Report on Day 2 of the Eckerd College Writers Conference

The Writers in Paradise Conference began officially this morning with welcome messages by the co-directors and a presentation by last night’s reading series author Tim O’Brien. Later we attended our first workshop with Lori Roy where we dissected the first two writers’ submissions and in the evening heard Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, et al and Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, Last Resort, etc.

If there was a theme for the day it was “tell your story”––about why and how to do so and about the consequences of telling the truth as you see it.

Tim O’Brien electrified the room of fifty writers at 10 AM to the same high wattage level that he had sparked the audience of 250 Saturday night, reading a piece drawn from a forthcoming book, which he told us he would have entitled “Trust in the Story” if it had a title.

Hell to O’Brien is having to read bad prose for eternity. To avoid writing bad prose, he advised us to trust one’s own story and one’s own imagination, to trust in the extraordinary even if it is in service to illuminating the ordinary. No wonder he revealed that he’s disposed to magical realism as a description of what he writes.

In the Q&A, O’Brien admonished us not to be afraid of emotion, but rather be terrified of fraudulent emotion. He told us not to be afraid of periods and stated that spelling matters.

O’Brien also underlined Dennis Lehane’s introductory remark that it takes ten years to learn the writing profession by suggesting having spent six years working on his latest book that the learning process never stops.

In the novel workshop session, we learned the downside of starting a story with a dream sequence or with dialogue, to avoid flash backs early in a story, to avoid putting back story ahead of conflict, and to remove filtering statements, such as ‘he remembered’ or ‘she thought,’ which insert distance between reader and story.

Positive suggestions included finding something in a complex setting that matters to the character rather than trying to describe every last detail, putting the inciting incident early in the story––i.e., that which brings the characters together––followed by the key event that causes the Teutonic shift forcing those characters off their previous course.

Roy stated that even minor characters have a story arc that can help provide an enlightening detail. She used as an example a character from Bent Road whom another character remembered had the same look on his face that he had in childhood when befuddled by a math problem.

Andre Dubus III read a section of an article on writing and publishing a memoir, which felt like a warning to memoir writers about the ways people can misinterpret the stories you tell about your past––particularly when you write about the past from your point of view at the time versus what you know years later.

Dennis Lehane read a powerful short story based on the Springfield song State Trooper for an anthology of stories based on song lyrics.

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