Cynthia Lewis has been teaching Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and creative nonfiction at Davidson College since 1980. Her reported essays concern American culture, including such topics as American women bodybuilders, spousal murder, professional gambling in Las Vegas, women’s obsession with shoes, and the world of Southern debutantes. Her nonfiction has been published in Southern Cultures, The Antioch Review, The Massachusetts Review, Shenandoah, Charlotte Magazine, and elsewhere. Three of her personal essays have been included by the editor of The Best American Essays on the “Notable Essays” list and another has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently finishing a book about sports and Shakespeare.
After the initial drafting is complete, a writer may have lost valuable objectivity on the manuscript. The substance of this workshop will be strategies for recovering and sustaining such objectivity on one’s own work once the initial drafting is done. We’ll focus on how to take a draft to the next level, revising and polishing it for publication. We’ll discuss issues large and small—from voice, point of view, narrative arc, organization, scene-setting, and characterization to such concerns of line-editing as eliminating wordiness, achieving stylistic elegance, and correcting grammar. Each participant will submit a portion of a draft that represents one of the following: a lead, a conclusion, a point of crisis or transition—in other words, a crucial passage that can make or break a whole piece. We’ll workshop every submission, attending particularly to how each writer’s choices might affect an audience.
If you could be a different author, living or dead, who would you be?
Andrew Marvell (then I could get to the bottom of his ambiguous poems).
Give us three adjectives you hope critics use to describe your next book.
My next book (versus the one after that): engaging, imaginative, edifying.
What’s one piece of advice no one gave you when you were starting out, that you wish they had?
You’ll get rejected far more often than you’ll be accepted. It’s not personal. Try to learn what you can from rejection and not let it erode your morale. The same piece of writing that one editor / reader doesn’t embrace may be the very piece that another editor / reader will love. You’re making a match; you may need to date around for a while before you find the “right one.” If so, it isn’t your fault; it’s a process.
In 2013, Forbes named Charlotte among its list of Best Places for Business and Careers. What makes Charlotte such a vibrant place to visit and live?
This was the last question I answered because it was the hardest. I’m not sure that being a “best place for business and careers” is quite the same as “vibrant,” a word that, to me, suggests interesting, vital culture. Certainly Charlotte has its cultural ambitions and a good deal to offer by way of the arts, including, but not limited to, excellent museums, like the Bechtler, Mint, and Gantt Center; the world-class North Carolina Dance Theater; a symphony and opera company; and some theater. But the same people who benefit from the monetary wealth in Charlotte aren’t necessarily supporting the wealth of culture here. The closing of the Charlotte Repertory Theatre is a case in point, and the financial struggles of the NCDT, the symphony, and the Arts and Science Council repeatedly point out the divide in Charlotte between those who are in the city to make a good living and those who want to live well in the sense of supporting the city's culture.
Why do you feel it's important for writers to attend conferences such as the NCWN Fall Conference?
As an intensely private activity, writing can make you lose your objectivity on yourself and your work. Periodically joining a group of people who are also writers helps you step outside of your head and your narrow work and see it as others see it—an invaluable gift.
Saturday's "Brilliant at Breakfast" panel discussion is titled, "Words in Civic Life." Does creative writing have a role to play outside the covers of a book?
Oh my goodness, absolutely! Shelley called poets the “unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You don’t have to go that far to accept that leaders often lead through language and communities form around it.
What do you hope attendees takeaway from the conference, especially if they sign up for your workshop?
Confidence in their work, seasoned by trust in the advice offered by others in their writing community.
What does it mean for writers to "Network?" Any tips?
For some writers, it means to hustle constantly, always trying to connect and make inroads in the publishing world. I'm probably far less active at and knowledgeable about networking than I should be and certainly than many of my peers, especially younger writers, who are savvy about using social media to promote their work.
My own approach to networking is, at the very least, includes following up on invitations to submit or to explore opportunities. Beyond that, I'm not above asking questions that some people might consider forward or checking in with people who might be able to help me if they choose to. I found my agent by writing back to an agent who had rejected my project because he didn't feel he knew enough about the area; when I asked him if he knew of another agent who would know about it, he responded that, although he usually doesn't recommend other agents (for obvious reasons), he thought maybe Mr. X would be interested (he was). People you ask for a favor can always say "no," but if you don't ask, you'll never get their help or advice. By the same token, I try to help writers when they come to me. No telling when such kindness will circle back to me; besides, it's the right thing to do.
If you could mandate that everyone in the world read one book, which one would you choose?
A college edition of the complete works of Shakespeare.
Do you read literary journals? What are some of your favorites?
I wish I read more. I read the New Yorker pretty religiously, as it abounds in the kind of writing I respond and aspire to. Beyond that, I admire the Kenyon Review, Shenandoah, Southern Cultures, and many others.
Can writing be taught?
When I started out as a college writing teacher thirty-three years ago, I was skeptical that writing could be taught. All these years later, I now absolutely believe it can be. It’s a set of skills, and skills can certainly be taught.
Who has influenced your writing style the most?
Richard Lanham, author of Longman Guide to Revising Prose.
Have you ever had writer’s block? What is one thing that helped you overcome it?
Yes, I have. The one thing that helped me overcome it was to deny its power over me by continuing to write.
Someone writes an un-authorized biography about your life. What would the title be?
Portrait of a Serene Bitch-Goddess. (Am I allowed to say that?)
Registration for the North Carolina Writers' Network 2014 Fall Conference is now open.