Outside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington D.C. dripped gray. The sound of a traffic police officer enjoying the power of his whistle echoed in the air. Inside, the convention center was a frenzy of “our people”—“book people.”
Annually in September, hundreds of thousands of people trek into D.C. to the National Book Festival, a free public event held by the Library of Congress. The festival, started in 2001 by Laura Bush, brings approximately a hundred authors and presenters on several different stages to the public. The purpose of the event is the celebration of written word but geared more toward the consumer—the reader. The main purpose of the event may be to celebrate books, listen in awe of celebrity authors talk about their work, laugh over their jokes of self-deprecation, and stand in long lines to get their autograph. However, as a writer what struck me were the lessons on empathy, fear, and discovery.
Kate DiCamillo offered to answer questions before reading an excerpt. When asked about her inspiration for Flora and Ulysses, DiCamillo mentioned the E.B. White essay, Death of a Pig. She told an engaging story about a dying squirrel and a neighbor offering to put it out of its misery with a shovel. Empathy built between White and pig fueled an intertextual bond to DiCamillo and the squirrel. Children’s writers are challenged to do exactly that all the time: using animals we teach children about their own humanity. The lesson isn’t “how to take care of animals,” but “how to be a friend.”
M.T. Anderson talked about how the writer has to leave home to see what is unusual in the landscape of their world. Anderson said, “The history that we know too well, we can access it through new eyes.” He spoke about his books and how they were all an answer to the things that frightened him. In Feed for example, he was concerned about the way in which he saw himself being marketed to. My current novel is harvested from my own childhood fears and pains. It occurred to me with adult eyes, I can create a narrative that blames the society for the victimization of children, from that fear, I can create hope. As if spoken for only my ears, I heard M.T. Anderson’s call: “All around us are stories wanting to be told.”
Dan Chaon, author of “Among the Missing,” talked about writing horror as a survivor of trauma; he called it like dialysis. He said, “If you are the creator of the scary things, they can’t get you.” As a rape survivor, this spoke to me. I can place my character in a position of vulnerability and give her the tools that battle demons. In giving my protagonist tools I didn’t have, I am making those tools available to the reader. I am through my character’s example leading a path of healing to the reader who is still in a place of vulnerability.
Chaon said something I believe every writer should consider, “We build our sense of identity on our memory.” If we ask ourselves, “what does my character remember?” We can help determine who our character sees herself as. My novel delves into flashback scenes, this question helped me focus on the right places to use flashback. I could look at my protagonist feeling loved and flashback to a place where she didn’t feel loved. The juxtaposition of the two scenes created a narrative that spoke to her inability to ever feel loveable.
The highlight of the day was Gene Leun Yang’s presentation on graphic novels. Gene talked about his platform for The National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, Reading Without Walls. He challenged readers to read books outside of their comfort zone:
- The character doesn’t look like you or live like you.
- The book is about an unfamiliar topic.
- The format of the book is not one you usually read.
It occurred to me, like M.T. Anderson’s returning home to find something unusual there, when we read outside our comfy genre we return to our genre noticing the ways in which it was doing something unusual all along. The same can be true of our writing, I am challenging myself to read and write outside my chosen genre hoping to infuse something unexpected into my novel.
As my car crawled out of D.C. on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d been reminded of my goal. I can pull off to recharge at times. I will get stuck. I can weave in or out, or just coast. All of those will get me to my destination. What I can’t do is give up.
Regina McMenamin Lloyd is a Hamline MFAC ’17 grad, a mother of two, and a writer of fiction.