: a single word.  A place.  But so much more than that.  For me, the Highlights Foundation’s 2006 Writers Workshops at Chautauqua was a place to learn about children’s writing from some of the best authors and editors in the field.  What is unique about Chautauqua is the family atmosphere, the caring and the passion.  Faculty and students enjoy meals together and are available to talk shop, family, or hobbies.  I will always be grateful to the Highlights Foundation for helping me to make my Chautauqua dream come true.

Here I am with my friend and critique partner, Allyson Shrier, and with my astute reader and advisor, Stephen Roxburgh.


Some musings and advice:

Do not be put off by the high cost.  Scholarships are available.  Invest in yourself and your future.

The most common thread of successful writers was that they read a great deal.  This might seem obvious, but I’ve met writers who are “too busy” to read.  So read, read, read.  Read the classics.  Read contemporary literature.  Read poetry.  Read magazines.  Read good books.  Read badly written books.  You will learn something from all of them.

Author Jerry Spinelli was an exception to this rule; he did not become an avid reader until he was older.  But he wishes otherwise.  Perhaps his journey to being published would’ve been shorter.  Remember, it’s never too late to start reading.

Speaking of the Spinellis, take lessons from them.  Between them: six children, sixteen grandchildren and over sixty books!  They still write in between the cracks.  So can you.

Many authors talked about writing just one or two pages each day.  Some, like Donna Jo Napoli, can finish a draft within a month.  Others take three months.  Some take a year.  But they all emphasized finishing that first draft, whether it’s a magazine piece or a trilogy.  Capture the passion and the emotions of the story.  Let it pour out of you.  There is plenty of time later to revise and edit and polish, which can take months to several years.  But get it all down first.  Don’t stop to edit.

Should you outline or not?  Depends on what works for you.  Many let a story unfold as they write, and the first draft serves as an outline when they revise.  I use an outline because I write a great deal of nonfiction and it’s imperative that facts follow each other in a logical order.  I bring that to my storytelling.  I like knowing where I’m going and whether it makes sense.  I write narrative summaries.  But that doesn’t mean that my story is set in stone.  Often, the actual writing of a particular scene (for me it’s almost like transcribing a snippet of a movie) leads me in a slightly different direction, but one that is truer to the character.

Publisher and editor Stephen Roxburgh discussed plotting.  Plot is the sequence of events.  They must be connected.  He cites author E. M. Forster: The king died.  The queen died.  This is not plot.  However, if you said: The queen died of grief, then you have a plot.  Know the motivation that leads to action.  He was my reader and advisor and he asked very good questions about my story.  He had no answers; rather, his questions helped me to find out what my story really is about.  So ask yourself questions, particularly, “Why?”

Author Carolyn Coman taught storyboarding.  This appealed to me very much because I use index cards.  She draws boxes and draws the major action, then she writes what is happening.  Finally, she writes what the main character feels.  Is it joy, fear, sadness?  I think storyboarding is an excellent tool for keeping track of the emotional journey of the main character.

What should you write about?  Anything and everything.  Writers have the right to write.  Do not hesitate to write about China if you’re not Chinese, but do have passion for China.  Write about something you care about, otherwise your readers won’t care either.  If you don’t know enough to write, learn.

Research thoroughly.  Use primary sources whenever possible.  Editor CarolynYoder said, “Through good research come great stories, juicy details, and anecdotes.”  She gave many practical tips for keeping the mountain of information that you will collect while writing nonfiction or historical fiction:

    Keep a detailed bibliography.
    Footnotes save you hours during revisions and fact-checking.
    Contact experts for guidance.

But always remember the story, because we read stories to feel.  We read stories to be in someone else’s skin.  We read stories to understand ourselves.  Editor Patti Lee Gauch read aloud passages from some of the best historical fiction and, in each case, story was paramount.  Information was imbedded within the story.  She said, “There can be no fiction without facts.”

So cultivate the craft of writing.  Read books, take classes, pay attention, and write.  Use beautiful, sensual language.  Be a virtuoso.  Make your reader hear the music.  Discover your own voice.  Write your heart out.

"Chautauqua Musings" was first published in the Fall 2006 issue of The Chinook.


Mirka Breen said...

A former critique group friend attended this writers' retreat on scholarship, and came away with glowing praise for the experience. Thank you for reminding us of it, Vijaya.

Faith E. Hough said...

Mark attended the workshop in Chautauqua SIX years ago (Can't believe it was that long!!) and had the privilege of working with Patti Gauch, who was (IS) amazing. When the folks in charge found out that his wife also wrote and was staying home (well, at a local friend's home) with the baby, they told him to bring me along to any of the talks I wanted to attend! The Highlights Foundation is amazing, and I hope to attend a PA workshop sometime... you know, when I'm not home with a baby. ;)

Barbara Etlin said...

One of my critique group members also went to a few Foundation workshops and felt they were very important steps in her eventual success.

Yanting Gueh said...

Taking up courses and workshops is a great investment. I was only familiar with Chautauqua because it's the setting of several Joyce Carol Oates novels and now I have another (the imagined setting of writers discussing their approach to work).

Vijaya said...

Chautauqua was really wonderful. In addition to all the wonderful talks on writing, the mentoring, I took advantage of listening to concerts in the amphitheater, along with ice cream.

Faith, that is just so classy! I really, really hope you can go to Honesdale when the babies are a bit older. They grow up too quickly.

Barb, I hope you will get a chance to go too.

Claudine, that's so interesting! It's definitely an artsy colony.