Catching Fireflies

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Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Cape Cod
Writers Conference where I took two different but equally great classes. The
first was all about e-publishing. It got into the nitty-gritty of formatting
books for Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but also had some great advice about
cover design, marketing research, titles, promotions, and sales. It was a ‘learn
something’ class. I took copious notes and left with knowledge I didn’t
previously have. For both the topic and the particular project I had in mind
when I signed up for the course, it was perfect.

Not all great classes have
to be all about ‘learning something,’ though. Especially in the world of creative
arts, sometimes the best thing a teacher can do is to inspire. That was exactly
what author Coleen Paratore did in my second class, which was on writing for
middle grade and young adult audiences. She could have spent the week espousing
advice on plot elements, character development, pacing, and paths to
publishing. We would have listened, taken copious notes, and left with
knowledge we perhaps didn’t have before. That would have been just fine. The
truth is, though, there are a thousand writing reference books that could have
imparted that same information. There are far fewer works, if any, that have
the power to pull a writer’s voice out of reflection on a particular age, or to
derive intensely powerful plot from a minute of memory. The self-reflection and
inner-honesty that these require is nearly impossible to teach and often painful
to experience, but so worth it if one’s willing to try. Coleen was willing to
try, to share with complete strangers her experiences and how she turned them
into sparks that eventually lit up the pages of her books. 

It’s hard when someone is
that real and that honest not to reciprocate. So we did. My classmates and I
looked inside, even in those dark, uncomfortable corners and pulled out sparks
to share. We spent most of the week writing about ourselves rather than our
characters, because that’s where our best writing will draw from. Our truest
characters will be reflections of past selves, twisted a bit to fit in our
fiction. Our most intriguing plots will be the ones in which characters face
the same basic challenges we faced, though perhaps in new places, with different
details and varying outcomes.

This should come as no
surprise; readers, especially young readers, like to see themselves and their
experiences reflected, even in the most remote ways, in the books they read. The
only real difference between writers and readers is that readers catch a
firefly, see its spark, and let it go; writers see a firefly, capture its
spark, and let it grow. 

Coleen inspired us to
realize that we’ve all got a jar of fireflies within us and a world of new
fireflies waiting to be discovered around us. Sometimes we just need a little
help seeing those sparks and letting them grow. Thanks, Coleen, for providing
just that last week! 

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