Monday, October 29, 2007

Circus School for Writers: the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Fall Conference


This weekend, I learned how swinging on a trapeze can make you a better writer. I was listening to Australian author Jen McVeity give her hour-and-a-half audience participation workshop on writing when she put up a picture of herself high on a trapeze platform.*

With her, we brainstormed everything a novice trapeze artist might be experiencing up there on that tiny platform, from the smooth white chalk on her hands to the pungent smell of her own sweat to the rising noise of the crowd to the blinding lights in her eyes. Then Jen played back to us, in words, the scene we had brainstormed, until each of us, too, felt we were up there on that platform with a bone-dry mouth, quaking hands, and a stomach filled with thousands of caterpillars. Then, in very slow motion, we jumped...and swung...and reached...and reached...and reached...and caught the hands on the other side.

The take-away was that even though the jump itself, and the ensuing swing through the air, and the exhilarating catch at the other side take just seconds, if we're going to experience it as readers, then the writer needs to SLOW DOWN.

Now, this is a technique Jen uses in the writing classes she offers to kids and teachers, but my mind immediately flew to the climax scene in my novel under revision. HUP! The first time I wrote it, I had jumped, swung over the chasm and caught on to the next chapter without so much as looking down. Uh-oh. In my revision, I had to add six pages to cover what I'd tried to swing by. And I'm pretty sure that I'll add even more.

I told Jen later that I had tried the art of the trapeze at a Club Med circus school. I had tried it three times. But when the third jump felt just as terrifying as the first one, and not one bit more fun, I had stopped asking myself to go back up the ladder. I even admitted to her that climbing the ladder was the worst part. I felt like gravity was trying to tear my body away from each rung, and that it pulled harder the higher I climbed.

The interesting thing is that although I quit the trapeze right then and there, the feeling of inching up that ladder didn't leave me. When my main character in Letters From Rapunzel had to fight her way up a concrete pylon on a bridge and realizes half-way up that she should not be doing this, I'm proud to say that I wouldn't let her quit, and I did not let her back down, and I calmly and deliberately stopped time.

*Jen also loves rock-climbing, water-skiing, volleyball and snow-skiing.


  1. Great description! I love seeing your take on that presentation. You and Anne Marie are so quick. I am still trying to pull my stuff together!

  2. More physicality! It's everywhere...

  3. Hey - I was at that conference, too - what a fun time! I also enjoyed your input as well as that of the other panelists. Plus Bruce Coville - he was an amazing speaker! That conference is always such a welcome shot in the arm.

  4. Darla, welcome to the blog! Yes, the conference always is a boost, no matter how many times I've been. Something about having all that creative energy in one room. Wishing you lots of good writing time!


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