Talk Story: Laura Lentz

Laura Lentz’s world is one of words.

An author, editor and writing instructor, the Kilauea resident’s work ranges from perfecting poetry to crafting succinct company mission statements — and everything in between.

“Words are words, right?” she said, adding that the one common trait all stories share, from literature to executive summaries, is: “They have to be compelling.”

It’s a theme the 53-year-old has stuck to. She’s run Los Angeles-based Latino Family Media Inc. and Family Media for 15 years, but calls Kauai her home after she moved here six years ago.

For the last four years, she’s run a weekly writing workshop. Every week, around a dozen writers gather in her home to run through writing exercises and practice the craft of penning stories. The group focuses on constructive criticism, which creates a comforting environment where writers freely tap into their emotions and let unencumbered narratives flow.

“Our memories are not accurate, it’s scientifically proven. Memories are mostly about emotions,” Lentz said, explaining that she urges writers to get away from clinging to personal experiences as unalterable, factual truths. “Loosen it up and be set free.”

While the 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. weekly classes have been running for years, she’s launching a new sex writing workshop from 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Yes, she knows the name of the $50 course is a little shocking. She jokes she’ll probably have to change it in the future. But it’s not a class for learning about, say, adult film manuscripts — far from it. It’s about studying and delving into character development using sexuality as a backbone.

“It’s not really about the act of sex but it’s about taking the shame away,” she said. “By actually writing about sex, we go deeper in the human experience and the vulnerability of the human experience — and your writing will blossom.”

The talent level of writers on Kauai, she said, rivals that of Los Angeles.

“Awesome talent here on Kauai,” she said. “I’m shocked every week.”

Last week, Lentz caught up with The Garden Island to talk about all things writing.

TGI: What’s the secret to writing well? Is there a simple trick that people need to learn? A matter of practice, perhaps?

Laura Lentz: There is no secret to writing. Everybody has the ability to write well. I’ve been working with writers for years and have seen the most basic writing turn into extraordinary writing. Practice helps, but also having a safe environment to continue to have your stories heard. What we all want in life is to be heard. Then we want feedback. I don’t allow negative feedback in my creative groups. We grow through feedback that addresses what is strong in the writing.

TGI: What’s the biggest mistake writers make? Is there a stereotype they try to fill that comes off as phony?

LL: My biggest pet peeve is cliches, i.e. “She was dressed to kill” or “He was the spitting image of his father.” But that is just a bad habit and can be easily fixed. Also writers must show instead of tell, otherwise a story is flat. We have so many amazing writers in our group, the less experienced writers automatically learn from the more experienced writers. Here is an example of telling: “I came home from work. I made love to my boyfriend. I didn’t know what to make for dinner.” Or you can write by showing the reader: “I walked into the house and John said, ‘Kiss me.’ I didn’t want to be kissed, but he pulled a little on the back of my hair until my chin lifted …”

TGI: You edit, you write. Which do you get more enjoyment out of?

LL: I love writing as much as breathing or secretly watching my 20-year-old daughter cook when she doesn’t know I’m watching her. Writing and editing are both delicious. Writing comes easy to me. When editing, I’m helping someone improve an already good story. It takes time to get into the groove, but then it’s like a beautiful dance between two people, like a literary tango. You have to honor their story while helping them improve upon it. I have an unusual editing style. When I see what is missing in a chapter, I give the writer prompts to pull out the missing details the chapter needs, rather than rewrite it for them.

TGI: You talked about a lot of talent on Kauai. Why do you supposed that is?

LL: Kauai is the most magical place I have been to in my life. Magic happens here every day if you pay attention. I don’t care if you are in a garage in Kapahi working on your car or hiking the Na Pali Coast. The energy here is palpable. Hawaiians talk story. They are natural story tellers. This island is story. I think Kauai brings out the story in all of us who come here. It draws it out of us. There are many talented writers here working on their craft because Kauai gives us hope and inspiration.

TGI: How does the local talent compare to what you’ve edited in L.A. or authors who live in different areas?

LL: I’ve taken workshops all over the country, in L.A., New York, and I have hosted workshops. I’ve worked with Pulitzer Prize winning poets in master classes. There are amazing writers all over the world, but Kauai is overflowing with talented writers. If I were an agent in New York, I’d have a second office here looking for the next best thing. I’d plant myself in Kolo Road Writer’s group for three months and pick my next three books. Then I’d come back again to see the progress of those writers I didn’t choose.

TGI: What satisfaction do most people get when they write or write well?

LL: Hearing someone write the truth — not just the truth, but the bone of the truth, the shame in the truth — it wakes up both the writer and the reader. We find our truths through writing, even if they are truths through comedy. It’s satisfying because it’s 1,000 times more effective than therapy. I see people grow into their stories, then grow up through their stories. It’s satisfying because it’s almost always about redemption.

TGI: Tell me about the sex workshop class. What led to it, and what do you hope people get out of it?

LL: Henry Miller wrote, “What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse.” This makes me laugh because it’s so true. Giving our characters in our stories sexuality gives them dimension. I want to help writers learn how to weave sexuality through their writing because the way someone behaves sexually tells us so much about them. It’s what I said earlier about showing and not telling. Even if you aren’t having sex, I want writers to write about that, because if you go deep you’ll understand why, and that story is interesting. In this class we are studying poets such as Allen Ginsburg and Brent Reiten, and modern memoirs such as “Chronology of Water” by Lidia Yuknavitch.

TGI: What’s your favorite part about what you do?

LL: Witnessing the magic of group creative consciousness, which is something that happens every week when we are writing our six-minute writing exercises together. You can’t imagine the synchronicity. Five people will have a red bike in their story, or four people the San Francisco Bridge. We are tapping into each other’s energetic thoughts when we are writing this way. It still surprises me every week. Also meeting all the talented, kind and loving people.

TGI: Favorite author? Most inspirational piece of writing you read? Most overrated piece of writing that, despite its reputation, you don’t think is that good?

LL: Despite his reputation, Ernest Hemingway is a least favorite of mine. I’ve tried over and over and his stories don’t resonate for me. Joan Didion I love, but when she lost her husband and wrote, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” it was too soon. There is something about distance from pain or joy that helps us write better. Most of us can’t write well if we are choking on grief or flying from joy. Distance from emotion adds dimension. Right now I’m loving “Natural Birth” by Toi Derricotte, as poetry is my favorite form of the written word. Sharon Olds, a favorite poet of mine, finally won a Pulitzer Prize for “Stag’s Leap.” I still can’t get over Salinger’s writing. He was a master of dialogue — “Nine Stories” and “Franny and Zooey.” For me Salinger is timeless.

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