Literary Conference Wisdom

 At this year’s Literary Orange, I learned many tidbits to help inspire writers. Did you know that only 4% of people who start to write a book ever finish it? So if you have finished a book, congratulations, you are in rarefied territory.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the conference:

  • We write to make sense of the world.
  • We don’t know how strong we are until we need to be.
  • If you don’t work on your dream, someone else will hire you to work on their dream.
  • Stubborn writers make it.
  • If you write books about yourself, you have enough for one novel and three poems.
  • Nothing in fiction actually happens, but it’s all true—emotionally.
  • In a book you only have to give instructions to a kid once.
  • Everyone experiences a family differently. You and your siblings have the same parents, and yet you don’t.
  • Torture your characters without forsaking them.
  • Failure is the key to success.

I also learned to never give up. That seemed to be a running theme of the conference. Best-selling author Jonathan Evison, who was wearing a T-shirt that said: “Careful or You’ll Wind Up in My Book,” never did. He wrote eight books before being published, and continued writing despite a major setback– his agent quit to go to clown school. Mr. Evison was so desperate that he asked his agent if he could still represent him when he wasn’t studying pratfalls.

Keynote speaker Fannie Flagg had her own never-give-up story. She started by revealing that her real name is Patricia Neal, Patsy for short. (She had to change her name because the Screen Actor’s Guild doesn’t allow two actors to have the same name, and Patricia Neal was already taken.) Ms. Flagg then told this anecdote. Someone once said of her, “She writes those feel-good books.”

She smiled, but a friend told her, “I don’t think that’s a compliment.”

Fannie’s reply, “Well, who would want to write books to make people feel bad?” That one line defines Fannie Flagg. Her books are filled with wacky, but homey characters with outrageous names. To keep it all straight she organizes her books by hanging a long clothesline down her hallway. She writes short chapters and hangs them from the clothesline to get the order right.

She has to do this because she works despite her great disadvantage—she is dyslectic. In school she would get Ds and Fs for her spelling and grammar, As for her stories. She went to a Catholic school; she is not Catholic, but as a child they lived across the street from the school and her mother thought it would be easier to send her there. At a parent-teacher conference the nuns told her mother that Pasty is a delight to have in class. Her mother said, “Her name is Patsy.” The nuns said, “That’s what we thought, but she spells it Pasty.”

So how did Fannie Flag go from a woman who couldn’t spell her own name to a best-selling author? How did she overcome her problem and never give up? For the answer to that you’ll have to go to a literary conference.