Aspen Words Director Maurice LaMee moderates a discussion on the creative writing process with authors Richard Russo, Hannah Tinti, and Akhil Sharma. (Photo Credit: Barbara Dills)
Aspiring writers, booklovers, acclaimed authors, and publishing experts descended on Aspen, Colorado, this past June for the 39th annual Aspen Summer Words. The week-long celebration of words, stories, and ideas is hosted by Aspen Words, a literary arts program of the Aspen Institute. The line-up of acclaimed authors and writing workshop instructors included: Richard Russo, Ann Hood, Hannah Tinti, Akhil Sharma, Andre Dubus III, and Dani Shapiro. Several literary agents and editors were also on hand to provide attendees with insider advice on publishing.
In a series of seven panel discussions, these literary experts covered the many stages of writing — from finding inspiration to drafting, revising, getting published, and everything in-between. Though all the author panelists have best-selling and critically-acclaimed books, they described varied approaches to their craft and offered distinct advice to the aspiring writers in attendance. The following are their top insights into the creative process.
On getting started
Many of the authors agreed that beginning a new work is often the most challenging phase of the creative process. Dani Shapiro, whose most recent book is “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life,” compared a writer beginning a book to a swimmer moving towards the end of a diving board.
“You can’t look down and see there’s water in the pool. You have to take this leap and really not know. Risk really means risk. You have to think: ‘I may spend six years on this book, and it won’t work out,’ and you really have to just do it.”
Dani Shapiro discusses the challenges of beginning the writing process with respect to her latest book, “Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.” (Photo Credit: Barbara Dills)
On keeping the work private
In taking this risk and diving into a creative project, novelist, memoirist, and two-time Summer Words faculty member Andre Dubus III underscored the importance of keeping a new piece of work private.
“It’s very hard not to prematurely anticipate the audience and prematurely anticipate having a book with your name on it. That premature anticipation of the reader will prevent you from writing the best book you can.”
On dark and personal subjects
Another challenge comes from the exploration of dark and private places in writing.
Almost all of the panelists had written memoirs or semi-autobiographical novels about painful experiences in their own lives. Ann Hood’s 2009 memoir, “Comfort: A Journey Through Grief,” is about the sudden death of her five-year-old daughter; Dubus III’s memoir, “Townie,” is the story of his violent childhood in a depressed Massachusetts mill town; Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life” is loosely based on his own family’s experience after an accident that left his brother severely brain-damaged.
In writing about personal tragedy, the authors cautioned that it should never be an attempt to settle a score with someone and should stay close to the subjective emotions of the writer. Hood offered some frank advice: “As a writer, part of what you do is you go to these hard places; or your writing doesn’t really matter, does it?”
The authors had mixed feelings about the revision process: for some, editing offers a welcome change-of-pace after months or years of generating material for a new book. For others, editing might lead to a complete re-write of the book, which can mean discarding pages and pages of work. In the case of Sharma, it took 12 years and 7,000 draft pages to distill his novel “Family Life” into it’s final 218-page version, which was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2014 by the New York Times. After all those drafts, how did Sharma know the book was close to done?
“It was when certain qualities began to appear in the prose. In my version of life, really wonderful things are right next to idiocy. So when I began to see sentences like ‘my father stood outside beneath the stars and brushed his teeth until his gums bled.’ I thought, aha, it’s nearly cooked.”
Akhil Sharma greets fans and signs books at the 39th annual Aspen Summer Words. (Photo Credit: Barbara Dills)
On the business side of writing
While much of Summer Words focuses on craft and creativity, it’s impossible to ignore the business side of writing. To that end, Aspen Words brings literary agents and editors to the conference for private consultations with workshop students and to speak on a panel. The goal is to help aspiring writers better understand the marketplace and the publishing process.
Finding the right agent is an important first step in getting a book published, since major publishing houses do not accept unsolicited submissions and rely on literary agents to bring them manuscripts. Brettne Bloom, a visiting agent from The Book Group, advised writers to read the acknowledgements of books similar to theirs, since the author almost always thanks their agent.
Once an author and agent agree to work together, the agent then tries to sell the book to an editor at a publishing house. Once the book has sold, the editor and author further revise the manuscript before the final version goes to print. This editing can take months or even years. As Kendra Harpster, executive editor at Penguin Random House put it, “A book is not a blog post or a magazine article or a tweet. A book lives forever, and you want to take time to get it right.”
For many participating writers, Summer Words is one of many steps in their creative process — an opportunity to get feedback on their work, to be inspired, and to find a community of writers to help along the way.