Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clarity Through Workshopping: A Blogshop with Portland's Bestselling Writing Group

Welcome back to part two of Clarity Through Workshopping with New York Times bestselling authors Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk; award winning broadcast journalist and multi-media maven Diana Page Jordan and author Suzy Vitello Soule.

If you didn't read last week's blogshop about the distinction between MFA workshop programs and those outside the MFA structure, please do so for a quick refresher on the ground we covered as well as The Group's responses to my questions regarding the value of a good writer's workshop and their role within. Lots of great perspective.

This week, Suzy, Chelsea, Chuck and Diana share their perspectives on the benefits of a multi-genre workshop and the importance of balancing your passionate artistic side with your focused, disciplined and productive side - a challenge we all face because let's face's a lot of fun letting our expressive side flow, but to be a productive writer, we need balance and we'll discuss that. As we experienced last week, everyone has a unique perspective.

I asked the group:

You all have such distinct and different literary voices. What are the benefits of working with a group with such broad range?

Suzy: When the core group of us began, we were more closely aligned in this regard. Over time, we’ve purposefully invited diverse voices to our table, broadening our range and inviting us to apply our, let’s call them preferences, in new and exciting ways. Employing some of the tenets of minimalism to the thriller, for instance, and exploring how they might be useful in bringing readers closer to the page, is only possible because we HAVE a thriller writer or two among us.

Chelsea: Huge. Everyone brings such a range of gifts to the table. Plot. Character. Voice. Objects. Senses. It’s like Super Friends, where all the heroes had powers that complimented one another. (Suzy, I’m pretty sure, has X-ray vision. Don’t tell her I know.) When you build a house the city doesn’t send just one inspector to look over things. They send an electrical guy, and a pipe guy, and a structural guy. They’ve got all sorts of guys. And all those guys have their little kingdoms of knowledge, and if any one of those segments doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, you’re going to have real problems with your house.

Diana: We are different spokes on one well-functioning wheel. Usually, opinions meld and build on each other. I can’t recall any dissension in Workshop. Even when writers disagree, new viewpoints, opinions, ideas spring from the differences. It’s actually very cool how it works. Maybe it’s because we all put the work above all else, including ego.

Chuck: A well rounded writing workshop ought to feel like karaoke night, singing in front of friends, but you've written your own song. It really does help train you to present your work publicly.

TLC: I like the picture Chelsea draws with a good workshop being like a thorough house inspection. A good writer knows the rules within their chosen genre. A well rounded writer knows good craftsmanship, appreciates language, knows good storytelling and effective information dissemination. Think of yourself as a Renaissance writer - multi-talented.

Meanwhile, Suzy can bring a taut writing style effective within the thriller genre to her own work, making her crafting and storytelling more effectively precise...and maybe a thriller writer can learn a few things from how writers like Suzy and Diana may linger over just the right string of words that will exquisitely capture a sentiment, feeling or thought.

Chuck hits on an interesting and important point...presenting your work to a multi-genre group of writers can do nothing but make you sharper and more confident as a writer who will one day be reading your work aloud to a group of strangers. You grow as a writer only when you step outside your comfort zone - in the context of this blogshop that means not only stepping outside your genre comfort zone but presenting your work to those outside that genre as well.

You don't have to like thrillers if they aren't for you; likewise with more literary prose - but it's important to appreciate their structure. Open your mind. The best writers spend their lives reading cross-genre.

TLC: Your passion for writing is evident in your storytelling. I coach my writers to use passion not only as a creative force but as a fuel that will propel them forward to take action in achieving the level of success they desire. This takes a good amount of artistic and personal clarity. What is your best tip for writers struggling to find a balance between their passionate, artistic self and the productive, disciplined, professional writer?

Suzy: Interestingly enough Monica Drake and I used to co-teach a workshop called Fueled by Distraction where we explored this very thing. The danger, I suppose, is when a creative person begins to feel dead, or gets overwhelmed by the demands of the normative life we all need in order to be productive human beings who engage in a range of things from feeding children to keeping up with the bills to helping loved ones cope with illness, etc… Being aware of the mind-body connection is essential. Understanding that various emotions pass, that being human is a dynamic process, these realizations are paramount in the self-definition of the functional artist. Taking some time to develop a formula that works for you is my advice here. A long walk in the woods helps me. Always. Here’s a little verse that imposed itself on me today during my traipse through Forest Park:

Sleep more, drink less. Say no three times more than you say yes.

TLC: I agree and I love the mantra. Creative types tend toward the more emotional end of the "feeling" spectrum, be it passionate love, bold confidence, red hot anger, gut wrenching self-loathing and everything in-between. The best writers are able to process those feelings, harness that power as fuel and put that drama on the page in a way that is relevent to their characters and the story or for nonfiction writers, your message.

Chelsea: You can’t make a living as a writer until you learn to write when you don’t want to. And you can’t be a good writer, until you learn how to edit.

TLC: Well said, Chelsea. When you routinely schedule time in your day to either write, research or connect, then you know you're on a new level creatively and professionally. You're moving forward one way or another.
Diana: Listen. Listen carefully to others’ opinions. Ask questions. Allow the information to swim inside, until intuitively, your work finds its own balance. One big idea I’ve picked up, is to honor your work by giving it a top priority on the calendar and the clock.

TLC: That's a great way of looking at it, Diana. It's pro-you time, which is what Suzy meant with her mantra. Writers, well not just writers, a lot of people, tell me about their "crazy" day or their "insane" morning. It's only crazy or insane if you choose it to be so. How you react to daily events is up to you. A great way to start being pro-you is to value your time. Don't let others jeopardize your time and clarity of mind by imposing their "craziness" into your life.

Chuck: Not to sound coarse, but... screw the "productive, disciplined, professional writer." As a weak person with poor impulse control I know that I'll do the activity which brings me the greatest pleasure. If I can continually find ways to make writing fun, then I'll write. And workshop functions as a weekly party where members can test their work to see if it elicits laughter or sympathy or moans; there's no more honest feedback than those spontaneous exclamations from others. We all want to attend more parties, and the ticket for entry is written work. Preferably, double-spaced and stapled.

TLC: Ahh, but Chuck, you've written several New York Times bestsellers, a few which have been made into successful movies and more that are in production. You've written 13 books in 14 years and countless articles for myriad publications. If that's not a product of a discipline or productivity, I don't know what else to call it...addiction to a successful writing career? At least it's a good one!

So, what else do we need to keep in mind when it comes to your workshop/party/karaoke night, Chuck?

Chuck: We seem to have an unspoken rule to never comment on the content of a story or scene; instead, we always brainstorm about the successful execution of that content. This seems crucial to not alienating eachother. For example, if a writer wants to depict a chainsaw murder no one will question the value of that subject, but we will debate how to depict it effectively. Group members are encouraged to write about anything -- but to do so with skill and craft.

TLC: Respecting the craft, skill and the artist - a great foundation for a successful workshop.

Many thanks to this wonderfully talented and diverse group of writers who took time to share their perspective and good advice with us!

Your exercise this week, writers: Like I said, the best writers read EVERYTHING. Take a fieldtrip to your book store, library or e-reader of choice and buy/download something you wouldn't ordinarily read but would be open to. Leave your book snobbery at the door and explore the sci-fi aisle, maybe romance or take a look at something in spirituality or travel.

Also, continue to explore joining a writing workshop or start your own! I want to hear how it goes, so share your news!

Have a fruitful week, writers!

Have any workshopping tips to share? Tell us all about it. Post your comments below.

About the Contributors:

Suzy Vitello Soule writes for a living. Her work has been published in various journals, including Mississippi Review, Better Homes & Gardens and Willamette Week. Her personal essay, "Dancing With the Paper Rose", was included in the anthology The Spirit of Pregnancy, by NTC Press. Suzy has won several awards for fiction and poetry, including The Atlantic Monthly’s Student Writing Award, STORY Magazine’s Famous Fiction Competition, and Willamette Week’s Short Fiction Award.

Chelsea Cain is the author of The New York Times Bestselling thrillers EVIL AT HEART, SWEETHEART and HEARTSICK. Her next book THE NIGHT SEASON will be out in March 2011. All take place in Portland, Oregon, and focus on Det. Archie Sheridan, rainbow-haired journalist Susan Ward, and Sheridan’s lovely nemesis, the serial killer Gretchen Lowell.Chelsea’s books have been published in over 20 languages, recommended on “The Today Show,” appeared in episodes of HBO’s “True Blood” and ABC’s “Castle,” and named among Stephen King’s top ten favorite books of the year. NPR included her book HEARTSICK in their list of the top 100 thrillers ever written. According to Booklist, “Popular entertainment just doesn’t get much better than this.” Entertainment Weekly adds, “In addition to spiky characters, Cain has a crisp voice, a wicked sense of humor, and an imagination for all the horrors that can unfold in a locked basement.” Chelsea lives in Portland with her husband and remarkably well-adjusted five-year-old daughter.

Diana Page Jordan is an award winning broadcast journalist, initially drawn to that industry as she wanted to be as close to the truth as possible. Her mission is to inspire, entertain, educate and enlighten.She is a news anchor, reporter and talk show host, based in Portland, Oregon, originally from New York City. Diana has interviewed hundreds of best-selling authors of all genre for her own show on AP Radio, for an audio segment of her creation on Barnes and Noble dot com for XM Satellite, Westwood One TV and radio in Portland. She has also reviewed books on Martha Stewart Living and Sirius and the local ABC-TV affiliate. Diana has written about authors for The Costco Connection and had three cover stories in the 2009/10 for The Writer's Digest. Her nonfiction is published in four anthologies. She's also written a memoir, screenplay and novel.Diana writes BookBlog and hosts a weekly show, Open Book with Diana Page Jordan at PDX.FM.

Chuck Palahniuk is the author of several New York Times bestselling books including CHOKE, DIARY, FIGHT CLUB as well as a contributor to myriad publications. Often shocking, sometimes controversial but always unique, Palahniuk's body of work has earned a world-wide devout following and a solid place in American fiction.

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