The 2014 Aspen Summer Words, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s annual literary retreat and festival, was host to such luminaries as former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins, author Julia Glass, New York Times bestselling authors Andre Dubus III, Meg Wolitzer, and Melissa Bank, Bernard Cooper, Mary Beth Keane, and LATimes Columnist Meghan Daum, as well as respected publishers, agents, and editors.
During the festival, morning workshops were followed by afternoon and evening panels that included readings by this esteemed and generous faculty. Attendees at these public events were treated to lively on-stage conversations about the creative life and the craft of writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction.
Here are just five of many takeaways about writing — and life — that sprang from those panel discussions, in the words of the writers themselves.
On having writerly friends, and getting to one “yes:”
Authors Julia Glass and Mary Beth Keane at Aspen Summer Words in Aspen, CO. (Photo Credit: Garrett Edquist)
“There’s a strand of people helping other people. You have to find them. I found them. We all need that. Every writer from top to bottom needs that because otherwise, you are writing into a void. Even writers who say they don’t show their writing to anyone —they show it to a cricket. Find yourself a dedicated reader who first and foremost wishes you well. And secondly, someone with whom you’ve talked about books. I think that’s a really helpful thing.”
Mary Beth Keane:
“I think you need a series of things, little bread crumbs that keep you going when there are so many ups and downs… Every little act of generosity helped.”
“I think the important thing to remember is it just takes one person… Yes, you’re going to have other disappointments, whether they’re bad reviews or more rejections, but that first break means a lot… I also think it’s really important to remember — and I know this firsthand — that there are story editors, book editors, and agents out there that live to find the writer that nobody else has read and to publish that writer and to say, ‘That’s my writer. I found that writer.’”
On comedic writing:
Authors Billy Collins and Melissa Bank at Aspen Summer Words in Aspen, CO. (Photo Credit: Garrett Edquist)
“Writers think of humor [as they would a] disobedient dog. When you call its name, it runs in the opposite direction… You can’t pretend to be funny. It’s either funny or it’s not funny. You can’t think it, right? So there’s something authentic about using humor. Also, there’s a kind of addictive power to it. People who are comedians or who are comedic writers for the stage would tell you that to make people laugh is a kind of addictive power because you’re really causing an involuntary physical reaction in people. To me, it’s like pointing at someone and making them sneeze.
I think humor can access some very serious places. And I think humor, at least in poetry, can be a doorway into serious subjects. In fact, if a poem I write has humor in it, if you want to put it that way, I put it there, but I’m not trying to make people laugh for no good reason. I’m probably trying to make them laugh to disarm them. Because humor is a strategy, not an end in itself.”
“You find out how desperate people are to laugh when you give a reading and you’re not reading something funny, and they laugh anyway. Really, we are desperate, and actually I’m going to be a downer for a minute and say, it’s actually something to watch out for in your own sense of what good writing is… It is kind of addictive, but you have to remember that when you write, you’re writing for the page, and you’re writing for a private experience, and what might be funny at a reading, where people are dying to laugh, is not going to be that meaningful on the page.”
On telling the full story:
Authors Mary Beth Keane, Meghan Daum, Melissa Bank, and Andre Dubus III at Aspen Summer Words in Aspen, CO. (Photo Credit: Garrett Edquist)
“You can’t tell the whole story… The job of the artist is to narrow it down and distill it. You can’t take everything on, it would be chaos, it would be impossible.”
“There’s a sense that memoirists sit around sort of wallowing in unpleasant memories or pain, but one of the things that’s really fantastic about writing — it’s not easy, but boy is it fantastic — is that you can take all this inchoate, painful stuff and start to make sentences out of it. And I think that’s its own reward, that you can make something clear out of this weird morass of experience that someone else can enter.”
Even great writers are not always “on” — but they keep writing anyway:
Auhor Meg Wolitzer during her book signing in Aspen, CO. (Photo Credit: Garrett Edquist)
“What kept me writing was a series of rejections… My first novel was published when I was 46 years old, so I’m a great inspiration for people starting on the late side and a nightmare for everyone in their twenties.”
“I feel like when you write, you’re trying to write a bouillon-cube version of yourself… Yes, you may be writing about another character. But you are bringing something that only you bring to it, which is sensibility, and that’s a sort of ineffable term… I think you have to inflate your fiction or poetry or whatever you write, you need to inflate it with your sensibility. If it’s not saturated with your sensibility, sort of super saturated with your sensibility, it’s not going to be yours. And I think that’s something we try to do. And days that go poorly I think are days when you don’t have access to your sensibility, when you’re reaching around yourself.”
Writing is difficult… and crises of faith are part of it:
AWF Director Maurice LaMee with authors Meg Wolitzer and Andre Dubus III at Aspen Summer Words in Aspen, CO. (Photo Credit: Garrett Edquist)
Andre Dubus III:
“For me, this whole notion of writing is that the writing is larger than the writer, and it’s an act of excavating something and finding something real in your imagination. And sometimes you lose the scent, like a hunting dog, and you actually have to write your way through the brush. You actually have to write 60 or 70 dead pages you’re not excited about at all. In fact, they make you feel like you’re not a writer, you’re a loser, and everybody knows. So, I learned not to walk away from it when I’m half-stuck. But when I’m totally stuck, I do walk away for about three days. And I have to get physical. I have to go for a run, go to the dump, clean my house, build a shed. Get drunk, in fact.”
“I do the female version of that. I clean out my purse.”
Andre Dubus III:
“It does take nerve to write these things… And it takes faith that that first sentence you write will lead to the next and the next and the next. So crises of faith… I feel like I have a good writing session about twenty minutes into a three-hour session every seventeen days. And I’m not exaggerating… I’ve learned to go wherever the writing wants to go, and that’s scary.”