GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – The Geneva Writers’ Group will turn 20 next year and as its 2012 conference drew to a close last weekend, it was clear that the group has matured into a body that today offers an established, “adult” level conference for writers who are looking to become, or already are, serious professionals.
The first conference was held in 1998.
Regular monthly workshops for members cover a variety of topics. The conference, held every two years, takes this a step further, offering “high-level instruction, support and feedback through workshops, discussions, and readings”.
The 2012 conference was sold out, as was the previous one. Some 210 people attended from 30 countries if local expats’ nationalities are considered, “with writers flying in for the weekend from Australia, Iran, Qatar, Kenya, Italy, Austria, United Kingdom and the USA,” according to the group’s founder, Susan Tiberghien.
The list of instructors was impressive and included, for fiction, writers Patricia Duncker, Sheila Kohler and Bret Lott; for non-fiction Nick Barlay, Dinty W Moore and Geneva-based Susan Tiberghien (who founded the conference). Poetry and playwriting instructors led sessions, as did sevral editors and agents (complete programme).
The value of quality conferences like this cannot be understated in an era where digital publishing makes it too easy to put your words into book form. A steady stream of unsolicited self-published books, almost all of them short on professionalism, comes my way for review, and while I admire the determination it takes to write a book from start to finish, I am not happy about the lack of respect for professional skills. Sometimes it is simply naivete. But writers need to keep in mind that readers deserve and demand books whose authors have mastered technical skills, understand the value of good layouts, have taken on board time to proofread and the cost of editorial help.
Professional writers work hard, mostly without much glory or money. Meetings like the Geneva Writers Conference are a wonderful source of inspiration and help to those willing to take the trouble to ask for it; these are the writers who have earned their audiences.
The knotty business of knowledge, complexity and language
Russell Smith at the Globe & Mail in Canada writes about the many curious aspects of our culture(s) such as “Who would have thought reality TV could spawn so much junk”. His latest, “Complex ideas can’t always be made simple” offers reflections on how well a competition for PhD students in Australia works. The students are given three minutes to crunch down their theses into a kind of elevator pitch for their work, to be presented to an audience of non-specialists, and the best speaker wins $5,000. Most of them are quite impressive, says Smith. See for yourself: the 2011 Three Minute Thesis Competition, September 2011
“This looks like a brilliant and progressive idea,” he writes. “It attacks the ivory tower; it builds bridges between specialists and the intelligent laypeople whose tax dollars fund universities; it encourages the development of teaching and performance skills among people who are going to be teachers for the rest of their lives. Universities have long been criticized for spending too much money on obscure research and not doing enough to teach teaching.”
But it doesn’t always work, he argues, in large part because of the differences between the humanities and the sciences.
He addresses the relationship between complexity and knowledge, one we too often skirt. Smith is talking about the social sciences and the jargon of social theory, explaining that “the idea is generally that we can’t see the ideological and economic structures that we live in unless we change our language – for language is a pillar of that very structure. Furthermore, the veneration of clarity or simplicity is itself an ideological position, one that limits thinkers to conventional thoughts.”
I’m a strong proponent of plain English, particularly in education and the workplace, where jargon and complex language often veil a lack of clear thinking. But a distinction needs to be made by people who push for plain English. Complex ideas often cannot be reduced down to simple ideas, or suffer if they do; plain English is needed because simple and elegant language can help us explore complexity, not annihilate it.
Embracing complexity: an inheritance that doesn’t diminish
If there is one kind of wealth I would like to leave to the next generation it is the ability to seek out complexity, to understand it, to appreciate rather than fear it, and ultimately to be able to express it. I would like them to have this ability whether they apply it to physics, politics or the affairs of the human heart. These are the riches that make us truly human.
I’m heading off now to the Lucerne International Film Festival to represent my son’s film, “10,000 Miles“, about traveling from Lhasa in Tibet to Shanghai with three other young men (and about young people there). It is a Selection at the festival (he’s in China and can’t make it). I asked him to send me questions and answers for the FAQ session that is scheduled after the film’s European premiere tonight.
Most are about the technical aspects of the film or details about their travels. I’m particularly happy about the last one, which leaves us with the idea that these travels are the start of a much longer voyage, for all of us.
Liam, who is fluent in Mandarin, has traveled extensively in Tibet, on several occasions.
Q: What do you think about the Tibet-China issue?
A: It is far too complicated to answer in a couple short questions and I woud avoid doing this because it is one of the issues that people most love to jump to conclusions about. To really understand it takes knowing a lot of history, languages and culture; it isn’t as simple a topic as it is often made out to be.
Film’s trailer, posted by the festival
A GeneveLunch contributor via flickr, Obwoodman, likes to shoot skies, and he lives in a place with a spectacular view of Lake Geneva, so he gets some good skies. What really caught my eye with his latest photo, though, was the name of the clouds, lenticular. I remember cumulus and a couple others, but not this one, so went cloud word hunting on wikipedia. The name lenticular comes from their bean shape and they are formed by winds.
A specialist use of the word is lenticular printing, which most of us have seen in the form of 3D greeting cards. But since lenticular basically means having the shape of a double-convex lens, I wondered if anything else in the world was lenticular and it turns out that what we have is really out of this world: lenticular galaxies. Read all about it, in Discover Magazine.
American football in general, and the Super Bowl in particular, provokes US sports writers to use incomprehensible, fenced-in language. It’s a gang thing: read this, get it, use the same words and you’re in! Didn’t get it? Clearly, you’re an outsider.
Attention all writers: think twice before you use what you believe is chatty, catchy language, and this includes sports jargon. It’s likely that anyone on the other side of your cultural fence will ignore or be irritated by you and whatever you’re writing about. I live with sports addicts but one sport they won’t watch is American football. They’re not American, but that doesn’t keep them from most sports. With football, it’s a language thing (also, it stops too often):
“Kurt Warner was hit by LaMarr Woodley and fumbled the ball as he tried to throw a hail mary in the end zone. While the Cardinals argued Warner was throwing the ball it was clear Woodley caught him before his arm went forward. The Steelers took the “Victory Formation” for the last play of the game” (Sports Illustrated/CNN)
“Roethlisberger, who was 21 for 30 for 256 yards with one TD and one interception, directed a 78-yard drive after the kickoff, which actually started with a 10-yard holding penalty against Chris Kemoeatu. The Steelers quarterback found Holmes on a big play of 39 yards in which the speedy receiver got away from slipping safety Aaron Francisco and raced to the Cardinals’ 6.