Three days after I arrived on Maui in 1998, I attended the Maui Writers Conference, and I’ve attended every one since. As a veteran, I can tell you that the fun is in the fury of the interchange between wildly successful writers and their wannabe counterparts, of which, of course, I am one. Of the latter.
No matter which authors speak at the conference, I make a point of listening. I listen because often the speakers state the brilliantly obvious. You may think that’s a waste of time. It’s not. Many wannabe writers get way ahead of themselves. Long before they have inked the first sentence of their novels, they’re designing the T-shirts and casting the movie. Too often, what is obvious is overlooked.
Arthur Levine is the American publisher of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series—as if I need to say that. Rowling is reputedly the richest woman in England because of the magic she created one day while delayed for four hours on a train. With nothing to do, she invented the characters that people the world of Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
She was a struggling single mother desperate for money, yet instead of scoping the next mega-million-dollar self-help book, she spent her time creating stories of a young boy who discovers he’s a wizard on his eleventh birthday. Most people are pleased to observe that time is better spent inventing schemes to pull in a few more dollars (or pounds) than in making magic, but, of course, they are as erroneous as they are smug. The obvious lesson is in Levine’s valuable little piece of advice: “Write what you want to write.”
Jodi Reamer stated the obvious, too, although since I don’t know everything yet, what she said wasn’t obvious to me. She represents writers of children’s literature, and she explained the demarcations of that amazingly complex field. I had no idea that there are at least five major divisions of books for kids, from picture books to easy-to-read to chapter books to middle grade to young adult fiction with even more exacting distinctions within each level.
What distinguishes the content of children’s literature from anything else? Apparently, not much. Well-developed characters, engaging plots, clearly-drawn settings, and significant and relevant themes are required. For me, the obvious fact needing statement was that the main character in children’s literature should be the same age as the intended audience. That solves the mystery of why a masterpiece like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was so easily ignored in my college surveys of the American novel, yet is regularly found in middle and high school classrooms. Apparently, the scholars of literature only read about big people.
I also had the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of four hundred people. Eric Larson, author of Devil in the White City, illustrated a point in his Saturday evening presentation by referring to science-fiction thrillers of the fifties. He requested a show of hands concerning who remembered the classic and apparently excessively little-known movie, The Crawling Eye. I had, and I love to raise my hand, so, delighted, I thrust my hand into the air. My pal Jordan laughed quietly.
“Look around,” he whispered, “You’re the only person in this room raising his hand.”
Only two of us in the room had seen the movie, and one was at the podium. But now I have more in common with Eric Larson than our excellent given names and our presence on The New York Times Bestseller list. Okay, only two things. What’s obvious here? Writers must know a lot of remarkably obscure information, and we will never use all of it, unless we wish to embarrass ourselves.
The most pleasant surprise of the conference was Jane Hamilton’s keynote speech, daringly titled “The Beauty of Disaster!” Hamilton is widely honored: New York Times bestseller, winner of the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, shortlisted for Britain’s Orange Prize, and an author chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.
Considering her relentlessly deft but often-dreary fiction, I was blindsided by her gut-bustingly funny presentation. She recounted many years of duping her brother with stories of a recorder-playing family of sisters, one of whom was an invented schoolmate with the unlikely name of Phingus Gemelli. She described a horribly funny encounter with death of a pet rat, horribly encumbered with the name Starfire, expired unexpectedly and was carried out with weeping and wailing of her boys in a tragedy rivaling that of the Trojan women bearing forth the body of Hector.
What’s obvious here is that you don’t know everything about any writer if you know him or her only through the writing. The writers presenting at the conference were phenomenally successful authors, yet they all hinted or blurted that they were oddly limited a bit by success because editors and readers expect the same tea in a brand-new teacup with every new work. Success, like anything else, can be a box. Sometimes, only something as simple as the tale of a dead rat can teach us such an obvious lesson. MTW