Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may recall a post back in August, when John surprised me with the best tenth anniversary gift a girl could dream of: a four day writers retreat in Iceland with Barbara Kingsolver headlining. After months of anticipation and logistical preparation, I finally went last week, and it was even better than I'd imagined.
I could probably write an entire series of posts about how amazing Barbara Kingsolver was, how every time she opened her mouth something funny, kind, or brilliant tumbled out, and how none of it was rehearsed - it's just who she is. One of the things that appealed to me about this retreat was that it wasn't a typical conference setting, where people are more focused on networking and attracting an agent's attention than learning. And I loved the idea of spending time outside the workshops with the authors, who were invited to all the same meals and excursions as the participants. But I never imagined I'd get to spend nearly two hours talking to Barbara between workshops, or eat breakfast at the same table as her almost every day, or stand next to her at the top of a waterfall. I was so surprised by her accessibility and generosity, and her complete lack of of pretense. Is there anything better than finding out that one of your very favorite authors is also one of the nicest people you've ever met?
At any rate, I could gush about Barbara Kingsolver forever, but I won't. Here, in no particular order, are some of the pieces of wisdom I gleaned from the authors during the Iceland Writers Retreat. Erica and Eliza, the founders of the retreat, have really created something special. If you have the opportunity to go, I can't recommend it enough.
1) "Bad memoirs come out of youth; Good novels come out of middle age."
Adam Gopnik is hilarious. I didn't take his workshops but I got to speak to him a little and heard him read on our first night. His essay on learning to drive had me laughing out loud. One of the things Adam said he loved about the retreat was that it wasn't filled with a bunch of young people who want to write memoirs and have zero life experience. The retreat was geared more toward people in their thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond, many who have never completed a book. It's such a good reminder that the majority of writers don't "make it" in their twenties.
2) "Find the internal contradiction."
One of my favorite workshops was "Character Development" by Allison Pick. Allison told us that internal contradiction is what makes characters interesting. Considering my agent had just mentioned that my main character's arc was feeling a little flat, this was the perfect advice. No one wants to read about a character who doesn't have anything to learn, or who doesn't grow or change throughout the course of the novel. Point taken.
3) "Revision is where art happens."
I think this may be one of the writing lessons it's taken me longest to learn. When I first started writing, I had no idea how much revision it took to get a book from first draft to published novel. I got my second edit letter the first night of the retreat, and I can assure you that I'm becoming very familiar with revision. If I'd known when I started out that even bestselling authors like Barbara Kingsolver spend months revising their work, I don't think I would have given up on some of my earlier projects so easily.
4) "Make a promise to the reader in the first chapter."
When I told Barbara that my agent wants me to rewrite my first chapter, the first thing she did was ask me why. I told her he thought it gave too much away, which she agreed was a problem. Then she gave me this little gem of advice. She mentioned in her workshop that the best books are the ones where you say, "I knew that was going to happen!" even though you didn't really know for sure. I plan on looking back at some of her first chapters and trying to determine the promise.
5) "Always do the scariest thing."
The last morning of the retreat, the authors participated in a round-table discussion and answered questions from the audience. Several of the authors explained that they know they're on to something when an idea terrifies them. Ruth Reichl was referring to writing when she told us to "always do the scariest thing," but over the past few years I've come to find it applies to all aspects of life. It certainly served me well last week. These types of "camp" situations terrify me, and it would be very easy to hide behind my social anxiety, but I would have missed out on so much if I had, including a long conversation with my writing hero.
I learned a lot more during the retreat, but these were some of the things that stuck with me. And now it's time for me to take some of that brilliant advice and go back into my revision cave. Wish me luck!