Saturday night I went to see David Wroblewski speak at an event hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Lighthouse Writers is a great writing organization located here in Denver. Along with hosting writer events like this one on a regular basis, they also offer a wide range of classes and workshops. I’ve taken three workshops from them in the past (two short story and one novel) and highly recommend them. They are run essentially the same way as my MFA program workshops and the creative writing workshops I took as an undergrad. Lighthouse Writers’ classes are first come first served until they fill up. (There are prerequisites for the advanced classes.) And as with any workshop, it’s going to vary a bit depending on the instructor and the people who make up the class.
David Wroblewski is the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a book that has been getting a lot of praise and recognition from booksellers, prominent authors like Richard Russo and Stephen King, the New York Times bestseller list, and this lady named Oprah. And this is his first novel too, which is just mind-boggling. To have the New York Times and Oprah greet you with open arms on the other side of publishing your book? That is an incredibly rare occurrence for well-seasoned authors, let alone a debut novelist.
So David Wroblewski is a local author and when I heard the Lighthouse Writers were sponsoring an event with him, I couldn’t pass that up. I really wanted to have the book finished beforehand because they warned there might be spoilers, but I didn’t get enough of a head start on my reading. And there were spoilers too—a fairly significant one in fact. Even though I was forewarned, I was irritated about that spoiler in particular because it came when a woman in the audience was asking David Wroblewski a question and the spoiler-part was 100% unnecessary in the question she was asking. She even posed her question first and then blurted out the bit of information after she stated her question. It was like this (completely made up example, not a spoiler): Why did you decide to set this story in Wisconsin? Edgar turns into a werewolf!
I’m guessing she was one of those kids in school that was always blurting out answers just to make sure everyone else knew that she knew them.
Even though I’m griping here, it really was a wonderful event. David Wroblewski is great. He was humble and gracious, insightful and funny, and seemed truly passionate about his work—both writing and his work as a software engineer. I suppose it shouldn’t matter, but so few writers rise to the ranks of bestselling, award-winning success, and I’m one of those people who always wants the nice guys to come out on top, so it really was an extra bonus for me that I liked him as much as I did, in addition to liking his book.
He read aloud the scene in the book that is written in second person. It’s the only scene written in second person and he said when he sent the first draft to his editor he thought for sure that scene would be cut because it was such a risk, craft-wise. But the editor didn’t have a problem with it.
Another interesting tidbit about that particular scene is that it was at that point in writing the first draft that he got blocked on the book for a year and a half. Part of the reason for his getting blocked was that he had started a new job. But creatively (he realized this after the year and a half had gone by) he was struggling because he’d initially written the book in first person and was finding himself really limited by it. So he went back to the beginning and rewrote the book in third person and was able to move on.
In responding to a question about craft—I believe it was someone asking why he decided to write that scene in second—his answer was in part, “You know, I’m a first timer at this. I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing.” Which I just loved because it’s so honest. He’s in a position where he could probably get away with putting on airs about his writing. But the honesty is a lot more helpful to a fellow writer. It resonates. It’s encouraging to hear someone who’s reached this high point in their career say that they don’t know what they’re doing. Clearly he does, his book demonstrates that, but it’s a feeling that I think is quite common among writers when we’re sitting by ourselves day after day, translating this story from our imagination to paper (or computer screen) not knowing if we’re headed toward Oprah and the New York Times, or a stack of rejection letters that reaches our nose, or someplace in the middle. I think it’s common for us writers to feel in over our heads and to ask ourselves over and over and over: What the heck am I doing? Will I ever pull this off? And that tiny obnoxious voice whispers to you, “If you’re worried you can’t do this, you probably can’t.” The trick is to flick that obnoxious speaker back to the dark recesses of your mind, because worrying that you can’t accomplish something is a whole lot different than actually not being able to accomplish something. But it’s a long and lonely road writing a book, so there’s plenty of time for that obnoxious speaker to claw their way out of the dark recesses of your mind into the forefront and try to derail you once again.
So it’s incredibly gratifying to hear someone who’s come out on the other side successfully echo your same writing experiences and concerns. He went on to say writing is often intuitive, and he also made a point of talking about how he thinks any creative endeavor has to be in part exploratory and experimental, and there were a lot of ideas or things that he had tried throughout the ten years of writing this book that had fallen by the wayside and he’d since forgotten about them.
I could go on with more thoughts on David Wroblewski and what he had to say about writing, but thinking about his presentation has me itching to get back to my own novel-in-progress now. Happy writing!