Writing with Wally Lamb – LB Gschwandtner

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By LB Gschwandtner

In March of 2014 I boarded a plane from Washington D.C. bound for Naples, Italy on my way to a little town carved out of sheer rock overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. Praiano, Italy on the Amalfi Coast – population 2,026 – is sandwiched between the two tourist magnets of Amalfi and Positano. A more lovely locale simply does not exist.♥

I’d attended more than a few writers’ workshops since I began this journey called writing but had never taken a risk so big as to cross an ocean to spend a week on a cliff with thirteen people I’d never met. Talk about metaphor.

Since I didn’t know any of the teachers or attendees, one name had caught my attention – Wally Lamb. Now there are Wally readers who adore everything he’s written and others who love one or another of his books. Having been an Oprah Book Club pick early on for not one but two of his books certainly helped catapult Lamb to heights he never conjured. Despite all of his acclaim, he was a down-to-earth, funny, engaging, self deprecating, and generous guy.

At the time I decided to cross the big pond, I was about midway through writing a novel about a fifteen-year-old girl’s first semester as a sophomore at a Quaker prep school. She and one other new sophomore were the only two new students that year, putting them in the unenviable position of outsiders, away from home, in an unfamiliar world.

I submitted twenty pages and waited to hear if I’d have the chance to present my work to what’s known in writing circles as “good readers.” Which is to say, people who read a lot with a certain depth of understanding and commitment to what the author is going for and what works and what doesn’t. Also a writing workshop is a good way to gauge enthusiasm for your story. In other words, does it have legs?

So there I was, in a small hotel overlooking the sea, about to meet nine other writers-in-progress and three instructors. Besides Wally, the other teachers were nonfiction writer and teacher, Lary Bloom, and published poet, Suzanne Levine. And ten hopeful writers – five working on memoirs and the rest fiction. Turned out, after general discussion about each submission with the whole group, fiction writers would have private critique sessions with Wally and memoirists would meet one-on-one with Lary and Sue.

Oh oh. Well there’s always one troublemaker of some kind in a workshop and when this news got out, she revealed herself with an ugly display of displeasure and a threat to leave. She only came this far to have Wally Lamb discuss her work and she deserved it more than anyone else there because she had heard from so many people that her memoir was an extraordinary accomplishment and so on.

In the end she stayed and we all listened patiently to her complaints for the next six days.

Another memoirist detailed a family event with thinly disguised backstory about a small girl’s unusual fears. Of all of us, Wally picked up on the sexual abuse lurking there and when I learned more about Wally and his work helping incarcerated women write their stories, it was understandable how he would have sensed what was behind the words on the page. But it was how he handled it in front of the whole class that left such an impression on me.

He simply asked, “Where’s the father in this family scene?”

That simple question unleashed the real story of abuse in this writer’s own family and freed her to finally write about it.

And here’s the thing about workshops. You can’t predict beforehand what’s going to happen – for you or anyone else. Having been to more than a few of them, I can say what emerges is always a surprise. One jerk is overshadowed by everyone else and you learn from the experiences, even the negative ones. Whether you’re writing or painting or playing the flute, workshops open you to new ways of thinking and viewing the world. Think of workshops as out-of-town tryouts for a new play. Audiences let you know what’s working and what’s not. Whatever you’re working on needs feedback. For me, meeting writers and teachers of the craft has enriched your life beyond the written page. This is my seventh book and just this May I attended my eleventh writing workshop. Because there’s so much to learn.

As for me, I wrote a crucial scene for my book and read it aloud to the group at open reading night. It was well received and that gave me a sense that this book did indeed have legs. It became my just-published novel, The Other New Girl, and took two more years to finish. But it was in Praiano, with Wally and the others where the book really began to breathe with a life beyond me.

LB Gschwandtner is the author of four adult novels, one middle-grade novel, and one collection of quirky short stories. She has won writing awards in Writers Digest and Lorian Hemingway fiction competitions and been published in literary digests and magazines. She lives on a tidal creek in Virginia with her husband of forty-five years, with whom she cofounded the multimedia company Selling Power Inc. LB has been the editor of Selling Power magazine for more than thirty years.


1 Comment

  1. Emily Weathers Kennedy

    September 26, 2017 at 3:49 am

    Excellent essay! I didn’t know about your Italian experience. Makes your book more intriguing.

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