December 31st – and my year as Piedmont Laureate comes to a close. When I accepted the honor of serving as laureate for three counties, I felt uncertain whether or not I’d be able to keep up my writing this year. I’d heard from one emeritus that I shouldn’t expect to, that it might be best if I just focused on my laureateship and let the writing rest.
I believe in letting writing rest. I believe it’s beneficial to back away from it at times, and do other things. But I also believe that there is an ebb and flow to the work of writing, and that a writer knows when she should back away and when she shouldn’t. I was in a critical place where I shouldn’t back away. I needed to keep steadily working on the novel I was writing. I’d backed away from it enough. I’d stabbed at it and stabbed at it, like an unskilled spear fisherman, until finally I knew that what I needed to catch that glimmering plot just below the surface was a net, and that the net was simply work. I needed to show up and push through.
For the past year there have been two charts pinned to the wall above my desk. One is a timeline for the novel, spanning 1876 to 1896. It’s divided into three columns, one for each of two main characters and one for national events. The other chart pinned to my wall is the schedule I kept as Piedmont Laureate, divided into months. Scribbled into each month’s space were the events I was attending, and the readings and workshops I was giving. It’s been a busy year!
I’m proud of my work as Piedmont Laureate, and especially proud of the workshops I gave: “Costume Writing Parties” in which we used vintage clothing to explore character development, “Character Emotions” in which I presented thoughts and exercises on creating character emotions that live and breathe and don’t fall flat (sad!) on the page, “Postcards from the Edge of Fiction” in which we wrote using vintage postcards as prompts to explore story possibilities. I also held conversations with writers in each county: Our Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green on the importance of historical fiction, Lee Smith on the subject of mentoring, Nora Gaskin on the subjects of traditional and indy publishing and a panel discussion on The Effects of Social Media on Creativity with Anna Jean Mayhew, Ralph Hardy, Kim Church, Michelle Berger and Charles Fiore. It was lively and wonderful and we all came away thinking we should do this again. There’s so much to say. So much to explore.
And that’s the bottom line here I think. There is so much to explore. There’s so much to explore in talking with other writers, in meeting people, in writing with people, in traveling, and in my own (or your own) writing.
I am almost finished with this novel, almost ready to hand it off to readers and get some opinions. I may have completely failed at getting the story on the page, and honestly, that’s always a possibility for any writer, accomplished or not. We meet the story as dumb scribes. We know nothing until we go on the journey, and sometimes, after the journey is complete, we still know nothing except that we know we are changed. We have gone through something and the we feel differently for it.
Even if the writing fails in terms of publishing (and I have a few books and a lot of shorter work in my closet) it changes me. It shapes me. Writing shapes me as much as I shape it. I’m proud I kept on working on this novel during my laureateship. Accolades are important, but nothing, not even success, should get in the way of writing.
I send big love to all my supporters and friends I met along the way. I thank you for attending workshops and events. I thank the sponsors of the Piedmont Laureate program: City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. One thing I learned this year is how hard people employed in arts organizations work for the good of artists. I don’t envy them their jobs. Herding artists must some times feel like herding cats. We are an independent bunch. Most of us have worked outside of the norm for a very long time. Recognition from organizations like these feels important. It feels good. For me it felt like a gift to be celebrated and trusted this way.
I want to close the year by inviting you to please come to one of my free workshops held at Flyleaf Books the second Saturday of each month, 10 to 12. Even people who do not identify as writers come to these workshops. They are, in the words of one attendant, “a buzz.” I’ve been holding these free workshops for 15 years. Fifteen years! Another milestone that passed this year. I started the workshops in Borders Bookstore, and when it closed I kept it going by moving around to libraries. When Flyleaf Books opened, we found a home and I am grateful for such a strong independent bookstore.
I’ve met so many people over the years, and heard so many stories. Sometimes I feel like a story goddess. I give a prompt and people give me a story. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to know that I helped to launch a story into the world – be it my own or yours.
I said it when I accepted the honor of serving as Piedmont Laureate, and I will say it until I die. Stories are how we meet each other. Stories are where we live. Stories are what makes us human, and what gives us our humanity, compassion and empathy, three qualities I believe we all need to cultivate as much as possible.