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Fishtrap: On Being A Writer by Johanna Harness

While planning our summer activities, I originally thought maybe my daughter could come with me to the Fishtrap Writing Conference at Wallowa Lake in Oregon. They have youth workshops and scholarships available.  She applied for one.  We waited.

In the meantime?  That same daughter’s National History Day essay placed second in the Idaho state contest, giving her a chance to compete at the national competition in Washington, D.C.  The only catch?  Considerable travel expenses.  Our priorities shifted:  we absolutely had to get this kid to D.C.

We assumed Fishtrap wasn’t in the cards for us this year.

Then my sweet kiddo received a scholarship to Fishtrap and somehow things flipped.  She was no longer going to Fishtrap with me; I was now going with her.

The funds for my workshop were well-spent on that D.C. trip and I would make the same decision again with no hesitation, so there was no point spending time with my face pressed up against the window.  I was going as a chaperone and, for me, this would be a writing retreat rather than a conference.  And really, as a retreat, it was pretty darn idyllic.

We stayed in a tent, my daughter and I—and it was the first time the two of us had been camping without the rest of our family.

We paid for meals at camp and they fed us very well (something I’ve learned from other conferences not to take for granted).

Each morning, bird song increased in volume as the dawn approached.  (This original form of tweeting held me accountable to the page, even without an internet connection.)

Each morning I rolled out of my sleeping bag and, with no one to greet or tweet, I fell right into my writing warm-up.

By the time my daughter rose to make her way to early-morning yoga, I was 2,500 words in.

After breakfast, while everyone else disappeared into workshops, I slipped into my writing spot (the top photo was taken from that spot)—and I hit the keyboard.

After 5,000 words, I’d break for a shower—probably talking to myself and appearing utterly-nutty by then.

By lunchtime, I was half-glazed over, lost between a fantastic world of my own making and a surreal world of well-known authors and their kids.

Did I mention the authors?  David James Duncan. Jamie Ford. Luis Alberto Urrea. Hal Cannon. Teresa Jordan. Luci Tapahonso. Marjorie Sandor. Ellen Waterston. Myrlin Hepworth. Kirsten Rian. Listing the names feels less like name-dropping and more like name-lifting,  each spoken with thanks.

In the afternoons, we’d go hiking and exploring. The short hike to Iwetemlaykin was breath-taking.

Red Horse Coffee Traders was another of our favorite destinations—a place where we enjoyed house-roasted beans and a wi-fi connection.  The people there were so welcoming and hospitable.  I can’t say enough good about them.

In the evenings we’d return to camp for dinner, readings, performances, campfires. I’m a crazy introvert, I made little effort to put myself out there and talk to people, and I had a wonderful time.

This conference was unlike any other I’ve attended.  There were no agents invited. There were no hour-long workshops to and from which attendees ran back and forth all day.

Participants chose one well-respected author and learned from that author in a small-group setting every morning for a week.  In the evenings, the entire group (including kids, chaperones, community members)—all met together for presentations, readings, and discussions. The sense of community and belonging–the feeling that we were there as a family of writers—it overwhelmed me.

The self-proclaimed goal of Fishtrap is, “promoting clear thinking and good writing in and about the West.”  Our theme for this year was, “Catch and Release: What we hold on to, what we let go, and the one that got away.” Cars in the lot had bumper stickers that read, “Keep it Rural.”

The fact that we raise sheep on our tiny parcel of land, the fact that we homeschool, the fact that we think independently and respectfully about ours and others’ religious and spiritual perspectives, the fact that we help each other without keeping score, even the fact that we willingly (even willfully) chose to stay in a tent—none of these things seemed unusual in this setting.  No one gave us that look—the one that says our eccentricity might be crossing the line into inappropriate rural proclivities. (Yes, we did keep and milk goats for a time. Who hasn’t?)

Even my starry eyes, half-focused on another world, seemed more than welcome here.

“I wrote all morning. I’m a little out of it,” I’d say.

“Good for you!” would come the answer.

“Keep going,” someone else would say.

“You’ll get it done,” says another. “People with your determination always do.”

No one asked me for my prepared novel pitch, although more than one listener smiled at my book’s setting: an Idaho of the future where citizens are expected to live in cities and rural life is outlawed.

“Show them why we matter,” one woman told me.

It’s a tall order.

So what did I learn this week?  I guess I learned things I already knew, but had nearly forgotten.

I learned that being a writer requires staying in the moment—being in the moment.

I learned that, without the internet, I cannot flip to another screen every time the going gets tough.  I can’t check just one email or just one tweet.  I can’t look up a word to make sure it has the connotation I’m seeking.  I can’t do just a spot of research on the internet. I can’t check to see if tomorrow’s #amwriting blog post is on the schedule.

When I’m in the middle of a tough scene, sometimes the only thing to do is sit with it, in stillness.

Sometimes letting the discomfort wash over me is the only right thing to do.

I learned that I spend too much time running away from myself in one-minute intervals.

I learned that, if I want the tapping of keys again, sometimes I have to be satisfied with too-painful silence.

I learned that being a writer is all you need to be welcome in the presence of other writers.

I learned that I can run to the most remote of writing conferences and still someone will recognize me from #amwriting.

I learned that the kids at Fishtrap are creative and fearless.  While adults are worrying about publishing options and the price of ebooks, those kids are honing their skills.  If we don’t pay attention, they’re going to pass us by.  It might already be too late.

Ooh—and I learned I like wild salmon—at least the way it’s prepared by Joe McCormack.  Not since my father fed me pan-seared trout, fresh from the lake, have I eaten any fish I liked.  One bite from the grill of Joe McCormack becomes a stronger argument for saving salmon than a pound of words—or at least it makes a damn fine introduction.

I learned that sometimes we have to supplement our words with shared experience.  Walking together, camping together, sharing a meal together, clearing each others’ plates and dishes—these things build community.  They create a place where even David James Duncan felt moved to trash his polished speech and take some risks on a brand new talk—a place where anything can happen.

 

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Disappointed Writers by Johanna Harness

Baxter the houselamb, sheepI’ve heard it said that sheep spend their time at pasture looking for ways to die.  They’re relatively stoic creatures, so by the time they act sick, it’s often too late. They seem fine one day and they’re dead the next.

Writers are apparently the same way with disappointment.  While not writing, we look for ways to feel bad about ourselves.

Last week I attended a conference with a wildly-successful writer who just turned in her eighteenth book.

“Wow,” I said.

She held thumb and forefinger barely apart. “They’re thin,” she answered.  “I’m actually getting dumber with every passing day.”

She’s not, of course, but she swears she is.

Another writer on twitter tells stories that tunnel right through to my heart.  I laugh out loud.  I cry.  His explorations change the way I see life and enrich my perceptions of my Kansas heritage.

And yet he worries about apostrophes and sentence structure.  He thinks he’s not good enough to be a “real writer.”  I tell him that he damn well is and that writing is so much more than a sum of grammatical parts.  Any editor can fix those tiny things.

And I’m sure he thinks I’m humoring him–because he is, after all, a writer.  The only thing we fear more than rejection is false praise.

Another friend confesses that, despite glowing reviews, she worries because she’s been often nominated, but never selected, for any prestigious award.

Another with a Ph.D. worries she’ll look stupid because she does not have the vocabulary to talk about novel writing.

I can shake my head, but who am I kidding?  I’ve been writing long enough to survive multiple episodes of dark days and doubt.  My last had me wondering about famous writers and that stroke of genius that makes them who they are.  No matter what they write, we hear that quality in their voice and we love them.  And so, just like a sheep contemplating lethal ways to get her head stuck in a fence, I ask myself, “What if my writing has an opposite effect on readers?  What if that thing that makes me special is the one thing no one wants?”

And yet we persist.

This week at Idaho Writers and Readers Rendezvous, Mary Clearman Blew reiterated the importance of tenacity for writers.  She said you can often tell when writers are going to give up.  “You can just feel them veering off and thinking they’d rather have a life.”

I laugh because I’ve cornered myself into such a negative ending.  As a writer primed for disappointment, having a life sounds amusing and fun. So what was my point?

Oh yes.  Not every stoic sheep is dying.  And not every disappointed writer wants to quit.  Some of us are just really good at getting our heads stuck in fences and wailing about it. It’s what we do. And then we write about it.

 
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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in conferences, writers, writing

 

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In praise of small conferences by Johanna Harness

SCBWI Regional Conference in Boise

Big conferences provide excellent opportunities for brush-with-greatness stories. Sitting behind that famous agent, saying hello to a dream editor, sharing an elevator and small talk with a big-name author: these are certainly moments to remember.

Small conferences offer more than moments.

In 2009, I attended my first little gathering and ended up having a long chat with Lin Oliver, one of the two founders of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).  She listened while I awkwardly described my book and then assured me I belonged. Remembering that conversation still brings tears to my eyes.  It would have been a thrill just to hear her speak.  At the local gathering, she changed the trajectory of my career.

The next fall, I traveled to Utah for the SCBWI conference in Salt Lake City.  Not only did I have wonderful conversations with Laurent Linn, Elizabeth Law, and Royce Buckingham, but I also attended my first workshop with Terri Farley, an author I now count among my writing friends.

You’re seeing the pattern, yeah?

At bigger conferences, I’ve been thrilled to see wonderful authors across the room.  At these smaller events, we talk.

A couple years ago I talked with Chris Crutcher at a local conference in Boise.  This last winter he was keynote speaker for the big SCBWI conference in New York.

That same year in Boise, I met Kelly Milner Halls, Jill Corcoran, and Cheryl Klein.

Kate Testerman of KT Literary

Does it seem like I’m name dropping?  Because it should. There may not be a surplus of big names at each conference, but the quality of time spent with each guest and the cumulative effect over time?  Wow.  Just wow.

Last weekend, I attended at my 4th local SCBWI conference and my teenage daughter attended her first.

We learned so much from Alane Ferguson’s workshop and from talks given by Gloria Skurzynski (Alane’s uber-talented mom) and Matthew Kirby (who looks like Alane’s son, but we’re assured the Edgar-nominated author is not). We talked with Kate Kae Myers and Sarah Tregay. We sat at a table with Kate Testerman, Amy Cook, Miriam Forster, and maybe the most important person there:  Neysa Jensen, the new Regional Advisor for the Utah-Idaho Region of SCBWI.  Together with Sydney Salter, Neysa has been instrumental in bringing all these iconic authors, agents, and editors within driving distance of my Idaho home.

Alane Ferguson, Matthew Kirby, and Gloria Skurzynski

Alane Ferguson, Matthew Kirby, and Gloria Skurzynski

If you write for kids or young adults, you owe it to yourself to find out what’s happening in your SCBWI region.  If you write romance, find out what Romance Writers of America has to offer in your region.  If you write mysteries, check out Mystery Writers of America.  Whatever your genre, there’s probably a professional organization that’s right for you—and they just may have a conference coming up in your area. You should go!

 

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