In the Carolina Ballroom at the Sheraton Charlotte, there are enormous chandeliers dripping with iridescent crystals that reflect the light from electric candles. Their opulence, while beautiful, seem in distinct contrast with what I learned about writing this past weekend at the NCWN, North Carolina Writers' Network, 2014 fall conference. And what I learned is this: writing is dirty work.
I suppose I latched on to the phrases "gear shifts" from Rebecca McClanahan's presentation and "jumpstart" from Zelda Lockhart's because I grew up around cars. I know what it means to push a vehicle until it's rolling, jump in, and pop the clutch. My father's nails had a perpetual line of black beneath them from working on our cars. From the '61 Impala to the '69 VW bus to the '86 Grand Am, my father slid beneath each one of them, cursing more often than not, as my brother and I waited for his short barks for tools.
McClanahan, author of the memoir The Tribal Knot and many other works, instructed her audience to use their "literary muscles" to "shift gears" in their writing. While her workshop, titled "Making Their Stories Your Own," revolved around how to use family history and artifacts in your writing, the ideas can apply to all writing. She suggests shifting gears at least two or three times in any given piece, no matter the length. You started by questioning? Shift gears to quoting. Shift again to describing. McClanahan encouraged us to use the literary muscles we have, and she used "My Grandmother's Love Letters" by Hart Crane to illustrate her point. Crane shifts gears eight times in this 26 line poem. He begins in the present, and then he informs, describes, meditates, questions, quotes, speculates, and circles back to the present.
Zelda Lockhart, author of many books including Fifth Born, presented her audience with a copied line drawing of a steering wheel, rearview mirror, vanity mirror, and side view mirror from the driver's perspective at the beginning of her workshop titled "The Mirror Exercise." She guided us through a series of prompts that involved jotting down bulleted lists on specific parts of the drawing and then freewriting on each section. During the freewrite sessions, Lockhart handed us the tool of opening a book of poetry, setting our fingers down at random, and using the three words closest to our fingertips to "jumpstart" our writing. This was almost eerily good. My jumpstarts even seemed to be thematic. "His solid ruddy," "of the flesh," and "the ones with teeth" were just three of my jumpstarts, and they really helped me to let go of preconceived ideas and just jump in that car and pop the clutch.
These were just two of the workshops I attended. There were also readings and speakers including Wilton Barnhardt who entertained the audience with stories of places he "should never have been" including a tour of a particularly deep cave and the offices of Sports Illustrated. By the way, another one of my jumpstarts was "where I've never gone before."
Part of the reason I attend writers' conferences is to reenergize myself, to rekindle the flame. After last weekend, I'm ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work with the tools I have at my disposal; I'm ready to get grease underneath my fingernails. I'm ready to kick that muscle car in my mind into fifth gear, hit the road, and ride.