The Desert Nights, Rising Stars (DNRS) conference opened today at Arizona State University (ASU), with afternoon workshops, followed by a reception and a keynote address by Acoma Pueblo Nation poet Simon Ortiz.
I started my conference experience at a session with TM McNally, author and director of the ASU’s Creative Writing Program, on ‘Lyrical Fiction’. TM quickly rejected popular notions of ‘lyrical fiction’ as referring to the use of poetic language, redefining it as fiction that ‘says more than it says…[that] conveys the most essence in the least amount of space.’ Just as I was thinking, Surely he’s going to quote Hemingway, he quoted Hemingway — specifically, his desire to ‘make people feel something more than they understood’.
Lyricism, TM suggested, is about efficiency. To illustrate, he handed out some lyrics from a Colin Hay song:
I drink good coffee every morning
It comes from a place that’s far away
And when I’m done I feel like talking
Without you here there is less to say
He suggested that all we know about the speaker in the song comes from what is not said in this passage — that what is most powerful is what is implied or conveyed.
TM went on further to suggest that anything that happens in a story happens for three resasons:
1. Because it is true (true = feels real)
2. Because it is necessary to propel the plot
3. Because it is emblematic, i.e. works on a metaphorical level
Following TM’s session, I ran a workshop called ‘Never just description: Using setting to enhance your story’; and as it happens, I made similar points, quoting Andrew Cowan (from The Art of Writing Fiction) on the use of detail in story. Cowan suggests detail must:
1. Be concrete and appeal to the senses (aka “feel real”)
2. Advance or enhance the story telling (propel the plot, shed light on character)
3. Signify or resonate at the thematic level (be emblematic)
My workshop was attended by 35 people, and the feedback suggested it was well-received and useful. I was really impressed with the level of participation and the quality of the writing in the exercises that people read out. For the most part, they even understood my accent. (I didn’t actually know I had an accent until I arrived in the USA!).
After the sessions, we all attended a reception featuring smoth jazz and fabulous food — hominy grits with jalapeños, tacos, tamales — and where I enjoyed meeting and chatting with some local emerging writers.
Simon Ortiz then gave the keynote address, which was really a call to arms. His resounding message was, ‘Speak truth to power.’ He cited the Cheyenne River Sioux protest at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL) as an example of speaking truth to power, and spoke of knowledge — particularly ancient knowledge invested in Indigenous peoples — as ‘sorely needed in the world’.
Simon also suggested that ‘literature is essential to inclusivity’ — an assertion I’ve heard echoed by people of colour and Indigenous writers in Australia. He challenged the DNRS conference to become more truly inclusive of Indigenous/Native American writers. A powerful and eloquent address that I hope will set the tone for the conference as a whole.
I’ll do my best to keep blogging the conference sessions, but if I fall behind, check Twitter under #dnrs2017 for more.