One Story Summer Conference Day 1: Write What You Know; Write What You Don’t Know

Dear Readers: This week One Story is hosting our 8th annual Summer Workshop for Writers. Our current interns, Hannah, Olivia, and Miche will be chronicling each day here on our blog, giving a peek into what we’re doing at the Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn. Today’s write up is by Hannah Johnston. Enjoy!–LV

One Story’s eighth annual Summer Writers Conference is officially underway here in Brooklyn at the Old American Can Factory! Twenty-one talented writers from all over the country joined the One Story staff and interns on Sunday night to celebrate the start of the workshop for a cocktail reception in the OACF Canteen. The group made eager conversation over drinks and snacks, pausing for One Story cofounders Hannah Tinti and Maribeth Batcha’s brief introduction to the workshop. The cofounders also introduced the Writing Advice Wall, where participants are can make note of great writing advice they hear from speakers and in workshops throughout the week, write it down on colorful slips of paper, and clip them onto the wall. Once the remarks concluded, Hannah and Maribeth led the group on a short tour of the Can Factory, and the group returned to the Canteen to mingle for the duration of the evening.

Over the course of the coming week, Patrick Ryan and Will Allison will each lead a group of attendees in intensive workshops, where each writer will have their piece discussed by their instructor and fellow writers. In addition to the workshops, there will also be readings,craft lectures, panels, and more from authors, publishing professionals, and the editorial staff of One Story.

The first official day of the conference began on Monday with a two-and-a-half-hour workshop period. Workshops often become sacred spaces, and throughout the week it won’t be surprising to see camaraderie built among writers from the same groups.

After lunch, workshop participants attended an illuminating craft lecture from Myla Goldberg, acclaimed author of the novel Bee Season. The lecture addressed the idea of “writing what you know,” for which she had workshop writers read the short story “What You Left in the Ditch” by Aimee Bender. The story is about a brief time in the life of Mary, a woman whose husband has come home from an unnamed war after losing his lips in battle.

Goldberg made a point of encouraging writers to write about things they’re afraid to write about; to write about the unfamiliar. To do this, she explained, a writer must figure out a way to relate some aspect of the unfamiliar situation to their own emotional experience. Goldberg used Bender’s story as an example, explaining that it was unlikely that Aimee Bender has ever had such a specific experience with war or trauma resulting from war, but she most likely understands what it’s like when two people are in a relationship and one of them changes while the other remains the same.

Goldberg went on to discuss the power of empathy in writing and how it is different from sympathy. In order to engender empathy, she explained, neither writer nor reader need to have have actually experienced what the characters are experiencing, but the writer needs to find a way to make that experience real and familiar. Goldberg, an excellent lecturer with engaging energy, gave workshop attendees many tidbits of useful writing advice. She talked about “telegraphing”: how authors reveal character traits to a reader using visual clues rather than explicitly spelling them out. For example, Bender’s description of Mary’s husband’s favorite chair as “neatly dusted” signals to the reader that Mary has been taking care of his things while he was away at war, and clearly cares about his wellbeing (despite acting as if she doesn’t). In analyzing Bender’s story, the group determined that Bender was able to create familiarity and universality through her lack of time- or place-specific details, and to create empathy by showing Mary’s external and internal selves through close-third-person POV.

After Myla’s energizing talk, writers made their way back to the Canteen to conclude the day with casual social time over sweets and drinks. After some relaxing chat, the group gathered together to listen to Maribeth facilitate a “getting to know the instructors” talk with Will and Patrick, who discussed their first published works and the experiences that eventually led them to become editors for One Story.

Patrick made an interesting point about balancing his work as a writer and an editor. Early in his career, he’d been worried that reading good writing would discourage him from creating his own work. The opposite proved true. “Reading really good writing doesn’t make me not want to write,” said Patrick, “it makes me want to write even more.” It often seems daunting to both write your own work and read the excellent writing of others, but Patrick and Will each said they’ve come to the conclusion that it’s beneficial to their writing to read others’ work. Will even noted that he’ll occasionally use a “kick starter book” to take a break from writing in order to reinvigorate his creative flow. As the day came to an end, a handful of useful tips hung from the Writing Advice Wall, and many workshop attendees headed out to enjoy a nice evening in Brooklyn. Stay tuned for the low-down on day two of the One Story Summer Writers Conference!

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