This morning I was honored to deliver the keynote presentation at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference. This is the text of that presentation:
Good morning. It is an honor and a privilege to stand before you this morning. The keynote, as I understand it, is the talk that sets the key note for the conference, and I am delighted to share with you what I hope will be the keynote of your experience here in Surrey.
There are two things I’d like to talk about this morning. The first is the responsibility of writers in our culture, in our history and in our future, and the second is our responsibility to our readers.
The first—responsibility to our culture—cannot be overestimated. Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Think of the rich history Dickens has lent to those of us who have never experienced those times. He has shown us the attitudes, the vocabulary, the sights, smells, sounds of Victorian London. And he was but one writer. One voice.
Sometimes we think that we’re sitting alone in our offices in front of our keyboards (Facebook minimized in the corner), making up silly little stories that don’t really matter in the greater scheme of things. It is easy for us to let the committee in our minds get control of us and encourage us to ‘get a real job’ or ‘do something worthwhile’ – especially if one of the voices that comprises our committee happens to be The Mother. And it may be true that there isn’t a Dickens in this room who will speak for an entire generation, but together, we do. Each voice is a part of the great chorus of this generation of writers that will speak for eons. And every chorus is comprised of what? Individual voices.
So put the committee down for a nap whenever you sit at the keyboard. You are providing an important service for our culture and for the future inhabitants of this planet as well as for your current readers.
And that brings me to my second point. Our responsibility to these readers.
When you sit down at the keyboard, you are in the process of creating a product that you hope to sell. You don’t want to sell a useless gizmo to your friends and neighbors, loved ones and fans. You want them to feel good about their purchase, to spread the word. In order to do that, you have to give readers something they want and need.
Well. What the hell do readers want? I’ll tell you. They want to read about conflict. They don’t want to engage in it, they don’t want to live it, in fact, we all go to great lengths to avoid conflict in our lives.
But when we go to bed at night, and turn on the reading light and pick up that book on the nightstand, we want to dive into outrageous, mind-blowing conflict, but only if the author is artful in putting us into the shoes of the characters. If we can make ourselves believe that we are embroiled in amazing conflicts, we continually say to ourselves, Could that really happen? I would NEVER do such a thing, or I would LOVE to do something like that, all the while knowing that it is never really going to happen. But what we’re actually doing is learning about ourselves, because we don’t have the opportunity to actually see ourselves in much conflict.
This is the entertainment value of fiction. We get to fantasize about situations we will never actually find ourselves in. The great value in that for a reader is that they close the book and come away from the experience with a greater understanding of themselves.
This is what you’re selling. Readers’ enhanced experience of themselves.
This is why you must pay so much attention to character, to setting, and to plot. This is why you must write with such realism that the reader can actually put themselves into the clothes of the characters, both good guys and bad guys. This is why you must pay particular attention to the emotional makeup of the character. This is why the bad guy must be so bad. A milquetoast bad guy results in a milquetoast story. Your story is only as strong as your antagonist. Give your characters real evil to battle. This is how all readers want to see themselves: not going to their mundane jobs as accountants, janitors and IT techs, but as night time heroes, battling evil and saving the world.
This is what you’re selling. This is escapist literature. This is entertainment.
This is your responsibility. Your job is to dig so deeply into your own soul, your own longings, your own failings, your own insecurities and present them to the page so clearly that you change lives.
This is how you join the chorus.
And so if I am to strike the key note at this conference, it is this: The world needs your words. The world needs you to learn your craft so that you can join the chorus in tune and vie for that soloist spot. The world needs you to continue to experience without aid of self-medicating so that you don’t keep using up your experience without replenishing the well. The world needs you to be ruthless in your self-examination. The world needs you to speak your truth, and speak it loudly, boldly, fearlessly.
And if you do that, you will change lives, not the least of which will be your own.
Thank you and have a wonderful conference.