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Silent Spring, Burning Bushes & Dancing Tragedies: What I learned in San Francisco

(By guest blogger and instant life-long friend, Dave)

Hello to all you awesome writers. Whatever you’re working on, if you’re working on it you’re worthy of respect.

Over Presidents’ Day weekend I attended the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. In addition to making fantastic new friends including RaeLynn (yay!), I learned two things in particular I thought worth sharing.

First, some intellectual sharpening with Amos White, a classical haiku poet. Sitting in a café in San Francisco’s famous North Beach, Amos introduced me to the theory of haiku. We probably know it intuitively as writers, yet we struggle with execution. It’s this: The combination of two opposing ideas, creating for readers a cognitive gap or dissonance – I believe Amos referred to it as a “vacuum” – that 1) draws the reader’s attention, and 2) creates the potential for the reader to grow in his or her understanding of something (provided the reader decides to pursue their curiosity, rather than to tune the dissonance out).

“Haiti is a land where tragedy is music the people dance to.” This was either the first line of the pitch, or possibly the first sentence, of a non-fiction book that was discussed in one of the SF conference workshops. The book’s title: “Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti.” A good nightmare? Dancing to tragedy? Suddenly, I’m curious.

My classic example of this is the Old Testament story of God’s call to Moses to lead the people. Once upon a time, God wanted to get Moses’ attention. How did He do it? By showing Moses something that brought two opposing concepts together: A burning object that wasn’t consumed. Here was Moses’ reaction to what he saw: “I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.”

“Burning Fire” sounds a bit redundant and predictable. But “Unburning Fire?” Amos practiced these kinds of things on me and then would exclaim in triumph, “See, your jaw just dropped for a second!” That visceral reaction is what we want to create in our readers, whether we want to teach them something or just keep them turning pages.

The late Sol Stein devotes a chapter in his “Stein on Writing” to choosing a title for your story. He looked at best-selling fiction titles in the early 1990s and found that most of them were analogy or metaphor that brought two dissonant concepts in together. My mind goes immediately to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” I think of springtime as anything but silent. I think of rampaging rapids swelled with snow melt, of animals and people coming outside to enjoy warmth again, of kids playing baseball. But a “Silent Spring?” With that title, Carson gave voice to arguably one of the most enduring worldwide movements of the last 100 years.

My other big takeaway from the conference: Those of us who up until now have dismissed thoughts of e-publishing out of hand – in my case, my mind always goes straight to the term “vanity press” and that is quite pejorative – we need to re-think this. E-publishing is gaining legitimacy every day as a way for good authors to establish a platform and make money. This was the background music to the entire conference. The challenge is for writers like me, who are as yet unpublished, not to rush to get our work out there. A lot of really bad writing has been e-published, so it’s just as important as ever to get professional critiques, edit and re-edit, and put the best possible stuff out there. As one speaker said, “Everything you put online is your resume.” But there are more and more examples of writers who are earning themselves a healthy following by doing it digitally.

–Me (Well, actually Dave)

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