Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Guest Blogger Patrice Gopo on a Writing Conference, a College Roommate, an Unplanned Weekend Away

My work as a writing coach and online Boot Camp wrangler brings me so much pleasure, especially when writers such as Patrice Gopo make their way to my inbox, telephone, and writing life. We spent a chunk of time this past winter working through several of Patrice's already-good essay drafts. Aside from her creative skills, and intuitive sense of where personal stories lie, I was impressed by two things I don’t always see in combination: Patrice had plenty of ideas that hinge on personal experience but immediately reveal a universal connection and she has the patience to develop them one at a time, slowly. It didn’t surprise me when, after deep revisions and a willingness to experiment with form and structure, she placed a segmented essay about race, culture, and marriage in Rock and Sling online.
            The child of Jamaican immigrants, Patrice was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Other essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Relief, Not Somewhere Else But Here: A Contemporary Anthology of Women and Place, and one was heard on Charlotte, North Carolina’s NPR Station WFAE.  She lives with her husband, and their two daughters in North Carolina.

Please welcome Patrice Gopo  

                       I very nearly didn't attend this year’s Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference.

            Back in March, while flipping through the then-current issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, I saw an ad for the Memorial Day weekend conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I recognized the address--mere blocks from my college roommate’s front door.  

            You should go. It’s so close to you, I typed below the link I emailed her. Like me, she's a novice writer, and I thought she might enjoy the event. That evening my phone rang. Sherae wasted no time:  “And you should come too, Patrice.”

            Me, attend? Of course, the conference sounded great with a list of notable speakers including Dinty W. Moore and Lee Gutkind, sessions devoted to publishing, a day of craft talks, and the opportunity to participate in a writing workshop. But a writing conference was not part of my plan in 2014, for many reasons including my new baby, obligations I had at home in Charlotte, and on and on and on.

            “You should come,” she said again, with an urgency that began to thaw all my important reasons for declining.  The baby? Well she was newish, not new. The obligations? Right away, my husband volunteered to take care of everything demanding my attention. In the span of a day, I went from hoping my good friend would attend so I could vicariously glean something from her to registering myself for the conference. Within the next week or so, I had booked my ticket to Pittsburgh, Sherae had also registered, and we were discussing our 3000 words (or less) manuscripts to submit for the Sunday writing workshop.

            At this point I should mention that if you want a conference with slick pre-printed name badges, multiple tracks, branded conference bags, and free pens, you might look elsewhere. However, if you long for an intimate and relaxed setting with about 75 or so people on a university campus, strong craft talks, great opportunities to mingle with participants and speakers, and an environment that welcomes all levels of writers, then might I suggest the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference.

            The first day tackled the world of modern publishing, while the schedule devoted the second day to discussion of CNF craft. Each day was drenched in memorable lines and ideas. Some of my favorite thoughts—paraphrased—along with my personal take-away, included these

From Lee Gutkind’s “What is Creative Nonfiction?” session: The brain is wired for story. Story goes way beyond my story but goes into other people’s stories. Strong creative nonfiction explores the intersection of both public and personal stories.
My Personal Application: I default to writing personal stories. I need to think of how those stories connect with larger public stories.

From Dinty W. Moore’s “Writing it Short” session: Why jump first into a book? Nothing ever works out the first few times. You could spend 20 years of your life attempting a couple of books that may or may not work. Or, you could spend a few years of your life attempting a few essays. Essays are an excellent way to perfect the craft.
My Personal Application: I can stop lying about the book I tell people I'm “working on" in order to appear to be a legitimate writer. I enjoy writing essays, and they provide me with a great opportunity to improve. So why not press into that, continue to take steps to become better, and see how life unfolds?

From Jane Bernstein’s “Memoir” session: You are writing to discover.
My Personal Application: It’s okay (perhaps even good) if I don’t know the direction an essay is headed when I scrawl the beginning words of a first draft.

            The final day brought my writing workshop led by Dinty W. Moore, editor of
Brevity, the online journal of brief CNF. I came to the conference proud that I had pushed my essay as far as I could without additional input. However, I knew something was missing, something I couldn’t quite identify.  Six other workshop participants and I gathered around a large table in search of insight and a nudge of direction.

            The workshop did not disappoint. Dinty divided the group’s essays into several piles. Each pile of essays struggled with similar problems such as scene, point-of-view, or—in my case—theme. I appreciated Dinty’s approach; each pile enabled us to see different examples of the same problem. Dinty pointed out that my essay, along with several others, suffered because it lacked, as he put it, “the invisible magnetic river.” My essay still had yet to sort out its point.

            In my piece, I used shopping malls as an extended metaphor. Dinty glanced at me as he flipped through my marked up essay and said, “Too much about malls. Not enough Patrice. I don't think you need so much about malls to make your metaphorical points. Unless you want to submit this to a magazine about malls.”

            Um, no.

            Thankfully, Dinty and the other workshop participants provided me with some great ideas about how to sculpt my piece including areas I need to expand and places where I need to chisel away. Cutting often makes me sad since I end up losing some of my favorite parts; convinced Dinty had overlooked some of my gorgeous, sweeping prose, I asked his opinion about a few sections—sections about malls if you must know—I had clenched my fists around.

            “Kill your darlings,” he replied with a not quite ruthless expression.

            I knew he would say that. I also knew he was right.

            One final thought I've had is how attending the conference with a friend made the event that much more enjoyable and useful. Sherae and I spent our evenings debriefing and processing the day's events. As a result of our conversations, I know I gained even greater perspective and insight into the various talks.

            Returning home after three days immersed with other writers who shared my passion for the genre, I had renewed energy for edits to my manuscript and the creation of new work. While at first I'd had a list of reasons why I shouldn’t attend, I’m thankful for voices—and good friends—who suggested otherwise. 

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