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The Search for Voice at the Conversations and Connections Writer’s Conference

April 30, 2012

Guest blogger, Beth Wenger, reflects on the 2012 Conversations and Connections Writer’s Conference.

Last Saturday was supposed to be rainy. Instead, the day begged me to go outside and sit in the sun with a book or journal and pen in hand. I ignored the begging and spent the day inside at the Conversations and Connections Writer’s Conference at Johns Hopkins University’s Washington, D.C., campus. I was committed to finding whatever Conference gems I could identify to boost my writing and my passion for the craft.  I joined more than 150 other fiction writers, essayists, poets and literary magazine editors expecting the day to start off with words from keynote speaker, novelist and short story writer Sam Lipsyte. It didn’t start that way.  Lipsyte would speak but not until later when perhaps I and presumably everyone else was primed.

I took my struggles as a fiction writer to a couple of seminars focused on common mistakes that keep stories from being selected for publication and what writers can do to improve their chances of getting their work out of the slush pile and into print. For each seminar, panels of fiction editors laid it all out, each sharing fundamental problems of many otherwise well-written stories. All too often, panel members said, story submissions reveal too much in the beginning, the ending becomes quickly predictable, and there is no clear, strong voice. I identified with all of these weaknesses and cringed.

“Stories miss the mark when narrators are too benign. You want to get a flavor of who this person is and to whom the story is being told,” said fiction writer, editor and critic Susan Muaddi-Darraj.

“The narrator is invested and making the reader an accomplice,” said short story writer and editor of The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Rae Bryant.

With that said, it suddenly became clear that my years of writing magazine articles in which my bias was not allowed were hampering my fiction and that I still have much to learn about craft. I also had a new goal: to push myself to find my best voice.

That voice – the voice of every writer at the conference and beyond – is hugely important, said Sam Lipsyte when it was finally his time in the spotlight. He reminded me and perhaps all of us that we were there not because we were lacking in talent but because writing is so deeply important to us – so important that we’d spend a perfectly good Saturday talking about nothing else but writing.

As one might expect any keynote speaker at a writer’s conference to say, Lipsyte encouraged us to keep writing and to write for the gladiators. The gladiators would be all of us who understood the predicament of being human and juggling and coping with all that the world throws at us. “You write because no one else is going to champion your world view,” said Lipsyte. And you make everyone your audience, he said. “My target is anyone who can or will be able to read,” Lipsyte said. But a word of caution followed: “Don’t waste our time.”

With most of the conference behind us after Lipsyte’s keynote, the message was clear: Writing for publication is not about writing for publication even though that’s the end goal. It’s about making magical writing that hooks readers from beginning to end.

I spent the last hour of the conference with a panel of published fiction writers discussing the most elusive and hardest-to-teach aspect of writing: creating magic – that unidentifiable, hard-to-articulate quality that makes a story good. As difficult as it is to teach, panel members said this is something we writers can cultivate by reading the best books by the best authors and by keeping a journal of all the great lines we discover.

Panelists suggested we look to our own work as well. Any serious writer creates a good many stories before writing a work that others will publish. Stories that sit in our own private slush piles should be mined for our own best lines. Energy that should be harnessed and built upon lives in these lines. The panelists also urged that writers tune their imaginations through keen observation of what is happening around them. A more finely tuned imagination will lead to better ideas and better stories.

When the day closed, my head was full of new ideas and approaches that I couldn’t wait to test. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your writing is to take a break from it and immerse yourself in conversations about craft.

Beth Wenger is a writer with many magazine articles to her credit but who has yet to master any of her fiction writing goals.  Her published work, appearing in trade and specialty magazines, includes feature articles on group tour travel, motorcoach tour operations, the business side of infection prevention in health care settings and the business of owning and operating haunted houses.

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