Learning from Dennis Lehane

Every October, a conglomerate of Cincinnati libraries, bookstores, and universities puts on Books by the Banks, a convention for readers and writers to come together and discuss their favorite thing: books.

This year I went with Stephanie and Sarah, and between the 3 of us, we attended 4 different panels. The first was with Chris Bohjalian, who had a smooth patter of stories and jokes. He made me laugh with his anecdotes, then cry (almost) with his poignant reading.

The second panel featured Brock Clarke and Paula McLain, who were more off-the-cuff, and who gamely tried to connect despite their books (and their personalities) seeming quite different. I enjoyed Brock’s sarcasm and self-deprecating humor, as well as Paula’s girlish enthusiasm and passionate ramblings.

Then, for the final panel of the day, Steph and Sarah went to see a group of YA authors we like (discussing whether teen lit is “too dark”) while I went to see Dennis Lehane.

Books by the Banks 007

You probably know Dennis’s work, even if you think you don’t. He wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone Baby Gone — all critically acclaimed films now. In fairness, I’ve never read his work either, but when I was a senior in college, he came as the English Department’s end-of-year speaker, and I had to miss it (as I did every year) for my dance show. Everyone said he was great, though, so I was determined to see him this time around. And I am so, so glad I did.

Earlier in the day, I had passed Dennis at his booth, signing books, playing Scrabble on his iPhone, and generally looking kind of tired. Assuming that this was part of a grueling promotional tour, I sympathized, but to be honest, I also worried that he might flame out on the panel.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For the first few minutes he did say “um” a lot, but once he warmed up, his body and his words filled with Writerliness. You could almost see the change, and you could certainly hear and feel it. He read us part of his new work, which was gritty and clever, and then he took questions from the audience. Below, paraphrased, is some of what he shared with us.

  • “As a writer, it’s important to slam doors in your own face. It forces you to create windows.”
  • He likes to write in the morning, “before the world is too much with me,” when he’s still a little bit in the dream state. The older he gets, the more he needs a non-modern feel to his environment (like an old Underwood typewriter he keeps nearby). Reassuringly, he also said he’s gotten a lot more disciplined over the years — in part due to having a family and thus more responsibility, less time to himself.
  • “Maybe you’re just not a writer. This isn’t a cruel thing to say; it’s a reality.”
  • Growing up, all he wanted was to be a baseball player. He worked 5 times as hard as everyone else, he said, even practicing in the dead night in February, causing the loss of a few teeth. But no matter what he did, no matter how bad he wanted it, he didn’t have the athletic ability. Eventually he came to peace with that, and he found something else.
  • He told us the genesis of Shutter Island, which I found fascinating. It involves the Patriot Act, a drunken night out with friends, and the unexpected hospitalization of his mother.
  • “I’m just a student for the rest of my life.”
  • He doesn’t worry about being literary or commercial. He’s not trying to please anybody — though of course he hopes to please readers. Above all he writes characters. He wants to take you on their journey. And he wants to keep getting better.

I enjoyed Dennis’s talk so much that I seriously considered asking him if he wanted to have dinner with me (and Andy, who I thought would really like him). Instead I settled for getting him to sign a book and take a picture.

That night I went home feeling rejuvenated, infused with literary energy and learnings. Even writing this recap has ignited a kind of spark in me. All I can say is, if you have the chance to go to this event or anything like it — maybe an author reading at your local bookstore — do it.

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  1. What a great experience, and some very good advice. “Maybe you’re just not a writer. This isn’t a cruel thing to say; it’s a reality.” That’s what I went through as a musician. It was such a relief, after years of trying really hard, to realize that I just wasn’t that good.

    Like you, I’ve never read anything of his (though I guess now I should), but I liked Mystic River and really liked Gone Baby Gone (Shutter Island not so much).

  2. Jamie

    Nice. He does look a little tired, but I think he always looks like that. (Part of the charm of being from Boston). I met him at a party in Miami a while back and he was a bit more energized, but he lives there, so it’s close to home.

  3. I had a similar experience last week at the Seattle 7 Write Here Write Now conference. I came away feeling incredibly energized and a bit afraid that maybe I’m just not a writer, either.

    But there’s only one way to find out.

  4. I get the feeling from his “maybe you’re not a writer” comment that he wasn’t pushing writing on anyone. I find that refreshing. To be around someone who is inspired can be really inspiring, particularly for me if I don’t feel like they’re shoving their inspiration in my face and saying, “You can do it too if you just want it as much as I did and then do exactly what I did! I figured out the formula!” Such bullshit, pardon my French.

    In other words, he sounds like a great speaker.

  5. I was so sorry to miss Books by the Banks this year. Thanks for the recap. It made me feel like I was there (a little bit). Sounds like great panelists and speakers.

    P.S. You should have asked Dennis to dinner. :)

  6. Sounds great. And you’re so right, getting along to any event where you can hear and meet published writers is always so inspiring. I do it whenever I can. And I agree – you should have asked him to dinner (aren’t all writers starving?!)

  7. What a great blog you have here! I wish I was as smart as you when I was your age.

    Thanks for sharing your experience at this gathering. I loved Shutter Island (although I guessed the ending about halfway through).

    I especially find his advice on slamming doors in your own face to make windows. That encapsulates the whole writing experience right there.

  8. Joelle Wilson

    Great recap on the panel. It’s great how meeting and speaking with other writers can spark your inner creativity.

  9. Anthony-
    Yeah, haha, I sort of had that realization about being a dancer, although I never went so far down that path that it crushed me.

    LOL that’s entirely possible.

    Mmm, somehow I don’t think you’re not a writer. We all have periods of doubt. I think he was talking about something much bigger.

    Have you encountered a lot of writers pushing writing or their particular methods? I feel like I see mostly the opposite — although I DO see a lot of false encouragement. (“We all have a story.” “Anyone can write a book.” etc.)

    But yeah, he was a very good speaker. :)

    Juliann and Joelle-
    Hope you can make it next year!

    Juliann and Amanda-
    I probably should have… I mean, what’s the worst that would have happened?

    Aw thanks! I wish I were as smart as I sometimes sound, lol.

  10. I want to rent Shutter Island now! I’ve only seen Gone Baby Gone of those three, but yes I’ve heard of all of those films without having heard of Dennis Lehane. Love all his advice and this made me want to attend some workshop/conference to get re-inspired. It’s so fun to be at an event surrounded by writers.

  11. Andy really liked Shutter Island, so I want to see that, and I had Gone Baby Gone DVR-ed but then our cable box had to be replaced! :( I love Mystic River, though, and I bought his book The Given Day to read (so that I won’t imbibe ALL his work through Hollywood, lol).

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