Barbara Kingsolver: Turning on the lights

I have piles of notes from my weekend at the wonderful San Miguel Writers’ Conference. Very briefly, from Barbara Kingsolver’s keynote address on how The Lacuna evolved:

1. She first asked: what are the big questions? 
2. She wrote pages and pages on what the novel would be about.
3. As she was doing this, scenes begin to “pop up” and characters appeared.
4. She asked: Who will tell the story? To find the voice, she did a lot of practice-writing.
5. She started, but in bits, not chronologically.
6. Then, when she could see the shape of it, she felt ready to start a proper draft. From this point on (she made it very clear), she was in control—of the story, and of the characters.
7. During all this time she was doing research.

The first draft, she said, was like “hoeing a row of corn.” It hurt, like giving birth.

Revision is “where the art happens,” making everything fit, “pulling the meaning up.” (Again, beautiful.)

Her husband is her first reader, then trusted others.

A problem with early drafts is failing to visualize scenes. She goes through the manuscript, “turning on the lights.” (I love this image as well.)

She likes to hold a balance between mystery and revelation—but tends, she confessed, to mystery.

She quoted Chagall: “Great art begins where life leaves off.”

I wanted to know more about her work at the sentence level. It is, no doubt, intense. She uses a thesaurus constantly (which interested me).

Right now, I’m reading through the second draft of The Next Novel,  editing it. With each pass, I get closer to the meaning. Soon, I’ll be going through the scenes, “turning on the lights.”

Writers’ conference high

This is going to be a short post, because I’ve had a long and very stimulating day at the San Miguel Writers’ Conference, and another one tomorrow to come.

Tonight, at Barbara Kingsolver’s speech (fantastic!!!), I sat next to a young woman, who told me that she had young children at home in L.A. She was working on a novel, and this was her first time away.

“It’s an important step,” I told her, remembering the first writers’ conference I had gone to in Kingston, Ontario, the kids at home in the care of my hard-working husband. She was making an “investment” (of both time and money) in her desire to be a writer. “You are proclaiming your serious intention to the world.”

Kingsolver’s speech had us both in awe. When it was over, and everyone was standing, gathering their belongings, the young woman was busy, feverishly writing down Kingsolver’s wisdoms. “I am a writer,” she explained to the man sitting next to her.

Following her out through the throngs (of over 800 people!), I thought: Yes, and she’s going to be a good one.