Highlights from the 2018 Sun Valley Writers Conference (Plus the Elephant in the Room)

Sun Valley, Idaho

July 21-24, 2018

So many new ideas were lobbed out by so many gifted writers and journalists. And so many old ideas and baggage I had to re-examine. Of course, more than a few speakers had at least to mention, if not expound upon, the Elephant in the Room. Two things are clear: (1) that happens wherever one thousand Americans congregate these days and (2) President Trump most likely loves that! As you might guess, the four conference days had many comments on present day politics and the White House. How could contemporary writers and journalists avoid the topic?

What follows are highlights from some of the talks and panel discussions that especially struck me. If you had joined me at the Conference, your highlights would no doubt differ, but I bet we’d have a lot of overlap.

* * *

Living and Thriving in the Age of Acceleration

THOMAS FRIEDMAN (New York Times columnist and three times Pulitzer Prize winner).

His latest book is “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration.” We are now at a time he calls a technological inflection point. (Think of an inflection point as a place on the graph where there is a sudden break or jump in the curve’s direction.)

Everything old and slow now matters more than ever.

Take time to think. Hit the Pause Button on a computer and it will STOP working. But hit the Pause Button on a human and the brain will START working. Friedman thanks all of those who have been late to his invites for lunch: the opportunities gave him time to cogitate those matters that matter.

Because we are more than ever so darn quickly and easily connected to everyone else on the globe—thanks to smart phones, the internet and the social network—anyone on the planet can reach out to almost anyone else and say hello, inform or do harm.

Don’t forget what’s unique about cyberspace: We are all there and no one is in charge. The Big Deal about it all: the opportunity for deep learning and insight is now becoming ubiquitous.

What happened with the surprising election result of 2016? Many in middle class and throughout country had begun asking themselves: What is all this gender confusion stuff? Why does the clerk at my gas station wear a hijab? Why is this robot next to my workstation studying my job? People were worried. And remember, Friedman emphasizes: people connect with their guts, not just with their ears.

“What keeps you up at night?” was a question from the audience.

Friedman: “The unintended consequences of a President who thinks in an aberrant way. You don’t flip a country like you flip a condo.”

Friedman is no fan of Mr. Trump’s. Do we need a Wall? Well, maybe we do need a high wall, Friedman said, . . . but with a very Big Gate. Mr. Trump asked to use his words, but that version turned out to be a “very High Wall with a Beautiful Door.”

Now more than ever, Tom Friedman believes, the Golden Rule applies to make for strong families, healthy communities and a world we want to venture forth in rather than fear.

* * *

A Journalist in the Age of Fake News

STEVE COLL (Dean, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and two- time Pulitzer Prize winner).

Many years ago newspapers strived to get the “papers” in as many homes as possible. Therefore, they had to stick with the facts and keep opinions out of the news.  Don’t serve a particular group. The purpose: get as wide a distribution and make as much money as possible! But since 2003, newspaper employment has fallen by about 40%, primarily because of loss of traditional advertising revenue.

The biggies in advertising these days are Social media: Google, Facebook and You Tube.

Coll’s opinion is that the last 20 years newspapers and journalists have started choosing sides. The result: emotional engagement with a “tribalized” audience. Although our President refers to mainstream reporting that he doesn’t like as “fake news,” the problem is fake news is also a real phenomenon. In recent times, intelligence agencies and investigative reporters have uncovered millions of news stories that have been “manufactured” by small groups around the world who profit from the enterprise.

Artificial intelligence is rapidly improving the ability to create fake news. A group of teenagers in Macedonia was discovered creating news stories, placing them in ads, and getting paid by the likes of Facebook and You Tube by “the click.” In many cases, Russians created stories and delivered them to the Internet with the appearance of news agency logo, slightly altered to give readers a false sense of a trusted source.

As a Dean of a Journalism School, Coll’s problem with Mr. Trump is his attempt to de-humanize journalists. It’s tougher for them these days, he said, as they strive to be independent seekers of truth.

* * *

So You Want to Write a Murder Mystery

(I think a better title for her talk would be: How to write novels that people will read.)

TESS GERRITSEN (M.D. and New York Times Best-selling novelist)

Gerritsen had a plethora of tips for novelists and those who want to be one. I note only a few that were great reminders for me.

First, get the premise right. And make punch-in-the-gut pitches based on those premises. Examples of premises (she calls them “what-ifs”) she has used to get her writing: What if a medical examiner realized she was doing an autopsy on herself? Or, what if children were being kidnapped and being use as organ donors?

Give every scene tension, even if only petty conflicts. Action is boring. Characters make the story.And by the way, that is what Hollywood is looking for: not plots, but characters. Stephen King is the master of character.

Always write for the purpose of making emotional connection with the reader!

* * *

STEPHEN BREYER (Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court)

One of the toughest issues he faces is that of getting the balance right, between our right to privacy vs. right to obtain and exploit our personal info.

He doesn’t require his grandkids to memorize the Constitution (as he apparently does with the Gettysburg Address!), but he pointed out that the U.S. Constitution only sketches the government’s frontiers and boundaries. It’s only seven articles with the important first 10 amendments: our Bill of Rights.

It’s up to the Supreme Court to interpret this Constitution, and it is usually only complex issues that come before the Court. That is, complex whenever you take a closer look at the cases. “What do I know?” Justice Breyer lamented. “I don’t know anymore than you do; I just read the briefs!” But with the Associate Justice’s twinkle in his eye, the rigor of his speech, and the passion for law he exudes, we have to believe he analyzes those briefs to the hilt . . . and then some.

* * *

JAMES AND DEBORAH FALLOWS (“Our Towns”) spoke enthusiastically about their trips around American towns and small cities.  We learned, for example, that private/public partnerships in Greenville SC have established an Elementary School for Engineering.Yes, that among many other innovative ideas. Community colleges are stepping up everywhere to help fill hi-tech jobs. The public library is the heart and soul of many communities. They even mentioned in particular the one in Charleston, WV where it so happens I was introduced to math, science and Einstein as a teenager.

*  * *

How Did This Happen? The Roots of the Populist Rebellion

FAREED ZAKARIA (CNN host of Fareed Zakaria GPS and Washington Post columnist)

Like Tom Friedman, Zakaria is no fan of the President’s.  To his mind, Trump’s campaign message was one of creating an atmosphere of fear. In his opinion, that message in a nutshell: Immigrants are taking your jobs, the Chinese are taking your factories, and the Muslims are coming after you.

He pointed out that the two best predictors of whether you voted for Donald Trump (as determined by those political scientists who dig to analyzing such details) were how you answered the following: First, are you a Republican? Second, do you have a college degree?

His primary message that stood out for me (scientist, academic, writer), was the class distinction in America that has blossomed forth. As he so succintly puts it, the distinction between those who do well on tests and those who don’t. A lot of Americans disdain those who do well on tests: the scholars, intellectuals, professional of all fields. Zakaria believes what he is seeing in America is the remarkable paradox of the working class’ reverence for rich people, whom they want to be like, while at the same time despising the professional class: you know them, those who did so well in school at taking tests.

To his view, today our political affiliation is more important to our identity than our religious affiliation.Indeed, our politics have become our religion. To that end, a protestant pastor in rural Georgia once confessed to me privately that the primary problem he had with his own congregation was their readiness to bring their politics to their religion, rather than their religion to their politics.

President Trump gets it, Zakaria announces. The President goes for the gut, not the head. (Just as we heard from Friedman.) But he is quick to point out that what President Trump is doing in terms of tax cuts, Supreme Court picks, and government regulatory cuts are policies any Republican would implement as President. That’s not the issue he has with the President. No, he adds, what is “uniquely dangerous” about this President is his constant seeking to “degrade Democratic institutions.”

Question from the audience: Why did Hillary lose? Answer: First, the election was really about change. Neither a Bush nor Clinton was going to hack it for many. (But remember, Hillary won the popular vote.) Mrs. Clinton simply was not the politician her husband was. She lacked emotional resonance with too many voters.

Another question from the audience: What Democrat can succeed in defeating this President in 2020? Zakaria admits he had no idea at the moment who that candidate could possibly be.

Again, the President really might have loved attending the Conference.

* * *


It was a remarkable occasion for my wife June and me to mix with talented writers and voracious readers from around the country. There were many other speakers; only highlights are included from a few talks that I attended. In sum, I came away with renewed interest in writing, a number of new ideas to contemplate, dissect and debate, and a reminder of why we southerners love spending time during our long hot summers at 6,000 feet.

* * *

James Marshall Smith is the author of two award-winning and Amazon best-selling novels: Silent Source and most recently, Hybrid: A Thriller. You can learn more about him and his work on Facebook @AuthorJamesMarshallSmith or on his website: http://www.JamesMarshallSmith.com


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