Meeting of the Minds

This past weekend was the Gotham Writers Nonfiction Conference. I just love a meeting of the minds, which this certainly was.

In the panel Tricky Topics, Jerald Walker said, “There’s a level of discomfort that you have to transcend if your work is going to be as valuable as you want it to be.” Melissa Petro followed with, “I first think: No one can ever know this. The second I hear myself articulate this, I know that is a story I must share.”

In the panel Platform Building, Elissa Bassist said, “When something is not fun and excruciating then it’s time to quit. And that took me 15 years of therapy to learn.”

The featured author Maggie Smith (the memoirist, not actress) who wrote a memoir about her divorce said, “I let go of the idea that I needed to be the good guy.”

Next up is our Children’s Books Conference, coming your way September 2024.

A few weeks ago, Gotham teacher Susan Breen and I attended the Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai. Susan led a novel writing boot camp, and she’s as good on that side of the world as on this side.

I did two presentations: 7 Keys to Writing Excellence and The Writer’s Mind. (That’s me in the pic.) My 7 Keys were Awareness, Senses, Scenes, Selectivity, Run Free, Revise, and Stick to It. The Writer’s Mind—soon to be a Gotham course—shows you how to use your mind in surprising ways to make your writing deeper and richer and to make the process a bit easier.

Hey, I will be doing a free one-hour presentation on The Writer’s Mind at the P&T Knitwear bookstore in NYC, Saturday March 23, 2 pm ET. You can RSVP here, but there’s usually room if you just want to show up. I’d be thrilled to see some of you there.

Anyway, the Emirates Festival was quite the mind-blowing meeting of minds. At one point, I was having breakfast in the hotel hosting the event. Alone at my table, I was reading Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, who was sitting a few tables away, and I was occasionally texting on my iPhone, which was co-created by Anthony Fadell, who was sitting a few tables away in another direction.

I let these two gentlemen have their breakfast in peace, but I did spend time watching presentations and chatting with various participants, such as Francis J. Kong, a thought leader in the business world, and the abstract artist Fatma Lootah. My mind was whirling much of the time.

So, yes, get out there and meet with other minds. Maybe even in a Gotham class, of which there are many coming up.

Alex Steele

Gotham President

Kicking Down the Door, Part 1

Hey, this is part of a series on writers who kicked down a metaphorical door with their writing. Like Marie Curie with science and Little Richard with music…

Tom Wolfe was a newspaper reporter with a hankering to liven up nonfiction writing, then considered the sober sibling to freewheeling fiction. In 1962, Wolfe got hired to write for Esquire on the hot rod culture in Southern California. He hung out in the milieu, did his usual expert reporting, but couldn’t find his way into writing the article.

The day before the deadline, the editor told Wolfe to just send his notes and he’d find someone to forge them into something usable. Wolfe stayed up all night, pouring out his notes, ignoring all conventions of journalistic writing. Like this:

Dick Dale, rigged out in Byronic silk shirt and blue cashmere V-neck sweater and wraparound sunglasses, singer’s mufti U.S.A., has one cord with a starter button, while a bouffant nymphet from Newport, named Sherma, Sherma of the Capri pants, has the other one.

The editor liked what he saw and published the piece pretty much as is, with the title: “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” Readers loved it. 

From there, Wolfe went hot-rodding through nonfiction, penning intensely researched nonfiction books and articles (“Radical Chic,” The Right Stuff, etc.) that leaped to life with high-octane prose that gave readers a wildly entertaining time. From The Right Stuff:

Anyone who travels very much on airlines in the United States soon gets to know the voice of the airline pilot… coming over the intercom… with a particular drawl, a particular folksiness, a particular down-home calmness that is so exaggerated it begins to parody itself (nevertheless!—it’s reassuring)… the voice that tells you, as the airliner is caught in thunderheads and goes bolting up and down a thousand feet at a single gulp, to check your seat belts because ‘it might get a little choppy’…

Wolfe (and some cohorts) invented the so-called New Journalism, where nonfiction grabbed the license to use the literary pizazz of fiction, their work influencing such current nonfiction writers as Isabel Wilkerson and David Grann.

Wolfe dressed like a dandy, with white bespoke suits, and he loved poking sacred cows, as well as overusing exclamation marks!!!!!!!

In 1987, he topped his own derring-do by writing a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, that was like a piece of journalism turned into a rushing subway train rife with greed, vanity, racism, and the race for status in New York City. I remember riding the subway around that time and about a third of the people in any given car were reading the book—reading what was happening right around us.

It seemed Wolfe was having a grand time with his attire and writing, but he found them both exhausting. Kicking doors down isn’t easy. Nor should it be.

Tough Stuff

We writers need to write about the tough stuff, happening around and inside us. However, we also want to keep it so engrossing that our audience will stick with it.

Three classic examples:

All in the Family, created by Norman Lear…

Confronts racism and intolerance. It’s a TV sitcom that was #1 in the ratings for five years running in the 1970s. (The show’s creator, Norman Lear, recently passed at the age of 101.)

Archie Bunker, the central character, is an unapologetic bigot, a working-class white guy who “knows” he is superior to Blacks, Jews, gays, and pretty much anyone different than him.

Archie is more ignorant than hateful, and we can laugh at his ignorance, as with his malapropisms, like when he speaks of a priest sprinklin’ incest on the congregation. But he’s not a cartoon; he’s a real person that we feel we know. And we’re glad to see others challenging his odious views, especially his lefty son-in-law, whom he calls Meathead.

Matilda, by Roald Dahl…

Confronts the emotional and physical abuse of children. It’s an uproarious children’s book beloved by generations of kids.

Matilda is a five-year-old girl with a brilliant mind, whose parents have no interest in her. Her school is run by Miss Trunchbull, a towering woman who despises kids, calling them things like maggot and slug. And she roughs them up, like the time she grabs a child by her pigtails and sends her sailing through the air.

Most of the abuse is so over the top as to be humorous, without entirely losing its terror. And we stay with the story because Matilda quietly fights the abuse, gluing her dad’s hat to his head and working on a devious way (involving telekinesis and chalk) to send Trunchbull fleeing the school forever.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala…

Confronts the grief of losing loved ones. It’s a highly acclaimed, bestselling memoir that’s offered solace to its many readers.

It’s a true account of how Sonali lost her parents, husband, and two sons on the day an ungodly tsunami struck Sri Lanka. And how she tried to cope with the loss through alcohol, pills, self-harm, and thoughts of suicide.

We experience her unimaginable grief, but we want to keep going because it’s strong storytelling (will she survive her grief or not?) and it’s written with eloquent honesty, as seen here, when Sonali visits the site of the disaster six months later:

What I really wanted was to find Crazy Crow, the big glove puppet with unruly black feathers that we had given Malli for Christmas, the day before the wave. When he tore open the wrapping and saw it, how he’d lit up.

So much loss and love right there.

A writer’s magic trick: taking us through the tough stuff by telling a great tale.   

Alex Steele