During the Santa Barbara Writers conference I attended in June, I heard several keynote speakers reveal the secrets of their writing lives. All were published authors whose passions ranged from writing about the grittiness of life to capturing the sweetness and humanity in everyday encounters to political satire.
The opening night was blessed with the wonderfully Southern presence of Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) and Cavedweller (1998). My mother is an avid reader of Allison, but I had never read her work nor did I know much about the author before I saw her speak at the conference. Her talk was part Revivalist sermon and part female empowerment. On her website, dorothyallison.net, she describes herself as “a feminist, a working-class storyteller, a Southern expatriate, a sometime poet and a happily born-again Californian.” She is all of those things and more.
There was an electricity in the way she spoke of writing, of her motivations to write and to tell stories of the sometimes sad and broken lives of working class people. She draws heavily on her own experiences but as she warned in the SBWC daily newsletter Write On: You can’t just write about something because it is real; you have to make it believable on the page. Good advice for any beginning fiction writer. As she spoke to the 150 audience members at the conference, sometimes taking a break to sip a glass of water next to the podium, her Southern accent grew stronger, more lyrical. I have always loved a certain female southern accent—the way the words rise and fall gracefully off the tongue, the voice slowing slightly, leading up to the punchline, which usually is a joke about men, women or God. Allison spoke of her own insecurities about her writing abilities and admitted she is a slow writer (a curse word to most editors). She told us that she was the kind of writer who waited for that jolt of inspiration, sometimes striking in the early hours of the morning or in the middle of the night. “Sometimes I write a line and it sings,” she told us, her eyes glazing over a bit in reverie. Her humor about her own insecurities (a common issue for most creative writers) was refreshing. She poked fun at herself and in the process allowed us to lighten up as well. I know from my own experience as a creative writer that levity, especially in the approach to creativity and writing, is essential. – Erin Dougherty, July 27th 2012