I learned a lot at the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy, last year, but perhaps the most important thing I didnâ€™t learn until it was too late was that you shouldnâ€™t let an Italian carry a conversation next to a very large, expensive vase.
Yes, the brilliant Dani Shapiro shared her wisdom, which included things like, â€śWhen writing an initial draft of a story, donâ€™t be afraid to open new doors and let new characters and events in, because they could enrich your story, and you can always edit them out later.â€ť But still, if she had said, â€śGene, youâ€™re Italian, so donâ€™t stand next to a large, expensive vase while speaking,â€ť then she would have saved me from doing something Iâ€™m still not comfortable writing about.
I also remember the great words of Hannah Tintiâ€”editor of One Storyâ€”great words like (and Iâ€™m paraphrasing), â€śWhen writing a cover letter, be sure to mention any writers conferences youâ€™ve attended, as this will help support the fact that you are serious about your craft. If you met that journalâ€™s editor before, it couldnâ€™t hurt to succinctly put that in there, too.â€ť Great words, indeed, Hannah. But even greater words would have been (and Iâ€™m not paraphrasing), â€śGene, I noticed you throw your hands around a lot when you talkâ€”probably because youâ€™re Italianâ€”and thereâ€™s a chance that, at one of the cocktail hours coming up, youâ€™ll be talking to the charming, wonderful Karen Shepard and, while doing so, your hand just might hit a large, expensive vase, knocking it down and sending it crashing to the floor, where it will shatter.â€ť
While Hannahâ€™s words about cover letters and the publishing world were certainly practical, her words about the large, expensive vase thing would have been both practical and more immediate. Do you see the difference?
What else do I remember about the Sirenland Writers Conference? Many things, including works of art everywhere, like large, expensive vases.
Of course, there were hundreds of other writing tips Dani Shapiro went over, including, 1) Remember that every story has an outer story and an inner storyâ€”that is, include external and internal conflict; 2) Everyone in the story should have an agenda; and 3) Raise the jeopardy in the story. But what Dani forgot to mention was 4) Never let an Italian talk next to a large, expensive vase while having a cocktail at Le Sirenuseâ€”one of the worldâ€™s best hotels according to the magazine Travel & Leisure.
Whatâ€™s more, Jim Shepard explained in one of his workshops how a good readerâ€”that is, the person critiquing your storyâ€”is a reader who is rigorous, fastidious and optimistic. But what Jim didnâ€™t explain is that I will be talking to his wife, Karen, at an upcoming cocktail party and knock down a large, expensive vase. In fact, he didnâ€™t mention Karen or the large, expensive vase at all!
I should mention that the critiques my story received during workshop were invaluable, as was the large, expensive vase.
To summarize, you canâ€™t put a price on what I learned at the Sirenland Writers Conference. But do you know what you can put a price on? A large, expensive vase.*
*Please note that I certainly didnâ€™t have to pay for the large, expensive vase. Also, the hotel immediately cleaned up the large, expensive vase, and they acted as if nothing ever happened. Why? Because Le Sirenuse is awesome, thatâ€™s why. And Karen Shepard, with whom I was speaking when I knocked the large, expensive vase over, just waved her hand and told me not to worry about it. Like I said, sheâ€™s charming and wonderful. Also, you can learn more about Sirenland Writers Conference at www.sirenland.net.