Monday, February 2, 2015

On Being a Writer: What I Learned from a Gargoyle

Ask my wife this question: “Is your husband an extrovert or an introvert?”

And she would say one of the following:

“You mean the guy who totally freaks at the idea of a cocktail party where you make small talk? Especially cocktail parties where he doesn’t know a soul?”

“You mean the guy who thinks a group thing is having two or three books to read at the same time?”

“That guy?”

A few years ago, I attended a two-day conference of the Missouri Writers Guild. I did not know a soul. Not one. I hadn’t even heard of any of the speakers, the published writers attending, or the agents and editors attending. Not a single person.

High anxiety time.

I had signed up for an editor’s critique of a work in progress (the prologue to what became Dancing Priest; I cut it entirely from the published book). I had also signed up for a pitch session with an agent and a group reading and critique session.

The editor was encouraging; the agent was not (he was looking for the next Twilight manuscript, and was touting the merits of a novel about a late night radio host who happened to be a werewolf on the side). But it was the group reading and critique session that was worth the price of the conference, at least for me. And it was something that I taught myself.

Twelve of us, all unpublished writers, sat around a large circular table. The session as led by an agent, a gravelly-voiced woman from New York City who might have been the original for the stereotyped agent.

We had to bring two copies of our writing with us, one for the agent and one presumably for each of us to read. That turned out to be half right. The agent received one copy, and the person sitting to our right received the other copy. We were going to read our neighbor’s manuscript. When the agent explained that, with a mischievous smile, 12 faces around the table looked suddenly terrified.

It’s one thing to read your own words aloud. It’s quite another when a total stranger is going to read your words aloud.

We passed our manuscripts to our neighbors on the right. I quickly looked over what my neighbor had given me to read. My heart sank. It was bad. Poor sentence construction, Grammar mistakes. Misspelled words. And it started with a gargoyle atop something local cultural institution’s building deciding to come alive by throwing pieces of itself at below on the sidewalk below. (I’m embarrassed to say that I thought it might be a great fit for that agent and his werewolf.)

The readings were rather perfunctory. We were all somewhat unnerved at the idea of reading each other’s words aloud. Eleven of us played it safe and read in mostly monotone voices. I didn’t. I knew I had to do something to save this awful piece of writing sitting in front of me.

I read it like poetry. I used a mildly dramatic voice, with inflection and emphasis and emotion.

When I finished and looked up, I saw the agent staring at me, She knew exactly what I had done; she had followed along the text as I read the words aloud. She knew I had taken Charlie Brown’s pitiful Christmas tree with its needles almost gone and turned it into some his sister Lucy would be proud of. The author sitting on my left was wide-eyed at how her words sounded aloud.

I realized what I had done – I had taught myself a lesson. And the lesson was about voice and emphasis, about how reading aloud was a very different proposition than writing, even when the same words were involved. I also taught myself something about point-of-view, and that a manuscript might benefit by adding poetic elements to it.

“At some point, we can make room in the world, and in our lives, for the presence of other writers,” says Charity Craig in On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life That Lasts  (co-authored with Ann Kroeker). “Why not? We will sit next to them at conferences, see their names on Facebook, find their comments on our blogs. We’ll recognize their work in the publications that rejected ours. We will buy their books. And find ourselves in their words.”

She was exactly right. I found myself in the badly written words about a gargoyle coming to life on top of a building.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been writing about On Being a Writer, which I can’t recommend highly enough. This chapter was entitled “Engage.” 

Photograph by Charles Rondeau via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Ann Kroeker said...

Glynn, I can imagine your voice bringing life to a struggling manuscript--and your heart behind it, your choice to honor the effort and learn something from the experience. You mine life deep and always fine some jewel. Thank you for attending to words with such care.

Mary Sayler said...

Fresh perspective! Also makes me wonder if most poets feel the same. (I do!) Thanks, Glynn. I'll highlight this on the Christian Poets & Writers blog -