Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Message on a Styrofoam Cup

Our local chapter of SCBWI held an editor's day on Saturday, which you can read about on Lupe's blog and also on Bish's. (Check out how great Carmen Tafolla looked, by the way - that deep red dress and the turquoise rebozo and the chili pepper necklace really work for her. I hate going to events and seeing everybody all in black. But anyway.)

I don't go to a lot of meetings because if you're talking about writing you're not writing and there's that whole time/energy/money budget to deal with. But I try to go to editor and agent events in central Texas, not because I can schmooze the editors - I seldom even try - but because conference attendance provides a leap-to-the-top-of-the-slushpile card, and even a pierce-the-agents-only-veil card, for that specific editor, and listening to an editor or an agent provides valuable information. Is your work compatible with this person? Could you work with her? And so on. I don't go in for critiques because those I'm well past the point of being desperate for feedback and I don't want to take a slot somebody else needs more, but all attendees were asked to submit a "first page" (actually a synopsis for us novelists), and mine was one that was chosen to be read aloud and evaluated. My query for The Astral Palace actually sounds pretty good, read aloud, but the comments gave me a crucial piece of information.

After that, I could have left if I'd felt crappy; but it's fun to hang out with other authors and I didn't feel as crappy as all that. I wasn't expecting much from Carmen Tafolla's workshop, not because Carmen isn't brilliant but because conference workshops have an upper limit to how useful they can be. I've done them myself, and when you're faced with an hour of time, a large audience whose level of experience ranges from maybe-I-could-do-this to I-don't-need-a-day-job-and-not-'cause-my-husband-works, most of us go with exercises geared toward making a single point. Which is what she did, and I didn't do all that well at them for various reasons that don't matter, but my response to the last exercise is worth mentioning.

Tafolla told us that prisoners in Gitmo, denied access to writing implements of any kind, resorted to writing on Styrofoam cups with pebbles. She also told us that most writers have one important thing they want to say, and their body of work boils down to successive attempts to say it. This may or may not be true, though there's certainly such a thing as recurrent themes. So she asked us to write our story so it would fit on a Styrofoam cup. And for what it's worth this is what I wrote:

I can't do the styrofoam cup exercise because my stories are not messages & messages are not stories. We make our own meaning, each of us. I tell a story and I let go of it. I tell the truth & somebody else - each one else - reads it. No one else controls the meaning your reading of life.

1 comment:

  1. Good Peni! My Styrofoam cup turned into a kind of poem about my mother who died back in April and who I miss muchly. Although she was/is certainly important in my life, I don't think she's the core message in my writing in general. She just was at at that particular moment. I think the message can and does change. In fact I think it should else one could start to sound like a broken record. I think this would be a good exercise for a writer starting a novel, a method to get to the core of the story, to get to the theme.