News Flash: I'm honored to a guest blogger today on my good blogger buddy Karen Walker's Following the Whispers blog. Click over and pay her a visit.
Yesterday I drove thirty miles to hear Tawni O'Dell speak at Westmoreland Community College. Tawni's first published novel, Back Roads, was an Oprah pick in March 2000. Tawni is a stunning speaker — funny, profound, intimate, and brilliantly articulate. I hung on every world for nearly two hours. Her long, face-framing mane of dark frizz gives the impression of an ultra-high-energy person attuned to other spheres, and perhaps she is. She told us that her characters "find her," not the other way around. She must write the books to get these people out of her head.
Being invaded by characters is not a situation faced by memoir writers, (though perhaps it isn't so different from being obsessed with how to tell our memoir story), but she did make some points I especially appreciated. One was to always listen to our inner sense of how to write. "You cannot learn to write a novel in a classroom!" she insists. "I don't have a process. Each of my books has taken a different path to completion. So I can't tell you how to write, how to manage the process." She does support taking classes, because you never know where you'll find an idea that clicks, and (she didn't say this, but it is consistent with things she did say), you can sharpen specific skills in classes and gain an understanding of the craft, if not the process.
I especially appreciated the reminder about the importance of finding our own way through our stories. She wrote five complete manuscripts and collected over 200 rejection letters before she made that breakthrough, that she should write her way, and write what she knows about rather than what she thought people wanted to read. That's when her writing because authentic. That's when Oprah found her.
I appreciated hearing it from her, because I was teetering on the brink of being pulled into writing a Formula Memoir, a process I discuss in my memoir blog, A Los Alamos Girlhood. I also appreciated it because four or five years ago while writing The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I strongly emphasized that point, that you must discover and work with your unique writing style.
Driving home through the drizzly April day, appreciation of the fresh, delicate beauty of newborn spring vacillated with flashbacks to Tawni. Rounding a corner I became aware of a message bouncing around my head: Trust the process. Trust the process. Aha! If this isn't confirmation to pull a Sinatra ("I'll do it my way!") I don't know what is.
Back to Tawni's thoughts on taking classes, she considers reading to be the best teacher. She reads voraciously, for both story, and also to analyze what makes the book work. What does she like about it? What can she learn? That seeps into her subconcious, and looking back through past volumes, she can see her own progress and growth as a writer. So I'll keep reading, novels, memoirs, books about writing. I'll keep writing and practicing, and perhaps some will find inspiration in my outpouring. And I'll also keep teaching now and then, because some of us do need to hang out with other writers and get feedback on our work. And because it's fun!
Write now: jot down some thoughts about your way of writing. Are you following a formula, or writing from someplace deep within you? Do you let your Inner Critic warn you away from some innovative approach burning within you? What else may make you hesitate?