The Cleveland Main Library hosted INKubator, a free writers’ conference, on Saturday, July 30th. Literary Cleveland, a local organization that promotes writers and readers, organized the event. For those of you not lucky enough to attend, I offer a short summary of what I learned from this year’s conference.
Since I live about an hour from Cleveland, I make an entire day of any visit to the lovely Cleveland Main Library. Their special collections are always interesting, and they recently just finished an exhibition of Shakespeare’s First Folio. On Saturday mornings, you can usually park at the parking garage across from the library for $5, but since there was a special event the rate was disappointingly high. Next time I will call the garage first.
My friend and I arrived late due to circumstances beyond our control, so we missed most of the keynote speech. When we registered, we did not get all the same workshops, but the organizers very kindly let us switch so we could attend classes together. We perused the Resource Fair for a few minutes. I spoke to some local published authors, who were very helpful and friendly, and then my friend and I attended the first workshop.
The Fiction Writer’s Dilemma: What to Write About?
One of the most helpful things about this workshop was the handout all the attendees were given at the beginning of class. While I had come across much of the advice before (write down ideas so you don’t forget, a deadline is your friend, etc.), it’s always good to hear again. However, the main point was to find inspiration and generate new story ideas, especially when experiencing writer’s block. Ms. Walter told stories of her own experiences developing unique plots, and as a class exercise we each attempted to come up with ideas based on prompts from the handout.
The first prompts involved doing initial research and scanning news headlines. This is something I’ve done myself in the past for inspiration, except I used Twitter. I follow a lot of interesting people and institutions, many of whom tweet links to news about exotic phenomena or weird animals. I wrote an alien zombie story once that was inspired by an article about fungus.
Other methods of finding prompts were:
–choose an interesting place as the setting for your story (a gas station bathroom)
–ask yourself questions about your life (such as what was your most difficult choice?)
–create an interesting character to write about first, maybe someone with a weird quirk (ex: a woman who will only speak in Shakespearean quotes). Fill in their backstory before you write the actual story.
–incorporate interesting objects into your work (wilted flowers in a rusty tin can)
I actually like the idea of combining several of these prompts to make the story more challenging. For instance, I might write about a Shakespearean snob who finds herself stranded in a gas station bathroom, contemplating the non existence of God.
Ms. Walter also encouraged the idea of retelling other stories through different characters or by reimagining aspects of the story. I can heartily attest to how helpful and entertaining this can be. I’ve reimagined fairy tales as science fiction, placed Greek gods at High School proms, and written short story sequels and alternate endings to Shakespeare’s plays (Sorry, Will!).
Her final prompt advice was to ask “What if?” If something about the world today were different, what would happen? How would people or society be altered? The exact definition of science-fiction is debatable, but I believe this question is at the heart of every great genre story.
–What if Greek gods were a modern reality taken for granted by everyone?
–What if a chemical leaked into the water supply that gave people super powers?
–What if the government spied on every citizen through their televisions?
–What if Germany had won World War II?
–What if the world were ruled by children?
–What if China refused to export goods to the United States?
After completing our writing exercises, we broke for lunch–inspired and hungry!
LUNCH: Open Mic
My friend Philip and I packed our lunches and ate in the lovely Eastman Reading Garden, conveniently located between the library’s two buildings. There was a whimsical art exhibit on display of brightly-colored, cartoonish animals. An Open Mic was held so participants could read some of their work to the crowd. There were so many incredibly talented people there, it was both encouraging and intimidating. Last year’s Open Mic was held after the conference, but this year there were time constraints since it was held during the lunch break.
Ironically, I didn’t think to take a photo of this workshop until after it ended. The instructor, Ms. McClain, had wanted everyone to bring in a news clipping or some other source material to work with, but no one had. We watched an example of Documentary Poetry entitled Women of Troy that was both moving and disturbing, then read other examples: “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971,” by Natasha Trethewey; “Ethel’s Sestina;” and another “poem” that was simply a quote by someone about a tragedy. They all recorded events that actually happened but (most) had interpretive elements incorporated. Then we discussed the definition of Documentary Poetry.
I still can’t tell you what that definition is.
We discussed at length what Documentary Poetry was supposed to be: using source material (or not) as part of a poem (that may or may not have structure) that records an actual event (that may or may not add fictional elements to what happened). Most people agreed that “Women of Troy” was a visual poem, while the other two named poems were problematic for some. When you use quotes from other people as part of your work, how can you be credited for the entire poem? And it was hotly debated whether the last example, a pure quote, could be considered a poem. The quote was simply presented as a paragraph, without even line breaks for emphasis or visual style. What made it poetry? I still don’t know.
As an exercise, we were invited to create a short documentary poem based on a current event. As an example, I will share my unedited draft that I wrote; it was based on a photo I saw of people struggling to view the Cavaliers’ parade.
Not for just the team
But the city of Cleveland
City streets shut down
Jam packed with fans
I’ve traveled far
Paid for parking
Walked for seeming miles
Celebrity and Celebrate.
Yet I still can’t see
Through the throng of bodies
lining the street, I spot my perch.
I climb a nearby tree,
Sun shines brightly over the crowd,
But leafy branches spare me its glare.
The building is so close.
It’s third story absent balconies
But lined instead by flat clear windows.
I lean or leap,
Shimmy up the concrete,
My feet propped between two columns
Supporting my weight
In lieu of a floor.
Mindless of those below
–also sans floor.
All I know it’s I have the perfect view
As I gaze
–Not at the crowd swelling beneath
Not at those beneath my feet
Not at fame within arms’ reach–
but at my phone’s view screen.
This is how I choose to participate
–Hovering between life and death–
in this perfect moment.
What I took away from the class was not a clear understanding of Documentary Poetry, but a blurring of the lines of what is allowed when mixing mediums. The idea of incorporating a photograph, a quote, or even streaks of color as part of an actual poem had never occurred to me. Now it has. This class gave me a lot to think about.
The Truth of Creative Nonfiction
The instructor for this class began by promising he was going to tell us the secret of all writing. We then spent the better part of our time discussing what exactly Creative Nonfiction is. In this way, the class resembled the previous one about Documentary Poetry, because the definition was ambiguous. Nonfiction stories are true, they really happened, while creativity involves imagination and making things up. So when you read a book about a real occurrence with dialogue that the author is simply guessing may have happened, does that still count as nonfiction? Apparently, it falls into the debatable category of Creative Nonfiction–nonfiction where the author fills in gaps in the narrative with their own imagination. The book, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, was given as an example.
The writing exercise for this class was to create a small diagram about something true, then write about it. I chose to write an introduction to a biography about Douglas Adams. Again, I offer my unedited draft as an example.
I’d never met him, but I cried when Douglas Adams died. The writer died from a heart attack he sustained – – ironically– following a visit to his gym. Tears streamed down my face as I sat alone that day, secluded in grief for my literary hero. I felt like a fool. Even years later, I deeply regret I never met him or even wrote him a letter. I would never be able to tell him how much his writing meant to me. Even now, as I write this years later, my heart beats faster, my throat closes and eyes tear up just thinking about it. Would people judge me harshly for feeling so strongly the death of someone I only knew through books?
After some people shared their writing, Mr. Ricca finally revealed his secret to all writing.
- Get a day job.
- Forget about the money.
- You will need to sacrifice everything.
- Do it anyway, because you have a story to tell.
The first two points I understand from long experience and exposure, but I confess that I didn’t really understand his third point. I understand sacrificing time doing other things in order to write, but everything? I’m not sure what he meant. The fourth point seems pretty obvious to me though. Of course, we write anyway. That’s what we do. If anyone wants to share their insight into his four points, I would appreciate it.
When the class concluded, we still had time before the library closed and we were forced to leave, so we meandered throughout the two buildings. Philip is studying French in preparation for a trip, so he wanted to visit the Foreign Languages section of the library. We looked around the Makerspace in the other building as well, and then it was finally time to go home. We both left with considerably more inspiration and practical knowledge then when we arrived that morning, and we agreed it was a day well spent.
If you have not attended a writers’ conference yet this year, I hope you found the information in this post helpful. Next week I will be posting another flash fiction for Twitter’s #FridayFlash meme. Thank you, and have a lovely week.