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  • Jill Lawson

Birthing a Fat Baby At The Kauai Writer's Conference

Last weekend I attended the Kauai Writer’s Conference for a second time. After my first experience, I left feeling incredibly motivated. The broad take-home message from each amazing author was the same this year. Just write. Write. And then write some more.

Your first draft will be shit. Don’t show it to anyone. It’s like a fat baby. It only becomes the Statue of David after you carve it, chisel it, and sculpt it into a masterpiece. It’s not uncommon for your story to undergo three, four, sometimes ten drafts before it begins to take shape and reveal itself.

This advice gave me validation. As many of you know, I am writing a story of my dad’s unusual yet calculated journey from Wall Street to the West Fork, and the ripple effect that followed. From limousine rides to catered black-tie parties in New York City to riding in a 1970 Dodge Power Wagon chewing on red dust and a Slim Jim, his 180-degree turn made waves in the calm waters of complacency.

Over the last year, I birthed many fat babies. Tapping away at the keyboard, I accomplished the suggested 2,000 words a day goal. Well, more like 2,000 words in one sitting goal, because some days find me frolicking aimlessly at the beach. With goals, it doesn’t take long to amass a collection of short stories. Shitty first drafts aside, I am accumulating material to sculpt.

Write what you know. Don’t hold back. You have a story to tell. Be brave. What’s the worst thing that can happen?

A woman I had lunch with at the conference told me agents are currently looking for stories of parents written by their adult children. I better stay busy if I’m going to nail this apropos window. So, the worst thing that could happen is I don’t get it done.

Am I holding back? In the holding back, we may save ourselves some discomfort, but to omit pinnacle truths is to be a dishonest writer.

A writer’s voice must be authentic. He or she must speak their truth. Whether it’s fiction or a memoir, or an essay, the reader must feel connected to the characters, and embody their experiences. Imagine you are at a play. You are in the front row seat. Unless you can feel the spray of an actor’s spit land on your face, you’re not getting the full experience. Don’t just tell your story, show it. Bring it to life. Make your readers feel everything you feel. The only way to do this is to be authentic.

Those who knew Billy knew he basically told mainstream society to fuck off, and lived happily ever after. Yet many don’t know that he had a family who, for the most part, did not take his decision lightly. In the wake of our move, he transformed into a different person, someone we no longer recognized. My mother drowned her dismay in Stolichnaya and soda. Disenchanted by the outhouse and backyard bucket showers, my sister fled the scene. In my innocence, I idolized the stranger who both won and broke my heart.


I had mixed feelings about going to the conference this year because I felt I wasn’t writing fast enough. I spend some days thinking (on the beach) rather than writing. I will step away from the computer, sometimes for days, as to not carve the baby too hard and silence my voice.

It took me seven years to write my first book. When my publisher asked me to produce a book a year, I had to decline. That’s not how I write.

More validation.

Agents look for stories that rip out your guts, leave you writhing in emotion, and then put you back together again.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The repercussions of walking away from a successful career and a family to live sagaciously in Shangri La weren’t all win-win. Forging a new path has merit, yet it requires one to be selfish and audacious; not many people take that final step. Change neither comes free of sacrifice nor full of substantiation.

Agents want to know how the hero overcomes his or her struggles.

Was Billy a hero? He certainly didn’t have use for struggles. Whether you called him the wizard of ease, the napper in the hammock, the lithium-soaked sage who had his oyster-world shucked for him, you knew struggling wasn’t his style.

But, there are two sides to every story. For the majority of his time in Paradise, he lived alone, in the kingdom he created. Sometimes he’d be snowed in for days. Sometimes homebound without a running vehicle for days. Sometimes he just had no one to talk to and nowhere else to go, for days. He told us he preferred it that way.

Alone with his thoughts, his ego became both his best friend, and his worst enemy. In his seclusion, he took a hard look at himself and the choices he made. From the deep recesses of intense self-realization, whether it was through hallucinogenic substances he grew to love, or the mood-altering effects of solitude, he crafted poetry, prose, and impressionable life lessons and aphorisms that have had far reaching consequences.


By the third day, a sore throat and horrible body aches led me back into my hotel room, sleeping through the last two classes. If it wasn’t the deep massage that rattled my lymphatic system, or the fact that I was malnourished because soup was not an option at the buffet table (I still can’t chew), it was the social activity that worked me over. One has to build up a tolerance for small talk when they’re out of practice.

If you want to be a writer, you have to love your own company. Writers spend most of their time alone. If you don’t like to be alone, writing isn’t for you.

Ha! The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I learned from Tea Obreht, Joshua Mohr, Mark Kurlansky, Meg Wolitzer, Christina Baker Kline, Greg Iles, Paula McLain, Amy Ferris, and many more. Agents, publishers, authors, and poets such as Jane Hirshfield, shared their stories of writing, how to work with an agent, and mapped out the convoluted paths to publishing.

I met amateur writers hoping to land a book deal, and newly published writers promoting their books. I cried with a stranger at breakfast. I listened to a frustrated woman who received her first rejection letter. Dean joined me for the last two days and took a couple of classes. He gained some insight into what occupies my mind when I am home alone writing, (or on the beach, thinking.)

I am pleased I went this year. I came home with the same message. Write. Just fucking get your butt in that chair and write. I was not given the opportunity to be untethered in Hawaii to take it all for granted.

The best part of writing is having written.

One word, one sentence, one paragraph; one shitty fat baby at a time.


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