Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Report on the Skyline Writers Conference

As I mentioned last week, I wasn't around for the annual
Skyline Writers' conference last Saturday, but wanted to somehow participate anyway. So I put a call out to readers of Working With Words, asking if anyone might be interested in attending in my place. Judy Anne nicely stepped forward and took part in the festivities. I asked her how it went, and she was good enough to send along the following report:
I am delighted to report that the Skyline Writers Conference was both inspirational and humbling. Many of the writers in attendance, as well as the presenters, are exceptional. These folks, including a NASA scientist, a physicist, a lawyer, and an entrepreneur, are not among the reputed majority of Americans who read at an eighth-grade level and are clearly far left on the intellectual bell curve. Very sharp, insightful, engaging people who have deep curiosity and a natural gift for storytelling. I am so, so grateful for the opportunity to participate in the conference. I am certain that this experience will transform me in ways I cannot yet know.

The conference was located at the rustic Hines Hill Conference Center in the heart of the beautiful Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The CVNP’s informal motto is, “It’s Amazing What Grows Here.” I’m sure those in attendance felt the energy and metaphor of this motto. A few comments about the presenters.

Cinda Williams Chima authors young adult fantasy (The Warrior Heir) but nonetheless imparted practical advice in a presentation that emphasized the elements and structure of good storytelling. “Know the rules before you choose to break them,” she wisely cautioned. She provided another dose of reality when discussing the post-publishing process—even though her second book is slated for debut in Spring 2007 and her third book is in process, she is still waiting for the 16-city press tour and an invite from Oprah.

Bob Carson brought humor and wisdom to the program, revealing some of his creative/unconventional approaches to getting his work--mostly articles and commentary with a humorous slant--published. He distributed a copy of a cleverly written, albeit unorthodox, cover letter that became the catalyst for a writing assignment that has lead to a monthly column. His success speaks for itself.

Sarah Sphar, editor of Northern Ohio Live, got the audience’s attention when talking about a magazine’s “lickability factor.” Someone once told her that the cover of a magazine should be so deliciously enticing as to evoke the desire to lick it. Hmmm. Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Michael Salinger, a widely published and accomplished poet, coached us with some provocative group writing exercises. Resistance was futile for the bashful but in the end the participatory exercises aptly demonstrated the power of imagery, experience and metaphor to improve our craft. In one exercise, we randomly crafted the seemingly nonsensical sentence, “Sixty-three recalcitrant oak trees slowly running along the river” and yet were able to attach meaning through metaphor from the words. It brought to mind (at least to mine) the Lewis Carroll poem, Jabberwocky. A good reminder to writers that we don't need to tell the reader everything...even though most of Americans do read at an eighth-grade level.

The conference was well-organized and the leadership unflappable, in spite of a no-show by the initial presenter. I spoke with many of the Skyline members who by my estimation have reason to be arrogant...none of that was apparent. My initial impression is that Skyline is a supportive group dedicated to ennobling the craft of
writing. The attendees (and the Skyline group) tend to be skewed in favor of a female, mid-40's demographic. Testosterone is perhaps needed. One personal insight: I'd better keep my day job. Maybe Sarah Sphar was right when she said, based on her background as a proofreader for an accounting firm, "accountants can't write."

How do some of these people write so well, so quickly? How do they keep to the thread without veering off on the barrage of tangents that assault the brain? Anyway, thanks again for being the catalyst for a great experience.


At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Sarah said...

Glad to see my contribution to the literary world is "lickability."

And actually, I'm sure there are accountants that can write; my point was that the ones I worked for didn't necessarily write well, which was how I brought my editing skills into an unlikely work setting. (That being "lackey.") Learned a lot, though!

This was a great, friendly group. I would encourage more people to check it out next year.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for the clarification, Sarah. I kind of assumed you didn't mean universal condemnation of all accountants's writing skills. As for your contributions to the literary world, hell, just clear 20 pages a month for good stuff, convince the sales staff to go out and sell around it, and it'll happen. Leave all those dreaded "service" pieces to Cleveland Mag.

At 8:22 PM, Blogger Daniella said...

Very inspiring!

At 1:13 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Daniella, I was kind of hoping you'd go to this event. I must admit that it was partly with you in mind that I chose to offer a couple of free registrations on Working With Words to this conference. Sorry that I didn't arrange for it with enough lead time for you, if indeed you were available and interested. But there will be plenty of other chances in coming months.


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