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WHAT I LEARNED AT THE SANTA BARBARA WRITERS CONFERENCE

Each June, I pack my bags and head out west to Santa Barbara California to visit friends and attend an intense 6-day writers conference. Each year, the nightly speakers inspire, amaze and encourage fledgling and expert writers to hone their craft, to bounce back from rejection and to most of all have fun writing.

Last year, I saw Dorothy Allison who wrote Bastard Out of Carolina. T.C. Boyle captivated us with his special brand of storytelling, reading from a collection of his short stories.

Each year I grow a little more confident in my craft, less daunted by criticism and ready to stand by the aspects of my story that I believe in. The writer’s life is at once fulfilling and lonely. Workshop leaders talk about “finding your voice.” which is both a literal and symbolic act for it requires a journey into the unconscious, and what we bring to the page after that journey gives our stories life.

It’s easy to spot a writer who hasn’t found her voice, but when you find a writer whose voice is strong, you can’t seem to turn away from the page. Voice is everything in life and in storytelling.

Speaking of a voice that captured millions of readers, I met Steven Chbosky this year. He was the opening evening’s speaker, and he was absolutely gracious to every fan who stood in line to have The Perks of Being a Wallflower signed.

Being a Pittsburgh native, we bantered a bit in Pittsburghese to quizzical onlookers. My mother, who is also a writer, interviewed him on stage. He discussed the symbolic meaning of the Fort Pitt Tunnel, a symbol that showed up in the book several times.

Charlie, Sam and Patrick rode through the tunnel on their way downtown. I thought maybe it symbolized their transition from adolescence and the limited world of high school to young adulthood and college life. But my interpretation was too narrow. Chbosky told the audience that he thought of the tunnel as a birthing canal, representing the potential rebirth of the three main characters.

At the end of the fifth day of the conference, I was bleary-eyed and overstimulated being a typical introverted writer, but I didn’t want it to end. Being in the company of other storytellers and creative thinkers sparked a renewed interest in me to write every day. Now if you ask any of my friends, they’d probably tell you that wouldn’t last long since I abhor assembly-line time when it comes to creative acts.

But, I also realize that to become a better writer and storyteller, I have to put in the hard work. I’m trying a new way to keep writing every day even if inspiration doesn’t come. A friend of mine recommended a writing experiment in which you find an author you admire and you copy passages of their writing by hand into a notebook for several months. This is just rote copying, nothing more.

Apparently, after doing this for several months every day, your own writing changes. Part of the experiment is to re-write something you wrote before the experiment and see what comes of it. I’m just on day 1, but I’ll keep you posted on my progress and what I learn.

Today, I copied a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, and I already feel the cadence and poetics of his writing affecting my own.

Happy writing—Erin Dougherty

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