As rain clouds took leave of the morning sky overhead the South Coastal Library on Saturday, Aug. 20, a brainstorm took shape inside.
The third annual Bethany Beach Writers Workshop, presented by the Delaware Literary Connection and the library, welcomed dozens of professional, amateur and aspiring wordsmiths.
After autographing nametags at the door, attendees filled out rows of off-white conference chairs and filled up disposable coffee cups and pastry plates. Sunglasses and beach towels may predominate on the boardwalk, but here bifocals and writing tablets were the accoutrements of choice.
“This is the sharing of ideas and experiences from local people like me and you,” said Cookie Ohlson, DLC board member and the workshop coordinator. “It’s wonderful.”
Ohlson initiated the program, introducing three award-winning poets: JoAnn Balingit, Vanessa Haley and Billie Travalini.
The crowd — mostly women with a peppering of grown men and teenagers — quickly settled into a java-shop tranquility, and Travalini began regaling listeners’ with her memories of a quest for a corned beef sandwich and self-sufficiency. Haley and Balingit followed the leadoff balladeer, as the versifying triumvirate adhered primarily to elegizing fathers, mothers and grandmothers.
Keynote speaker Ed Dee, a cop-cum-novelist, assumed the lectern once the poetry ended. Dee retired as a lieutenant from the New York Police Department after 20 years on the force, and subsequently wrote five crime-related novels, including his latest release, The Con Man’s Daughter in 2003. Saturday, the author advised audience members to avoid getting mired down in minutiae before getting their stories on paper.
“Just write. It doesn’t have to be any good. You just have to free yourself to write garbage,” he said. “Writing is essentially rewriting, you’ve all heard that before. I write the worst first drafts in America.”
Dee also urged onlookers to observe and record all aspects of their everyday lives — the smell of hands, for example, after counting pennies.
“All those great details will slip through your fingers if you don’t write them down,” he said. “Fiction is a gathering of these great details of your life.”
Other pointers from the former policeman included: put a paragraph’s best descriptor in its last sentence, end chapters with teases and sow discord early and often.
“Writers are too nice. There’s not enough conflict,” he said. “You have to make something happen.”
Breakout sessions succeeded Dee’s speech, and Balingit led a parade of the attending poets to the library’s lounge. Authors Maribeth Fischer, whose The Language of Good-bye won the 2002 VA Commonwealth Award for Best First Novel, Travalini, whose Bloodsisters recently won the Lewis and Clark Discovery Award for creative nonfiction, and Dee remained in the Meeting Room to lead a seminar entitled: “Fiction Versus Creative Nonfiction: How Does a Writer Know Which Way To Go?”
The three novelists read excerpts from their books that blurred the line between truths and half-truths.
“Is the line between fiction and nonfiction absolute?” Travalini asked rhetorically. “My truth was not only what I saw but what I felt. If you’re true to your characters, they’ll tell you what to put in.”
The panelists then demonstrated the difficulty of sticking exclusively to concrete memories. They told the audience to spend five minutes writing about a first experience — leaving the exact experience to the discretion of each individual — and then asked if anyone had potentially embellished. Several palms automatically shot skyward, and one woman even admitted to lying about lying.
“You carry, with you, your own history,” said Travalini, who previously worked as a journalist, including jobs with the Wilmington News-Journal and Delaware Today magazine. “And that history impacts the way you write — whether its fiction or nonfiction.”
After a break for lunch, Lara Zeises, an award-winning young adult author, discussed writing from Delaware and for a teenage audience. All three of her titles — Bringing Up The Bones, Contents Under Pressure and the soon-to-be-released Anyone But You — are set in her home state, where she now teaches creative writing at the University of Delaware.
Zeises talked about the demands of the book business and recalled her own path to literary success.
“It is possible to be a working writer,” she said, “as long as you don’t care about healthcare.”
Some of the participants came to the seminar seeking to stimulate their creativity. Joyce Grand, who vacations at Sea Colony from Falls Church, Va., said she has been trying to complete her novel for several years. The distractions of home life, however, have prevented her from finishing.
“I thought maybe I could get motivated to write the last three or four chapters,” Grand said. “You pick up information and suggestions. You can hear your ideas reinforced. I think this is a wonderful service that the library is doing.”
Others came for community.
“I wanted to learn as much as I could from local writers outside of English class,” said Mieke Devrind, the 15-year-old daughter of Travalini’s best friend. “There’s a lot of local support, so I will walk away more prepared.”