Grist from Grisham, Writing Down the Bones with Reichs, and Grace with Anna Deavere Smith

Post Date: September 11th, 2009

At the NC Literary Festival this week, John Grisham told stories to a packed audience of how often A Time to Kill was rejected, about his long slog through libraries selling his first edition, and how fast he works to crank out a book — sometimes less than 70 days.

Kathy Reichs of Bones fame shared how plots came to her while conducting exhumations, while investigating mass graves, while studying maggots. She spoke of dark and humorous moments reading the codes left behind by calcium. She showed how these experiences elicit questions and ideas that lead to novels.

Then a writer came to the microphone and said, “Hi, this question is for John Grisham. I began writing this year, and I think my novel has potential. If it’s not too bold, I wonder if you’d look at my manuscript and perhaps share it with an agent…”

You should have heard the murmurs through Memorial Hall. Most of us squirmed, unbelieving someone had the gall. What rang in my ears was, “I began writing this year.” Maybe the questioner heard Grisham’s stories about working quickly and nothing else; maybe he didn’t add up all the years Grisham worked so hard to reach success. Maybe the questioner figured success was easy as writing a first draft that’s not even finished.

You can guess Grisham’s response: how about you finish that novel first.

I’ve been writing since 1976 and used to think myself quite good at it, especially when I was a child and up through my thirties. But when I look back, I believe I didn’t really start working at writing till the year 2000. A combination of life experiences, book projects, and a new comprehension of sweat needed for revision lifted my writing to the next level. And while I’ve improved, every first draft still needs time and seasoning, and always more than a face lift. I accept 10 drafts of a short story as a matter of course, the starting point, and as I chip away at the fourth draft of my novel — or is it the fifth? — I find part of the joy of writing is rewriting.

I don’t think the guy who asked Grisham the question gets that.

I disliked him immediately for wasting our time, just as much as I disliked the person who brought the baby to tonight’s performance by Anna Deavere Smith, and the college kids in front of me who couldn’t keep from clicking, punching, discussing, and fondling their bright and flashing phones. Checking up on tech took precedence over hearing what Deavere Smith had to say.

Then I remembered what Anna Deavere Smith taught us tonight: the importance of grace.

In her performance, she embodies many people she’s interviewed about grace and about survival — reverends speaking to Harvard congregations, doctors stranded in a hospital during Katrina, and refugees trying to make sense of the horrors they suffered in Rwanda. She takes on personas and reads their souls to us, a storyteller with incredible compassion who can communicate a person’s energy. She walked barefoot, saying that she believed in walking in others’ shoes.

I believe one of a writer’s greatest strengths is giving grace to each of her characters. We must do so in our daily lives, too, but since that’s sometimes too hard thanks to pride and selfishness and narcissism, sometimes my only hope is to love and forgive on the page. When I refuse to reduce character to caricature (because I am not in the business of satire); when I refuse to write only for revenge (because I am not in the business of Rants R Us); when I refuse to see only with my white, female, raised upper middle class eyes — that’s when I can give some grace. I may not know another’s pain firsthand, but I can try to imagine. I can try to appreciate. I can try to learn.

Anna Deavere Smith was asked how she gets people to open up in interviews. She said she was once taught three questions that will get a person talking.

Have you ever been near death?
What were the circumstances of your birth?
Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?

Maybe I will ask my characters these questions while I write. Maybe I will think more gracefully of those who annoy me in a public forum, stumbling along just like me, awkward in a world that is impatient, loud, and as Anna Deavere Smith says, “winner take all.” This is not a race toward efficiency, perfection, and fame. The world is nothing without what Studs Terkel called “the human touch.”

He didn’t mean iTouch. He meant looking each other in the eye and saying, “Sorry,” or “I forgive you,” or “Isn’t that hilarious.”

I was that confident greenhorn once thinking I’d not have to do too much to get my words out there. I assumed everyone wanted to hear what I wanted to say and how I said it. Now, let me give my writing the grace and space to make it worthy of consumption by others at just the right time.

That’s the grist, bones, and grace of it all.

Writing Prompts:

Have you ever been near death?
What were the circumstances of your birth?
Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?


  1. bobmust says:

    Along with the Grisham Grist, I’d have added loud Groans if I’d been at that session – which would likely have made an embarrassing moment abysmal.

    And regarding your questions, particularly death – maybe my “war” stories have given me so many things to write about.

  2. Lyn Hawks says:

    Your war stories surely have. Just your stories of the academy alone are riveting.

    I have war stories of my own, from a different type of “combat,” the teaching trenches. I’m a better person for those days!

  3. bobmust says:

    Go get ’em, teach!

    If you write a good teacher story, I’ll write one about this weird neighborhood we live in. Deal?