The Keynote Speaker for our NetWest Writers Conference on Saturday, May 10, 2014 was Vicki Lane. She has graciously shared her address with us, and given us permission to post it. Here it is in its entirety:
"Will all the writers here raise their hands? . . . Congratulations! That means we’re all part of the Ancient and Noble Order of Memory Keepers and Truth Tellers – for whether we write fiction or poetry, memoir or nonfiction, we are the ones who preserve memories – we are the ones who strive to present Truth.
It’s a cliché to say that that writing is a lonely craft. Of course it has to be, to a certain extent, though Facebook and Twitter have made it less so. Still, when we writers come together – whether informally or in a class, at a writers’ retreat or at a convention like this -- an amazing thing happens. It’s called synergy – the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect greater than the sum of the individual elements. It’s why we come together – to be enriched by one another – for memoirists to learn from story tellers and poets and vice versa, for writers of nonfiction to learn from novelists and vice versa. If you take away one brilliant idea from this day; if some new approach to your craft suddenly makes sense to you – that’s synergy at work. You’re here to learn, not just from the speakers and workshop leaders, but from one another. A casual tip Jack Pyle gave me back when I was just beginning to write mysteries gave me a tool I’ve used ever since – Hide the clues in the middle of a paragraph. May someone today give you a tip that will be equally useful to your writing.
This Ancient Order of which we are members goes way, way back. Even before there was writing, there were stories – the history of the clan remembered with pride – say, the day Mrs. Og discovered that fire made mammoth meat tastier, -- or history remembered as a dire warning – the bad thing that happened when Og -who- is –called- Scarface tried to bring home the saber tooth kitty. There are the songs and sagas, the fairy tales, the myths, nursery rhymes, the Jack Tales – all of them attempts to memorialize or make some kind of sense out of the world we live in...no matter how changed in the telling those stories may become over the years.
It’s a proud calling, to be a writer. Behind us stand the shadowy forms of the ancient storytellers, the wise men and women, the bards and griots, the grannies on the front porch, the papaws by the fire in wintertime, and all the writers who ever struggled to put their stories into words—on papyrus or parchment, with stylus or quill, pencil on legal pad, typewriter, word processor, or computer – we are all engaged in the ongoing process of telling Mankind’s story.
So what’s your part in all of this? Which piece of the mosaic are you claiming as your own? What is the story YOU have to tell? Or, to put it another way, what is the story that has chosen you to tell it?
Perhaps you’re not quite sure yet – I know I wasn’t when I went to a basic writing class 14 years ago and the teacher challenged us to come up with a protagonist, setting, and genre for a novel by the next class. I went home that night and thought about dropping out of the course. I had no ideas.
Of course one of the first questions people ask an author is ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ and any number of folks have come up with smartass answers like Aisle 3 at Wal Mart – halfway down on the top shelf or . . . there’s an app for that . . . or they all come from Shirley down at the Cut ‘n’ Clip.
Back when I was searching for my subject, I wished that I had a quick and easy answer to that question but the truth is ideas are everywhere – they are the sea we swim in – that primordial soup of memory and experience.
But more than just an idea, as writers what we really hope for is that amazing moment when the bare bones of an idea take on reality and depth and form – when the writing flows seemingly from nowhere and out through your fingers, bypassing or out-running your brain. The characters take over; the story or poem writes itself. This is when writing turns from work to transcendent joy.
Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of hard work in a 400 page novel – for me at least. Those moments of being Muse-possessed are fleeting – and even the Muse misspells things now and then. Perhaps a poem might arrive complete, courtesy of the Muse? Hmm, Kay is shaking her head no.
But though these moments may be fleeting and imperfect, I think that these times of possession – of almost subconscious, dream-like writing, are the grace notes of writing and well worth seeking.
I believe that the key to these moments is be found in sensory memories – such as Marcel Proust’s madeleine moment – a moment that inspired a seven volume novel.
For Proust, the memory inspiring object was a madeleine – a little scallop- shaped cake which, when he dipped it into his tea and took a bite, opened the floodgates of his memory.
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray … my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it;
… (I’m skipping bits because Proust is nothing if not wordy)
And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me …immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents …); and with the house, the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.
And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann's park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.
That was some cup of tea! It worked for Marcel – seven volumes worth. But the magic isn’t in the madeleine for everyone --we each have to find our personal memory catalysts – the things specific to our own experience.
Now, memory is a tricksy thing – especially as we age. I may not remember where I put my glasses five minutes ago but a whiff of diesel exhaust and I’m on the back of a BSA Thunderbolt 650 motorcycle, riding through Europe with my husband -- forty some years ago.
And even when our memories are second hand, they can still be strong – how many of you remember things from your childhood – based on a photo you’ve seen rather than an actual memory? And of course we have memories from books -- for most writers the books you’ve loved can become almost as real in your memory as the actual life you’ve lived.
When I first visited Oxford, I swear, I ‘remembered’ certain places from having read about them in Dorothy Sayers. I kept more or less expecting to see Lord Peter promenading down the High Street or Harriet Vane gazing in a shop window at a Chinese chess set. Reading adds immeasurably to our little time on earth -- I have loved and lost, suffered famine and war – all without leaving my reading chair.
And now, as I write about the Civil War, better writers than I have given me the experience of living in that time. Of course I’ll do research with primary sources and history books but for the human reactions, I’ll be drawing on memories from Gone With the Wind, The Red Badge of Courage, Cold Mountain, and The Killer Angels to name only a few.
But let’s go back to our memories of our own experiences. Try this: Close your eyes and, in your mind, go to a place from your past – maybe your childhood room. Look around and note what’s there – what does the bed look like – what can you see out the window?
Who’s remembering back over twenty years ago? Who can tell me something about that room? My room had a spool bed, a Grandmother’s Flower Garden quilt, and out one window I could see the top of a pine tree with one dead branch that looked like bleached bone against the blue sky. I could hear mourning doves…
Did anyone have memories of sounds or smells? You remembered a lilac outside your window, all purple against the various greens – I bet you remember the fragrance too. And someone else remembers the smell of her grandfather’s pipe tobacco . . . smell is so evocative.
How about the sense of touch? I can remember that the wall above the bathtub was scratchy -- in the house I lived in when I was four. And the coolness of the terrazzo floors in a friend’s house during a barefoot summer in junior high. . . who has a touch memory?
Memory improves as you exercise it. Here’s something I’ve found really helpful. About twenty years ago when my younger son was playing soccer and I spent a lot of time waiting at the soccer field for practice to be over, I kept a note book in which I began writing down everything I could remember about my childhood, beginning with the scratchy wall by the bath tub and my infant brother staring at me in the dark of the bedroom we shared. I remembered the ether dream I had when my tonsils were removed and the day we sat in the car outside the county courthouse and my mother was crying and threw her good handkerchief out the car window – I still don’t know what that was about but wouldn’t it make a nice beginning or ending for something?
When I slowed on writing childhood memories, I wrote down family stories – my own family and my husband’s. How my Aunt Pearl would chase my grandmother with the head of the Sunday dinner chicken and that was why my grandmother, who was still terrified of birds, wouldn’t allow me to let my parakeet out of the cage. And how my grandfather, who was 12 when his mother died, left home when his father remarried soon after and sharecropped on an uncle’s farm, living all alone and eating nothing but Irish potatoes for a year. . . . another great story waiting to be expanded.
The great thing about this memory exercise is that not only will you discover story ideas as you write but you’re preserving memories for others in your family.
Another memory exercise that I use on the rare occasions I have trouble sleeping is a House Prowl – pick a place – house or apartment – where you lived in the past and walk through it in your mind. I even like to open drawers and closets and see if I can remember what was in them – the silverware was here and the waxed paper was there . . . the olive oil and wine vinegar and garlic cloves were on the lowest shelf. I rarely make it through more than two rooms before I fall asleep but I highly recommend the exercise to stir up old half-forgotten memories.
All this remembering is a fine lesson in becoming aware of detail – the kind of detail that can bring a piece of writing to life. If you’ve experienced – and remember, that includes second-hand experience -- it yourself, it will add depth and texture to whatever you write – poetry, non-fiction, fiction, or memoir. It’s all part of being Memory Keepers and Truth Tellers.
When Kay emailed me on Tuesday to ask if I would fill in for Judy, I said yes, of course. Then I had to figure out what I was going to say. Out of curiosity, I Googled ‘key note speech’ and found myself on the website of a professional keynote speaker. He suggested that the keynote speaker might use humor, video clips, or song and dance. Oh, dear, thought I, I don’t have video clips, I can’t dance and I’m no singer. So I looked up keynote.
I’ve heard the term forever – heck, I’ve been a keynote speaker a couple of times before. But it had never occurred to me the origin of the term keynote.
It’s so obvious I’m embarrassed I didn’t realize it at once – but as I said I’m not a singer. Probably some of you know.
The keynote comes from the practice of a cappella, such as barbershop or shape note singers, playing a note before singing. The note played determines the key in which the song will be performed. So a key note speaker is tasked with setting the tone of the meeting. Of course.
So let me remind you again of your life membership in the Ancient and Noble Order of Memory Keepers and Truth Tellers. It’s you who remind us where we’ve been and it’s you who show us how it really was—and how it might someday be. And let me remind you too of the synergy that is lurking in the wings here today, waiting for all of you to catch fire at this grand meeting of our Ancient Order.
And on that key note . . . may this gathering be truly energizing and instructive for all of us and may we always sing the true note." © Vicki Lane