Sunday, November 09, 2014

A Haven of Writers

Everything I need: my computer and my community

I spent this past week immersed in the amazing community that is Writer Unboxed. If you are a writer and are not familiar with it, then you are missing out on some of the best people on the ‘net. The WU blog is a repository of wisdom on living the (often chaotic, lonely, and difficult) life of the writer. Articles on craft sit side by side with ones on the publishing business and nurturing the creative spirit.

And along with the blog, there is a FB community that supplements and extends the WU world.

This past week, writer-mama extraordinaire, Therese Walsh, spearheaded the first (of what I hope and pray will be more!) Writer Unboxed UnCon, 5 days of boot camp/encounter group/summer camp for writers who have been part of the WU community.

In many cases, being there gave us the chance to meet ‘IRL’ folks we have grown to know and love through the magic of the internet.

Like the blog and FB page, the conference was a safe space. A no-false-drama or inflated ego space, where all of us were there to push ourselves and support one another.

Is this heaven?
No, it’s Iowa the UnCon.

I started out the con determined to take as many pages of notes as I could, but became quickly overwhelmed and inspired, letting myself just listen and absorb all the wisdom around me. What follows is a compendium of what notes I did take, and what I took away from simply being there, participating with my whole self in this magical week.

Meg Rosoff kicked off my UnCon experience with a talk about ‘Through-ness’, a term from dressage riding. She linked it to the connection between the conscious and unconscious minds.

"What’s in your head is the most important thing about you."
"I’m a dark person at heart."

Throughness is a supple, elastic, unblocked, connected state which allows unrestricted energy between the horse and rider. Now swap rider for the consious mind and the horse for the unconscious mind and you have the concept of throughness for writing.

The unconcious is ‘a dangerous and scary place.’ But Meg urged us to "Be open to living at the edges of your experience." And that ‘voice’ comes from the quality and connection through to your unconscious mind. I loved the concept that we should be the leader, not the bully of our unconscious.

And the concept of throughnes is not just for the writer; as writers, we want to have our readers feel that same connected experience.

In a later talk on voice, Meg told us to "Write as fiercely as you can possibly write." And to help us get there, she asked us a series of 40 questions, designed to help us find the connections to our own dark and ‘dense’ places in our unconscious minds. That session was intensely powerful, and I was able to speak about a very personal, very difficult experience – my own turning point, if you will – in the group and felt supported and validated in my vulnerability.

If this sounds more like group therapy than a writing con, well, maybe that’s what it was. But group therapy for creative people to help free their creativity.

The session on ‘Story vs Plot’ with the powerhouse team of Lisa Cron, Donald Maas, and Brunonia Barry kicked off my Wednesday. It was the perfect counterpoint to the intensely personal/internal/character work from Tuesday’s sessions.

What happens in the narrative = plot
How it effects the protagonist in the pursuit of a goal AND how they change as a result = story
Story is nothing but emotion.
Story is about the why.

The events of the plot are the externalization of the internal journal of change.

We must write specifics. No one does anything in general. A story is only universal because of its specifics.

"The past is the decoder ring for what’s happening in our present." Lisa Cron

In crafting story, the writer must balance the inner and outer journeys of the characters. We must uncover the meaning of what happens – the personal meaning of events for each character. And any event you choose can have meaning for the character.

The true beginning of your story is when the character knows something is changing that won’t change back.

In "Wired for Story", Lisa Cron talked about the neuroscience behind the human brain’s affinity/necessity for story.

"We turn to story to navigate reality."
Story silences our analytic brain.
The stories we believe become part of our identity.

Lisa presented her 5 steps/5 layers to writing powerful story. These are 5 elements that we should have explored before we write forward in the story.

  1. What if, the surface area of our story. Story is really about our expectations being broken
  2. Who: explore your characters. Know what they come into the world wanting, and what misbeliefs they cling to.
  3. Why: why does this all matter.
  4. World view (this was the piece Lisa focused on, among the 5 layers). Your character’s world view is very particular, very specific. Before you write, you need to know what’s RELEVANT to the character because we never do anything in general.
  5. When: This is your ticking clock. It is up to the author to force the issue and ‘sink your character’s boat.’

I stopped taking notes by Donald Maas’ talk on micro tension, but the takeaway for me was how every element on every page can ramp up the emotional experience for the reader. These include:

  1. dialogue: microtension comes from the conflict between the characters. In dialogue, bring out the opposing needs and wants of your characters in relation to one another. No bland ‘tea or coffee’ scenes!
  2. action: Remember, tension is inside, not in the external plot events. An explosion is exciting, but isn’t on its own tense.
  3. exposition: present emotions in conflict, ideas at war.
Don recommended that we print out our drafts, throw the loose pages into the air, then gather them in random order and read each page with an eye toward increasing micro tension in every one. (And he said the same thing, albeit in a less messy way, can be achieved using a random number generator and reading your work in that random order.)

The rest of the conference passed through me in a blur of conversations, readings, lectures, workshops, and laughter. I have pages of notes from Donald Mass’ 21st Century Fiction talk (which, unfortunately, I had to leave midway through) and what I appreciated from the workshop was that he posed questions that each of us needed to answer in relation to our own stories in progress. His questions helped me deepen and extend the conflicts and tension that I had sketched out for DERELICT’s sequel in a way that will create a far richer story. I am both exhausted and excited about the prospect!

And those were the formal sessions. A great deal of the UnCon happened in the liminal spaces between and around the sessions. Conversations in the library, over breakfast, dinner, and walks, in the bar. I met such amazing people and reconnected in person with ones I had interacted with virtually. I got to meet one of the women in my virtual critique/support group for the first time! (Hi, Amanda!!!!) Now, I have her voice in my head when I read her posts and messages.

Meeting Therese was a highlight of the UnCon for me. She is a gracious and lovely human being. I can’t imagine the amount of work – hard work – that went into putting this together. I know she had the back up of her ‘mod squad’ and other volunteers, but she set the tone. I have been to many workshops, retreats, and conferences; I’ve never experienced anything like this one.

To all the wonderful writers I met: thank you. We laughed, cried, wrote, and played together for nearly a week. It was woefully short and went by far too quickly. I hope that this is not the end, but the beginning of a grand and singular tradition.


  1. Lisa, it was such a pleasure getting to know you better in Salem. And I love this recap. Meg's "Throughness" set the tone for me for the entire week, and I too utterly enjoyed sessions with Don and Lisa and Brunonia -- and everyone. After a year of not writing, the Un-Con was potent fuel for me. Write on!

    1. Thank you, Therese! And right back at you. The Moon Sisters is next on my TBR list. :)