Celebrating 10 Years of Writers on a New England Stage: Things I’ve Learned

Here are the top things that I’ve learned from doing this series and hanging out with some of the most brilliant minds of our time.

1) Dance a little before you go on stage, it loosens you up. Alan Alda taught me this during the very first show of Writers on a New England Stage, and it has been my MO ever since. I even got to dance the swim with Stephen King to “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” played by Dreadnaught, right before he went on.
2) Don’t get cute with lots of exclamation points or using words to heighten the dialogue ‘she/he said.’ Elmore Leonard had some great advice on keeping prose clean and punchy. (I was lucky to take him for lunch and to see a lighthouse before his show; learning just how many cigarettes a guy could smoke who wasn’t smoking more than one.)
3) Give your imagination permission. E.L. Doctorow wasn’t troubled by the fact that he didn’t know all the facts—he had his imagination.
4) Even serious people want to have fun. David McCullough singing “Hey Good Looking” to his wife backstage with the band and Madeleine Albright playing the drums reminded me not to take life too seriously.
5)  Persistence pays off. Perhaps the greatest example of this was Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s epic blizzard journey to make her date at The Music Hall. All the folks who came out to see her were rewarded with a memorable evening of grit, kept promises, and overcoming adversity.
6)  Success is hard won and rejection is part of it.  Countless authors have detailed the struggles they encountered and the sacrifices they made while trying to get their work published and their voices heard. I came to realize just how common a theme this is, and how it applies to most of us, myself included.
7)  If you get rich and famous, beware your personal posse. Some of the most difficult nights backstage weren’t due to egotistical authors, but to the machinations of the posse they brought with them who were jockeying for position.
8) Just connect.  I’ve found that by being present and unconcerned about anything but making sure we have a good show and a reasonably happy author, I can connect with people in an immediate, unfussy way—from Margaret Atwood thinking I might be somewhat fey because I got on her wavelength to teaching E.O. Wilson the meaning of “not my first rodeo” and having a laugh about it.
9) If you can’t stop being a writer, you’re a writer. Salman Rushdie generously gave a master class to UNH MFA students the second time he appeared with the series. His richly succinct answer when one of them asked, “How do you know if you’re really a writer?” struck home with me.
10) Keep Learning. From Dan Brown to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the series constantly reminds me that authors and readers share the quality of wanting to know more. I know I do.