“Practical Advice on Writing”

On Saturday, I attended the Barrelhouse Conversations & Connections Conference for the third year in a row, and I gotta tell ya, it was the best time I’ve had at any of them.

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Unlike, say, AWP, Barrelhouse’s conference is extremely practical. In fact, the subtitle is “Practical Advice on Writing.” Panels cover much-needed topics such as how to write dialogue that pushes the plot forward and Instagram for authors. You can easily come away with a ton of notes and just feel your brain make-up changing as you become a better writer. I went to three panels from a list I had a hard time choosing from.

In “What You Show: How to Choose What and When,” we started by watching a clip from the show, Preacher, which I’d never heard of, but looked kind of insane. Anyway, from the clip we learn a lot about the woman featured in her actions (creative and violent), her accent (that she’s sweet and Southern), and her clothes (rugged, then common). The formula the instructor gave was:

Characteristics x Context = Meaning

Context is everything. So “showing” details without context is useless. Context helps us get to motivation, too: everyone drinks coffee because they’re tired, but why are they tired? Because they didn’t get enough sleep. Why didn’t they get enough sleep? Because they have a new baby or because they were fighting crime?

In my next panel, Lilly Dancyger led us through a series of exercises to help us generate in personal essays in “Do I Have Anything New to Say?” Make a list of things you feel define you, she said. I picked out things like Washingtonian, Christian, fatherless, Black, Millennial, gentrifier, and married. Now, choose two or three that seem antithetical, and then go small, Lilly said; don’t try to write the whole swath of that experience, just a tiny sliver. I realized sitting that being a Black gentrifier in DC sounded hella complex. The small moment was when we got a gate in front of our condo building, and I decided that I couldn’t live there anymore (I still do, and I wrestle with these feelings every day.

Lilly also suggested looking for 3 to 5 essays on a particular topic to see what’s being said about it, then coming at it from your own unique angle, being in conversation with the other pieces. This should be easy for me, as I tend to have pretty contrasting views of lots of my generation’s popular opinions.

My last panel of the day was “Crafting Revelation in Fiction One Detail at a Time.” This was the most abstract of the panels, but was still concrete in a way. Basically, how do you let the reader know the mood of the story, or how a character feels about himself? By the way the character looks at the world. If the narrator only notices gloomy things, so things are described as drab, then the mood of the story is probably gonna be a downer. Or, if a character describes himself as plain, ugly, jagged, etc, it’s safe to say he doesn’t like himself very much. See, abstract, but not.

The Barrelhouse conference always closes with a boxed wine happy hour, which, for the past couple of years, I’ve grabbed one drink, then left. But this year, I hung out for a while because I’ve gotten to know so many writers in the area in the past year. It is always good to see them because they are so uplifting. We’re all in this together, and I never feel that more than around a box of Pinot Noir at the end of a long day of learning. Can’t wait for next year’s!

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The line for Speed Dating with the Editors gets so long so fast!

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The awesome featured writers, all of whose books I wanted after their powerful readings.

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