Taking Directions. Making Directions.

by Tony Tallent

tonytallent

We must spend about half our time taking directions and the other half making our own. This is what I have come to realize.  For the more advanced, this proportion may likely sway more toward the latter part. Still, for most of

us who love the strands of words put together that make sentences and the strands of sentences that are strung together to make a scene and then a story—the story we are working earnestly on—yes, we want directions.

The ‘most of us’ mentioned here are writers. Writers want direction. Writers seek direction. We get easily trapped in the triangulation of our imaginations, our overflowing words and our firm desire for a system of writing.  We read about the processes of other successful writers and try to apply them to our own developing processes. We are awed and inspired, but not always authentically activated. With ripe fingers on the keyboard or pens on paper we try earnestly to follow the directions laid out in the book. It works—sometimes. Yet mostly we are left sitting with a blank page or screen and trying desperately to meet the vision and direction of the writer we admire. We are able to string some words together before closing the notebook or clicking SAVE. The stories are still churning in our heads as we dream into the night and then wake into our regular lives.

Something more real must break our regular lives, we think.

What if we came face-to-face with other writers and were able to gain insight and direction from established authors and writers across the spectrum?  Those types of opportunities exist. Many of them are high-profile and high-judgment—exactly what will send many new writers running back to their blank pages.

I was one of those writers who ran back to the blank page. The blank page didn’t t give me directions.  I wrote constantly, though inconsistently and without direction. I had written and produced a somewhat successful theatre piece a few years ago, though I didn’t have a writing community to help keep me going.  I was one of those lost writers.

I moved from North Carolina to Colorado and then back to the Carolinas. I experienced life in a way I’d never dreamed, being so attached to the Carolinas.

When I returned to my home in the Carolinas I knew it was time to get more prompt and conscious about my writing.  I found my way back to the Table Rock Writers’ Workshop.  I had attended many writing  workshops, though this one had the most impact.

No one can make you more conscious of what it feels to be a writer than Abigail Dewitt. I stepped into her class and was both challenged and charmed by her structure and insight. Abigail perks you up (even on an extremely mist-covered day on the mountain) and insists that your free-writing is your insight to a full novel. She is brilliant. She listens to every word that is spoken and gives feedback to every class member. She is not one of those austere, removed instructors. When Abigail Dewitt comments on your writing—whether it be free-wheeling or close to heart, she will inspire action and direction.

With Abigail’s inspiration I have finished six full notebooks of writing in the five months since my Table Rock classes with her, working  toward a finished novel manuscript.

Now that is direction.

Writers need direction and distance to create their own way. The Table Rock Writers’ Workshop offers a perfect blend for writers—a setting that is so beautiful that you’ll want to write about it and a structure that will make you want to talk about it. Table Rock Writers’ will help you make your own direction to start (or finish) your writing project.

Here’s to getting direct.  –Tony Tallent

Tony Tallent is the Director of Literacy and Learning at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. He wrote and produced RAMBLE MOUNTAIN, an Appalachian drama in story and music. Tony writes stories and articles about libraries and speaks nationally about storytelling and the importance of libraries. He is currently working on completing a novel set in North Carolina.

Registration is now open.  Please read all of the pages of our website carefully to help make your decision about which instructor is right for you.  Every instructor will be available for conversations at mealtimes and you’ll have a chance to hear from the faculty in afternoon presentations about craft, in addition to the three-hour small group sessions in the mornings.  Please consider joining our community of serious writers. 

Creating Characters from Everyday Experience by Anna Jean Mayhew

After a trip to Wal-Mart my Swiss-born husband told me, “The man who checked me out heard my accent and asked, ‘Sprechen sie Deutsche?’ He told me that his father came over from Germany after World War II, and never learned English, so his seven children all speak German.” I began to think about someone living many years in America without speaking English, and how astonishing it was that a man with two languages—unusual in this country—would wind up clerking at Wal-Mart. What’s his story?

In my workshop at Table Rock, I’ll ask you to carry paper and pen with you at all times, and to make notes on pieces of stories you stumble on in the course of your daily life. Maybe you’re in a convenience store because you didn’t get a receipt at the gas pump. The cash register is out of paper, and while the clerk changes it, you’re compelled to wait. The clerk hollers to someone in the back of the store, “When’s Roxie getting here? I gotta go.” What is the clerk’s story? Who is Roxie, and why is he/she late? If Roxie is a man, how did he get such a feminine name? (Think of “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash) A voice from the back of the store responds, “Cool your jets.” Who is that? What has happened to make her/him grouchy?

Over the years I’ve made notes about characters I’ve stumbled on. Sometimes I use these scribbles to create a complex individual, but many of the notes are just stored on my computer, available when I need a prompt. An example: I was on my way into work and walked through a group of smokers puffing away in the bitter cold of a January morning. A man had his arms resting on a woman’s shoulders, looking her in the eyes, and I heard him tell her something as I passed by. Phonetically it sounded like, “Ah ain nuddin out chew.” I entered the building, walked down several long halls, and went up three floors on the elevator, repeating those sounds in my head. By the time I got to my office, I heard in my mind’s ear, “I ain’t nothing without you.” A sweet declaration of love. Was the couple married or had they just started dating? Was the woman a smoker, too, or was she braving the icy wind just to be with him on a coffee break? Maybe I had misinterpreted the remark, and they were a brother and sister who had recently lost their mother. What are other possibilities?

I’m going to challenge the people in my workshop to craft personalities from snippets of conversation or from seeing someone standing in line at a bus stop—any chance encounter—to create a character from found objects.

There are a few spots left in A.J. Mayhew’s workshop section at Table Rock Writers Workshop this fall. Join us September 17-21, 2012 on the Blue Ridge Parkway about an hour east of Asheville for an extraordinary experience.  See our website. Beautiful mountain views, excellent meals, noncompetitive environment of beginning and seasoned writers.

Meet Scott Huler and learn about how he’ll teach his workshop this fall at Table Rock

My class will be something of a polyglot — like my work, I guess. We’ll of course do exercises and read our work to each other every day, and if anybody has brought more-developed pieces they’d like to workshop, they’ll do that. Exercises will work both on information-gathering and on writing itself. Information-gathering, being at the core of good writing, plays a large role in what I like to work on.

But most of my teaching focuses on cultivating the habits that make writing a constant part of your daily work and get your writing in front of the readers who make writing worthwhile. Habits of working, of observation, of note-taking, of rigor in thinking and questioning.

I’m a writer of nonfiction — only nonfiction — so if you want to work on your fiction, we won’t do that, though of course all the techniques of reporting and writing that we’ll work on apply to any work you’re doing. We’ll get out of the room to go see stuff and talk about HOW to see it, and how that seeing will — must — inform your work. And we’ll talk about learning to hear a story, to let it come to you. That is, with all the tools we all now possess — video, audio, print, online — for both gathering and sharing stories, I advocate learning every new tool you can and thus being able to let the story tell you what it is. A picture with a caption? A 300-word tone poem? A 3,000-word magazine piece? A book-length study? A video involving only interviews? only music? only narration? Only shots taken with infrared, during the day, when people didn’t know you were shooting them?

Writing — storytelling — is a craft of constant decisions. We’ll talk about how to make those decisions. And yes, of course, we’ll sit and write and read to each other, and read some other stuff I think is great, but we’ll talk a lot about how we do this job of being a writer. I emphasize the job nature of writing a LOT. That is, it’s a thing you do, a product you create, and if you can’t get people to pay attention to it in a way that has meaning (financially, artistically, however) then what’s the point? So I plan to spend a good bit of time talking about treating this work like work.

I love teaching, and we tend to have fun when I teach. I think of situations like this as an opportunity for half a dozen or a dozen writers to get together and learn from each other, and I love doing that. In my own writing work I do everything from onstage live storytelling to video production; writing newspaper, magazine, and book-length nonfiction; working in radio; writing online; and telling stories for corporations, civic organizations, and governments. So I like to think if you’re doing nonfiction, I can help you at least figure out where you’re going next and then help you on the way to wherever that turns out to be.

Scott Huler will be teaching a workshop for up to 12 students, as will  A.J. Mayhew (Writing Characters), Darnell Arnoult (Memoir), and Abigail DeWitt (Novel) at this year’s Table Rock Writers Workshop.  Novelist Dawn Shamp will also be working with individual students on manuscript critiques. Memoirist, novelist, and poet Judy Goldman will be our special guest speaker.  Please consider joining us September 17-21, 2012 at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, NC.   http://tablerockwriters.com for more information and registration. Or write tablerockwriter@gmail.com