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Any Joe Can Write. Here's Proof!

Writing is like fuel for many people. Getting words on paper energizes them in a way many other activities simply do not. Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison once said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

I write. I enjoy writing. Writing is a way for me to explore the world around me, learn new things, and to look at things differently sometimes. But there are people who simply don’t write. They may think they can’t, or they may not like to write. Take my son, Joe.

In the seventh grade, it was discovered there were two Josephs in my son’s class. The teacher said one of them must go by the name “Joe” so the two wouldn’t get confused with each other. My son’s hand shot up as he volunteered to change his given name from Joseph to Joe. He came home that afternoon and declared proudly, “From this day forward, I will be known as JOE.” When he explained the reason for the name change, I asked him why he wanted the shortened version. “Less letters to write!” And he was dead serious. Why write out a six-letter name when you can write it in three letters instead?

Fast forward a few years, and Joe found himself as a student at Millsaps College. (I’m not gonna lie, we were all shocked.) At Millsaps, writing is a big deal. They write papers in every class, even math. No student graduates Millsaps without being able to write. I watched my son, who had always done the bare minimum to get by in school, begin to write. It was awkward at first, with a lot of Southern (make that redneck) slang peppering his papers. But in time, his writing became cleaner, his thoughts more developed. He would email his papers for me to review and by his last semester, there were little to no changes to be made. The boy had learned to write!

I explained to him what I do when I write an article for a publication. I do my research, interview my subject, get my thoughts together, then present the facts in a way that is interesting for the reader. It’s exactly what he had to do in putting together a paper for one of his classes. But how does that translate into writing a book?

I decided about eight years ago that I wanted to write a memoir. If you haven’t heard our family’s story, it’s a doozy, and one that’s memoir-worthy for sure. In a nutshell, our daughter, a dancer, fell six stories from the roof of her apartment building in New York City and lived to tell the tale. (Want to know more?) A memoir is, by definition, a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge.

Even though I had been writing articles for many years, writing a book was a daunting undertaking. What did I know about writing a book? A friend in my book club told me about a writing conference in Oxford and said I should attend. It was the Creative Nonfiction Conference, held in November 2010 on the campus of Ole Miss. I had no idea what I would experience or learn there, but I went with my eyes and mind open. I saw several familiar faces there and lots of new ones. I also recognized some of the speakers: Neil White (In the Sanctuary of Outcasts), Julia Reed (famous author and Garden & Gun contributor), and Beth Ann Fennelly (author, poet, professor at Ole Miss). There were speakers I’d never heard of, like Lee Gutkind, who has been described as a “literary innovator” and “the father of creative nonfiction.”

I learned from Gutkind that creative nonfiction is 100% true. No embellishments, no fake facts. It is a true account, written as a novel. It has same characteristics of a novel: strong character development, sense of place, written in scenes. There is a protagonist, hero, plot, theme, point of view and so on. I realized that no one knew my story better than me. The story of dealing with a tragic event in the life of a child that is so tragic, amazing and life-changing all at once.

I didn’t start writing the book right away. I didn’t feel worthy as a writer. There was so much to learn. I went to other writing conferences and workshops, and while there I saw many of the same faces again and again. They all had stories to be told as well. Those people became my “writing tribe.” The people I follow on Facebook. The people who, one by one, have published their books and we gather to celebrate and to promote and to be inspired.

Many of those folks had a place in their hometowns where writers gathered on a regular basis to talk about all things writing. From critiquing each other’s work to hearing speakers talk about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, the craft of writing, the business of writing, and how/when/where authors write. I wanted that for myself, in this area, so I started a chapter of the Mississippi Writers Guild that meets monthly at a coffee house in Ridgeland. I began going to the MWG conferences and before I knew it, I was elected president of the organization.

I’m heading to Meridian on Thursday to prepare for the annual Mississippi Writers Guild conference to be held at the cool new Mississippi Arts & Entertainment Experience, also known as The MAX. (Read about it HERE.) The conference is the culmination of a year’s worth of planning. There will be speakers and workshops on subjects ranging from revising your writing life to using scenes to write memoir. Susan Cushman will talk about how she landed four book deals in one year, without an agent. Chandler Griffin and G. Mark LaFrancis will both talk on documentary film making. Other speakers include C. Hope Clark, Carolyn Haines, Alan Brown and Sue Brannon Walker. It’s a workshop designed for both experienced writers and those who are interested in writing. If you, or someone you know, is interested in writing in any form or fashion (poetry, novels, memoirs, songs, screenplays, etc.), Meridian, Mississippi will be the place to be this weekend. It’s not too late to register!

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