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Tag: Humanities Montana

Writing Panel Notes, Part 4

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Babes in the Woods: Nature Writing / Memoir
Panel members: Marjane Ambler, Christine Byl, Jo Deurbrouck, Gail Storey
Moderator: Andrea Peacock
Panel description: Pushing against expectations for nature writing/memoir—too often associated with the male voice–four female writers discuss how their outdoor experiences changed their lives, and their writing. Their personal stories offer a lens to view larger stories.

MA: My husband was hired by the National Park Service and I went as a spouse. We stayed in Yellowstone until 1993. I had a career that I could take with me for long walks although it was not strictly an individual experience. My book is about community in an unintended community of twelve people. It wasn’t strictly about nature. There were snowmobile problems so it was more man vs. machine than man vs. nature.

JD: My Dad was from Montana. He saw no reason to change his ways. He loves people from a distance–and I take after him. My book is set in Idaho with a protagonist who is a bear of a man where freedom is everything.

GS: I think nature should stay outside. My husband had worked in a hospice but his career was in crisis. Eventually he resigned from his job and decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I didn’t think that I would like it since I sensed it was not my thing. The learning curve was steep. So did I want to stay in bed or go with my husband on the trail? I decided to go–for conjugal rights. One night when my husband was staying up sewing up the gear, I said that sewing for some people was a sublimation for sex. But then sex is sublimation for those who can’t sew their own gear. I think self and the natural world has permeability. It’s the who am I question.

CB: I consider my book as an accident. I did not draw upon myself as a character. I had never written about Montana. But when I went to Alaska, I started writing about Montana. Stories about the crew is like ethnography. It’s an apprenticeship from naivety to mastery and competence. The term “nature writing” is almost meaningless now. I want to drop that.

Mod: You make the point that women are writing these stories. Why is that important?

MA: The subject matter is related to looking at people. Marriages, people working with each other, other communities that were totally dysfunctional. Women are important in the community fabric–they organize potlucks so people don’t dwell on things at home. The majority of books about the park service are written by ranger men. There was no history about the spouses. Spouses are key to the functioning of rangers long before women were hired.

JD: In many books, women are subtext. A male interviewer asked a mountaineer why he climbed the mountain and he replied that he climbed it because it was there. The interviewer didn’t ask about anything else. A woman interviewer wouldn’t stop with that question. A reviewer for my book said that he felt like a voyeur. But don’t you want to know what’s in the character’s mind?

GS: Following a man into wilderness may seem retro, but it was really a story about marriage. My mother was a feminist. I had the desire to be a great wife, something that my mother didn’t have. My husband already had an ex-wife, a son, and working at the hospice and I didn’t have him to myself. So by hiking the trail with him, I had him 24/7. It’s about trust.

CB: Gender is important in context. Women are a minority in subculture–you have to deal with it as the only woman on a crew. Being a woman is only one part of defining yourself. It’s not really about a woman in a man’s world. It’s anyone’s world. It’s a human story.

Mod: There’s a degree of absurdity in all of your books. There’s “manufactured adventures.” Does that make you lose your sense of wilderness?

MA: Absurd? Yes, indeed. We didn’t realize it was absurd until after the book came out. There’s a certain amount of self protection involved. You don’t get scared on the trail and you don’t admit to cabin fever–because if you do, you can’t do your job.

JD: It’s about how passion shapes and create lives. You have oddball adventures because everything has been done–so what to do now?

GS: While my husband was sewing gear, I threw dinner parties for my friends so it would be the last time I saw them if I died on the trail. I like being a domestic homemaker–I had never camped before. I was terrified of camping. My husband is a gourmet at camping food. So I was in charge of nesting when we made camp. I got the rocks so something wouldn’t get us in the night. I became stronger and discovered the deep feminine in the natural world. One time, I was frustrated that my husband always walked ahead so I ran ahead–and came face to face with a mountain lion. It was then I realized the deep feminine.

CB: Nature is totally absurd. Weather is absurd. The way bushes grow along the roads is absurd. There’s a tension between domestication and the absurdity of wilderness. We’re blurring the lines of wilderness and culture. It’s a good thing we set aside wilderness a long time ago or we’d be fucked. It’s a grounded absurdity, pushing against the perception that we’re in control.

Mod: There’s an undercurrent of Buddhism in your works. What is it about the natural world that lends itself to this mindset?

CB: There’s something about egolessness. You drop your guard. It’s possible when you’re grounded in your body and work.

GS: There’s a chapter in my book called “Blowing Away.” In the middle of the night, a huge wind came up. My husband left me alone and the wind blew me in the sleeping bag across the mountain. This was similar to the three months that we spent at a Buddhist monastery. When it’s quiet, things come up. The old self bubbles up. At the Buddhist retreat, we had a failed experience in camping. We didn’t have tent stakes so were were also blown away. It was raining so we ended up going back to the meditation hall for the night. We woke up with the meditators laughing at us. I’m interested in the essential self–and the awareness that we are deeper than our spiritual selves.

JD: I’ve tried, but I don’t understand it. I just hurt my knees. In one book, there is a cattle guard painted on a highway. It works on cows and humans. Boundaries are for the domesticated. We create boundaries, but the natural world doesn’t recognize them.

MA: Sometimes I get into a deep meditative state. It’s like when a bear is in the area and you become very aware.

GS: I’m curious about the structure of your books.

MA: It was a transition. It took twenty years for the book to become a book. It began as articles in journalism. There were rejections. I set it aside and then got a job where I had time to work on it. I used the structure from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a backbone to hang the articles on it. But it required me to be the hero–a flawed hero. It was the only way to tie the experiences together.

JD: I love books that transcend type. Good books have layers of reality for different people and tension between the layers. Different tellers each have different truths.

CB: The structure of my book is why it’s a book. The backbone is a musing of what was needed for work. There’s an underlying chronological time line, but there are also pieces. The sense of place is fractured. It’s not linear. A place feels different over time. You don’t necessarily like it more the longer you’re there.

GS: My original idea was to juxtapose my journal with my husband’s journal to have two versions of the same event. But when I started comparing, I realized that his journal was just about food and God. His journal was ecstatic while my own journal was, “What the fuck am I doing here?” Mine was not sympathetic. When you’re hiking, it’s not peaceful. The mind gets busy with old trains of thoughts and issues. So my book showed different parts of life (like the blowing away events). I needed some way to let the reader know where we were. So the events on the trail were chronological. But the interior journey jumped around. My chapters had mileage headings.

Audience question: It’s difficult to balance the nature writing of elegiac disasters with hopeful memoirs. Can you speak about it?

CB: The elegiac mode is a certain strain of modern nature writing. Older nature writing is more optimistic. Me, I’m still trying to figure out the balance between hope and despair.

JD: I got defriended by a nature writer because I said that nature writing is not just about nature. It’s not just about the non-human centered world.

CB: It’s a web that we’re changing and destroying.

GS: Hope arises when change begins with ourselves. Despair is when people are still in deconstruction. We need to deconstruct the physical, the emotional, the psychological and finally the spiritual. If we’re collective, there’s hope.

JD: I’m bothered by the term “wilderness” in nature writing and the natural world.

CB: Despair is capitalism since you need to medicate. For hope, you don’t have to buy something to solve your problems.

Audience question: I don’t see a collective. I see conflict and people in denial.

GS: I agree, but we’re letting ourselves collectively fall apart. Even though people are different, there’s the shadow self of our culture.

Writing Panel Notes, Part 1

On October 12, 2013, I went to Humanities Montana’s Festival of the Book. The following are my notes from one of the writing panels I attended. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Romancing the Novel
Panel members: Angela Breidenbach, Janet Fox, Elizabeth Lowell, Kat Martin, Danica Winters
Moderator: Melanie Calahan
Panel description: Every four seconds, it is said, a romance novel published by Harlequin is sold somewhere in the world. And that’s just one publisher. Romance might not get the respect (or the Nobel nominations) that literary fiction receives but it’s a force to be reckoned with. Writers of a variety of “romance” novels—romantic suspense, young adult, historical paranormal, inspirational—talk about their work, their passions, and the power of romance.

Panel: They write romance novels because there’s a happy ending. Romances are “not in the box.” 50% of all books sold are romances. There’s character building in romances. People say that they don’t read romances and that romance writers are writing smut. But people who don’t write romance say that they write people falling in love but there’s also death and killing. Then again, some romance novels also have death and killing…

EL: I’ve been told that I write girly sci-fi–but they said that because I had a man and a woman in the story. At that point, I hadn’t read any romance yet and I had written mysteries with my husband. I had someone tell me that what I wrote was pornographic, but I don’t consider making love pornographic.

AB: Reminds me of the line “you complete me” from Jerry McGuire.

Mod: In the movie As Good As It Gets, the main character is an author who gets the question, “How do you write a woman as a man?” He responds that he writes a man and takes away reason and accountability. So how do you write men as women?

EL: Most people don’t consider it, but characters aren’t based on modernism or existentialism. They’re based in myth and what I value in a man. So I give my characters those values. I can’t think as a man and I can’t expect him to think like me, but there’s overlap and shared views.

AB: I observe and listen to what they say. Men have different verbiage. As an editor, I send a manuscript back if the male character sounds like a woman. Men don’t say “flee.” One guy told me, “We men are brain damaged and don’t appreciate the finer things in life.” Men in general use more vehement, strong words. If I use strong words, then my husband knows something is wrong.

JF: Having a son, having boys in your life is helpful. How boys approach life is different. I approach the story as who the people are. The characters may come from the same emotional place, but then I layer in archetypal differences to present the character fully.

KM: I prefer writing men. When I had been a real estate agent long ago, everyone in the workplace were men. I identify with them so men are the star of my books.

DW: I grew up with alpha men where they stayed in the woods, whiskey-soaked. I think putting them into books is wonderful. Readers like alpha men. And when you get to know them, they’re actually warm and caring. I have a four year old boy who once asked me for a “girl sandwich.” He actually meant “grilled cheese.”

AB: Men are all about the food.

Audience question: Do you plot out your story? Are your stories plot or character driven?

DW: They’re character driven, but you have to plot. You need to know how it ends, especially for those on the panel who write books in four months or less.

EL: I cut out the loops. I begin my stories with the place. If the character grew up in the mountains, they would have a different view of the world compared to someone in the city. They would have different views on silence, noise, and bustle. How the character grew up there is the character’s personal geography. This creates a thoughtful landscape of the mind. Then I plot.

JF: I’m an organic writer and discovered that it is hard to impose structure afterwards. So now I mix plotting and pantsing. The setting is also a character.

AB: In an anthology (Quilts of Love), the theme was, “Every quilt has a story–tell yours.” So I had a character who had a heart attack and looks at a photo and remembers past events. Then I asked, what if the character has a business to lose, etc. Then I take the plot (a short synopsis) where every page of the story is summarized by two lines. I write organically as the scenes come to me.

Audience question: In romance, many elements are similar. How do you keep things fresh?

EL: Why do you come to any genre again and again? For romances, there’s a man and a woman. In sci-fi, readers expect more about the world than the character. In mystery, the characters solve a mystery. I don’t find romance constraining just because there’s a man and a woman. All popular fiction has that core of expectation. People don’t spend money on what they don’t want. If you’re not enthralled with your story, your reader will be bored to sleep.

AB: In romance, it’s said to occur in an intimate place–the mind. Humans are born for love. There’s not a soul that doesn’t want love. Every story is unique to the author.

JF: Each author brings something fresh to the table. You have to love what is on the page and the character. I’m now working in sci-fi and young adult, but they still have romance. If two human beings are attracted to each other, then it’s romance.

KM: I have more plotting. To come up with a fresh story, it also depends on setting. For one story, I wanted to set it in Houston but didn’t know what to write about. Then my husband suggested that since Houston is an oil area, I could write about that and involve the Saudis.

EL: When I get a story idea that strangles all the other ideas, I write that one. It has to be the strongest.

DW: For me, it’s the accumulation of choices for the character. If you read most romance characters, they’re the same, but they make different choices.

EL: Each character needs individuality to come alive. If you think of your character as Joe Schmoe, then the character becomes Joe Boring.

Audience question: Do the power dynamics in your stories shift?

Panel: Yes.

EL: The power balances will depend on the people. But in a bad relationship, they’ll be always worrying about the power balance.

AB: I took a relationship test with my husband and discovered that we were the opposite. In writing, build the character out of their strengths and weaknesses.

JF: Use power words. Drop -ly, -ing. Most writers are psychologists on some level. Power dynamics are always with two people. The dynamics can change quickly depending on topic. In my case, I play the power dynamics as a backdrop. In young adult fiction, there’s not as much range, but it’s all about the psychology of the character.

KM: Power dynamics change as the characters get to know each other and respect each other. They don’t have the same strengths.

DW: As a personal story, when I first saw my husband, I decided that he was the man I was going to marry. Respect came later.

AB: The woman has to like the man. In my book, I had a character who wouldn’t do something. So I turned it around to force them to do it and see how they react.

EL: Emotion is important. You have to have a man who is capable of feeling something other than anger. The man should be able to lean on women. You don’t need your characters to marry, but they do need love.

Audience question: How was your path and process from a non-writing life to a writing one?

DW: I was an archaeologist before, but I’ve written since first grade. At 18 I had cancer and decided that I wanted to write and entertain others with stories that promised a happily ever after. I wanted to change people’s minds with words.

KM: My husband was writing a historical novel and gave it to me to edit. While I was editing, I thought that I could do this. So in my 30s, I had a story–a western–tried it and found what I wanted to do in life. Eventually I sold that first novel after a lot of rejections. Don’t quit.

JF: I had been writing before, but it was just dabbling. Then my mother died which precipitated the question: what was the purpose of life? Now I have an MFA and write young adult. Writing is part of what I do every day. It’s tenacity, willingness to learn, and to keep writing.

AB: It started when I was four years old–I liked sci-fi/fantasy and Disney. English or music. But then I raised six kids and even though I wrote in my twenties, it was dangerous because other people tore me down. Then I went to the local RWA chapter, went to writing workshops, etc., and I was driven to be published.

EL: I’ve always been told that I was a good writer by teachers, but I didn’t consider it. I went into geology instead, but my professor told me that if I went into geology, I would be forced to follow a man in the field, even if he wasn’t as good as me. So I switched to English. When I was pregnant, I read all the books in the library and decided to write a sci-fi book, which got rejected several times. Writing utilized a part of me that hadn’t been used.

Mod: Is every path unique?

EL: If you want to be published, it’s like standing in the rain for a long time before lightning strikes.

KM: Go to writing classes and learn the craft.

AB: Understand the difference between critique and criticism.