Saturday, June 18, 2011

Home from Utah

I’m back from five intense and wonderful days teaching at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Workshop held on the manicured grounds of the posh Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Each morning I taught a four-hour critique-based class to fourteen extraordinarily motivated writers, and for the rest of the time I attended stimulating talks by my fellow faculty members, and gave a couple of talks myself.

Highlights of the week:

A talk by National Book Award finalist Kathleen Duey supposedly on the topic of “scene layering,” but actually on dozens of topics that provided glimpses into her fascinating writing process. Among her great lines: “The assignment for every writer is to get you to read the next sentence.” Among her boldest instructions: “Don’t outline! Force your characters to act on their own.” This, she claims, and I think I may almost be persuaded, is the key to elevating mere craft into art. In lieu of outlining, she starts with a character and “interviews” him until he finally yields up his story.

A talk by National Book Award finalist Martine Leavitt on theme. Theme, Martine says, asks a question; “message” or “moral” delivers an answer. Martine argues that message/moral-driven writing is disrespectful of the reader, an attempt to make children convert to social conformity. In an impromptu author panel following her stunning talk, I gamely tried to defend the contrary point of view: isn’t there a role for some fiction that attempts to deliver a powerful searing message? (E.g., my childhood favorite, The Hundred Dresses, with its unforgettable indictment of prejudice.) But Martine did make a powerful anti-message case.

A talk by brilliant and hilarious Carol Lynch Williams, who SHOULD be a National Book Award finalist and winner, on using real life in our stories: how to shape real life into a more interesting shape that can provide a satisfying story arc, when we go too far in making fiction track real life. One dazzling line from her forthcoming book: “I still believe in God. But I don’t know if God believes in me.”

And finally, a potluck reception on a perfect Utah June evening at The King’s English independent bookstore in Salt Lake City, a charming, book-filled readers’ paradise. It’s hard to imagine a more appealing store or a more supportive community of writers than I met that evening.

Now: unpacking, laundry, and preparing to leave on Wednesday for the Children's Literature Association conference held this year on the campus of Hollins University in Roanoke. Whew!


  1. To wonderful blog reader Denece who left me the chocolates: I can't find your email to write you to thank you, but I loved them and love you for giving them to me!

  2. I sat in your last session on Friday at the conference. You have a positive healthy self-esteem and I loved how that revealed itself as you tried to silence our demonic voices. You succeeded with mine. Thank you.

  3. Thanks, Bonnie, for those kind words. I've had a lot of practice hearing those voices and trying to silence them, believe you me!

  4. You are most welcome.
    Oh, that I had been able to sit at your feet all week.
    Of all the weeks of the year, that was the only week I could NOT rearrange. I hope to attend next year.

    Thank you for the synopsis!

    Have fun on your next adventures.