The blank page is God's way of letting you know how hard it is to be God.
--Writer Craig Vetter, as quoted by writer Bob Reichle.
That saying spoke directly to the subject of Bob Reichle's workshop--"Writer's Block and Reader's Block: Nazi Voices in the Brain"--recently at the seventh annual "Writing for Your Life" conference at Loyola Marymount University.
However, most of the day's speakers--and the 500 writers and would-be writers who gathered for the conference--focused more on the pleasures and/or the responsibilities of writers than on the pains of composition. And most did not refer specifically to a higher power.
Yet religious notes were struck here and there: whether it was well-known children's book writer Jane Yolen talking about stories' mythological underpinnings, or horror novelist William Relling Jr. saying he has "exploited" elements of his "strong religious background" to make his work spookier, or mainstream writer John Irving reading excerpts from a novel-in-progress about "the persecution of a truly religious character in a society that really doesn't have any values."
How to Write Better
From 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday, high school and college students mingled with older professional and beginning writers, listened to speeches by cartoonist B. Kliban and others and chose among workshops on how to cope with literary agents and word processors, how to fix your screenplay and how to get past the secretary. But mostly they talked about how to write better--whether it be academic, public relations, newspaper, radio, play, screenplay, magazine, fiction or poetry writing. Many conference speakers emphasized what Yolen called "the most important thing about being writers--that we're storytellers," but not everyone thought stories should be told clearly. In a talk called "Ten Wrong Reasons Why I Write," novelist Chuck Rosenthal said that it was not until he learned to "forget completely about logic, causality, communication and reality" that he began to write well.
With "Loop's Progress," the fourth novel he's written but the only one that's been published, the Loyola assistant English professor said he stopped worrying about whether readers and editors would like his writing. He also disciplined himself to write 400 to 600 words a day by following the writing rule that "if you're stuck, take your characters to the zoo" to keep the story moving.
"For the most part I have no idea what I want to say until after I write it down," Rosenthal said. "I don't write in any way to portray reality. I'm more interested in language, not in communicating scenes (although) the scene setting is inevitable if you're a storyteller." However, he confessed, "It often takes a whole lot of rewriting not to make any sense."
The importance of "soldiering on" (making oneself write) was stressed by Yolen, who said she's just sold her 99th book. "One doesn't wait for inspiration to hit, rather one finds inspiration when the fingers hit the typewriter keys," she said. "You don't write for an audience, and you don't write for applause, you write because there's a story inside of you and it has to come out."
Writes on Typewriter
Yolen, who lives near Amherst, Mass., and is the president of Science Fiction Writers of America, writes both adult and children's literary fairy tales and fantasies. She gets her best ideas "in the car traveling at 55 miles an hour, in the shower, and right when I'm about to fall asleep--always places where I'm inaccessible to children or to the telephone," she said. She writes daily from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. on a typewriter rather than a computer because she's afraid of losing material through a computer glitch. "I'm like the Delphic oracle, with the stories pouring through," Yolen said, and "I literally don't remember" what's been written in a first draft.
Yolen said she's been able to write so many books while raising three children because "my husband is a saint. We eat a lot of pizza and the house is not terribly clean." Formerly a teacher, now a full-time writer and public speaker, Yolen also long ago trained her children (who are now 16, 18 and 20) to know "that unless they were bleeding from an important orifice, they should not bother me when my fingers were on the typewriter keys," Yolen said. "Other than that, I was always available."
Wrote as a Child
Yolen said she began writing as a very young child. In contrast, Bay Area cartoonist B. Kliban (who refused to say what the B stands for) did not get launched on his artistic career until after he had worked as a merchant seaman, a short-order cook, and a postal employee, among other jobs.