Word Café’s second season began with a bang as Marilyn Johnson delighted a packed house with frank, funny tales of her evolution as a writer. She studied poetry in college, became an assistant to Esquire’s legendary fiction editor Rust Hills, and began to write fiction herself. Struggling with self-doubt and blockage, she moved sidelong into journalism and obituary writing (“I LOVED writing about dead celebrities!”), which led to her first book, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. Marilyn says her writers’ block “disappeared when I took myself out of the center.” She feels a responsibility to tell others’ stories and get it right, and has a passion for research, online and in the field.
Marilyn described her books The Dead Beat, This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, and her new book Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble as a “a trilogy about memory professions.” She read a passage from Lives in Ruins about attending a “forensics camp” in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, in which the metaphor of digging deep became literal.
Nina observed that writing is also a “memory profession,” and that there are many parallels between the ways nonfiction and fiction writers create settings and characters and structure a narrative to draw readers in.
Marilyn agreed. “We’re trying to open up a world, bring a world to life,” she said, adding that prose needs to be “alive, with sparks coming off it. Something has to have a beating heart going on.”
Marilyn suggests enrolling in an activity that takes you outside your comfort zone and writing about that
Her in-class exercise: Fantasize about a world you’ve always wanted to enter, a gate you’ve never gone through, and write about that.
Nina’s exercise was a close cousin: You (or a character you create) are walking down a street or hallway. You see a door that’s slightly ajar. Push it open and enter. What do you find?
We heard some astonishing starts by writers in the group, including teen prodigies Ava Ratcliff and Jack Warren, who built whole worlds in minutes.
Try something new, and dig deep!