The Write Advice

Joyce Carol Oates is "tiny" and "soft-spoken"? You don't say.

The controversial flash point of the Mayborn Writers Conference of the Southwest came when Nan Talese, James Frey’s editor, stood up in a full ballroom on Saturday evening and skewered Oprah Winfrey for admonishing the disgraced author because he fabricated parts of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Aside from that tense moment, though, the conference was a gold mine of good advice and one of those rare moments when writers emerge from their solitary caves and convene like normal human beings.

When you eek out a living in isolation, staring at a screen and wondering who might actually be giving your words a second glance, there’s a sort of wonder that goes with putting faces to bylines and authors, especially when you’ve admired them for years. Mary Roach, for example, author of the hysterical non-fiction books Stiff and Spook, was just as brilliant, unassuming and hilarious as her prose would suggest. Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, listed on the program as “The Queen of Storytelling," turned out to be tiny, soft-spoken and uncomfortable talking about her monumental accomplishments (When asked which work she’s most proud of, she replied that pride is not of value to her).

Any writers out there who missed the words of wisdom and encouragement from more than a dozen literary legends? Here are some highlights:

Mary Roach told us about surprise and hilarity: Profile colorful characters who’ll let you watch them do interesting things. One of her articles for Health Magazine featured the “Betty from the Beano hotline” and a researcher who was kicked out of a public bathroom after locking himself in a stall for hours to listen to the goings-on. Once you find such a character? “Ask every question that pops into your mind - the stuff everyone wants to know but nobody talks about.” (As in, his reactions to personal flatulence.)

Joyce Carol Oates and Cecilia Balli, a contributing writer to Texas Monthly and Harper's, told us to embrace our nervous breakdowns: Balli spent months in bed while reporting a book about brutal violence on the border. What she learned? That it’s crucial to process the impact of a story and find its “emotional core.”

“As writers,” she said, “we have the responsibility to interpret the emotional truth.” So, to anyone who’s deluding themselves into thinking they can have a successful writing career without the painful and anxiety-provoking roller coaster: Find a different profession.

Oates told of getting stuck and depressed while writing an essay on boxing. After lamenting to her husband that her “life was over,” and getting a refreshingly sane word of encouragement, she went to sleep and awoke with the idea that not only made the essay successful, but turned it into a book.

Finally, the New Yorker’s Burkhard Bilger reminded us why all the hard work is worth it. He recently met a successful guitar maker who had begun making guitars 15 years ago after reading a small article on the topic in Yankee Magazine. The guy still had a tattered copy of the story, a straightforward profile of a guitar-maker in Maine. The author was Bilger. The moral is, all that toiling away in isolation, just you and the screen, is likely having more of an impact than you’ll ever know. So get out of bed already. --Megan Feldman



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