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What I Didn’t Expect to Learn at This Year’s Uncon

[1] Among the great joys and benefits of teaching is the opportunity to learn from my students. That point hit home dramatically this week at Uncon – or rather, at lunch just before registration began.

I happened to arrive at the Hawthorne Hotel restaurant shortly before another conference attendee, L. Deborah Sword, and upon realizing we were both there for the conference we decided to share a table.

I quickly became intrigued by Deborah’s story. A Canadian (she lives with her US-born husband in Calgary), she more than lived up to her country’s notorious reputation for sheer unadulterated niceness. I shortly learned, however, that her gentle, courteous demeanor was hard-won. She has spent much of her life researching, consulting, speaking, and writing about conflict.
She started with a master’s degree in environmental dispute resolution, then moved to conflict management, which focuses on “conflict competence.” For her doctorate, she studied conflict analysis, which seeks to ask better questions about the heart of conflict by analyzing the issues earlier and delving deeper into their nature and origins. In her “volunteer time,” she has served on the boards of directors of numerous environmental and peace organizations, and she donates her services to a number of nonprofit agencies.

She’s here at the Uncon to see if she can find a home for her first novel so she can begin her second, which she eagerly hopes to do. Its protagonist will be a woman lawyer in an alternative history featuring a speculative world in which a crucial British case concerning shareholder rights versus community interests goes differently than it did in reality. The narrower financial interests lose out in her version, and the broader impacts to society become central to the world Deborah imagines.

But the teacher’s lesson began when Deborah asked me what I was working on. I mentioned I thought I had finally managed to find the solution to a crucial section in my current WIP that had stopped me cold for months, largely because of the research required.

The section concerns a young African-American woman born as a slave within the Choctaw tribe. (The “Five Civilized Tribes”—Seminole, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Creek—were all driven from their native homelands in the South along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears, due to the high death toll the tribes suffered along the way. Like the whites among whom they had lived, they too had African-American slaves, and brought them to their new homelands in Indian Territory, modern-day Oklahoma.) At the outbreak of the Civil War, the young woman’s family decides to make a break for Mexico, where slavery is outlawed. This requires a hazardous trip across Texas, in the grips of a decade-long drought. Only the young girl survives, and she is found wandering the barren grasslands by a Comanche hunting party. She is taken into the tribe, where she gradually evolves from a prisoner to a “chore wife” of a head man within the tribe.

After I recounted all this to Deborah, she mentioned that, in Canada, reconciliation with the First Nations on whose land we live is a government priority, and official public gatherings often begin with a verbal naming of the Tribal lands and treaties. She asked a simple question: Had I contacted anyone in the Comanche Nation to verify the accuracy of my scenario?

I admitted I had not, but I had read extensively on the subject. She noted that in Canada it is well-established practice that no one would consider writing about a Native American tribe without consulting them. It was both a sign of respect and a recognition of the long history of misinformation generated by the white world about the tribes, and the need to rectify that. She also wondered if writing the section might not in fact become easier given this connection to the tribe.

I have to admit, my heart sank at this. Believe me, I have suffered over this section of the book, for a variety of reasons, and the thought of delaying the actually writing of it any further dispirited me in no small way.

Worse, Deborah apparently could tell from my expression that I wasn’t taking her suggestion well.

And then I had one of those moments that regrettably has taken me far too long in my life to recognize and honor. The kind of moment where I stop for a second, take a deep breath, and reflect meaningfully on the fact that I am being a bit of a dick.

I was resisting her suggestion out of four unacceptable impulses:

Note: My resistance became all the more insupportable when, later that same day, I learned that the White House had decided that November, previously considered Native American Heritage Month, had been re-designated “National American History and Founders Month.”

Well, to no great credit on my part, I caught myself and realized Deborah was absolutely right, and I promised her I’d go up immediately and reach out to the Comanche Nation. It wasn’t hard—the Comanche Nation website has a link to its Historic Preservation Services that in particular, “Works with government officials, scholars, researchers, artists, educators, students, elders, and tribal members, on Comanche history matters.” I shot off an email and await a reply.

I let Deborah know I wanted to write a WU post about our discussion and she graciously agreed. In particular, being an expert on conflict management and resolution, she hoped that our discussion might lead to a larger one concerning the need for cross-cultural engagement and understanding. We live in an era of ever-increasing polarization and intransigence, with the threat of violence always present. The need to reach across perceived divides, engage, and listen, could not be more important.

Not just for Canadians.

* * * * *

Before I end, I want to add that the chance to learn from my students has been a minute-by-minute affair at the UnCon. Every presentation becomes a dialogue given the generally high skill level and accomplishment of the attendees, and even the chance meetings in the hallway become an opportunity to hash out fine points on setting, character, plot, marketing.

Last night in particular, during the “Genre Meetups,” I had the chance to sit with Grace Wynter, Lana Billman, Judy Fort Brenneman, and Bonnie Belanger-Gauthier at the Crime and Mystery table, and with a creative hive mind we “got under the hood” with our various works in progress, checking to see what worked, what might need a second go, and generally hashing out what’s needed for a compelling story. It continues to be both humbling and gratifying how much I learn from just the simple exercise of hearing about someone else’s struggle with their material, their process, and trying to help them solve their problems and answer their questions. The only problem—I’m finding myself so continuously energized that I need to retreat to my room now and then to recoup.

Among life’s problems, I’d consider that one relatively benign.

If you’re a teacher, what have you learned from a student? If you’re a student, what have you taught a teacher?

If you attended Uncon (final day today), what did you learn tat you didn’t expect to learn?

About David Corbett [2]

David Corbett [3] is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [4], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.