Week one: I put on my robe and teacher hat

So the first workshop session was last night. This is the second creative writing workshop I've taught for the library, and the first long workshop-- six weeks-- I've done in a while. I think it went well, in spite of occasional stammering and thought-train derailment on my part. Writing is easy. Leading a discussion is something else altogether. I suspect I will always find the latter more difficult. But never mind me-- let's get to the good stuff. I've had a couple of requests to post the lesson plans as I go, in case anyone wants to follow along, so I'll do that. If you'd like to tag along, welcome aboard!

The text that follows is from a handout I put together for the first night, with a few additions here and there. Most of my workshoppers, while very able writers, are new to fiction writing and feeling fairly tentative about it. The workshop material I post on here will, as such, largely be geared toward the beginning writer; depending on where you, dear reader, feel you are as a writer, some of it may seem rather elementary. Equally, since we're using Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft in the workshop,regular readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of the exercises already. But don't let any of that put you off. If nothing else, it never hurts to be reminded of what you already know, to realise that you know it, and to reinforce it.

The nice thing about the Le Guin text, I've found, is that it has a long shelf life and holds up well to repeat visits. Feel free to play around with the exercises in any way that suits you. There aren't really any hard and fast rules here; though I'd suggest you'll get better mileage if you don't skip anything. Do the exercises; do them again. Pull out your toolbox and really look at your tools: language, punctuation, details, structure, tone, and so on. Learn, or remind yourself, what they're for. Read the short stories and look closely at the decisions each author makes-- decisions about how to use those tools in the toolbox. Don't just appreciate and admire: really look. Ask yourself questions. Why did the author do that? How might the story, or the scene, or the character, change if he did something else? This is where a writer's confidence begins: seeing through a story's "magic" to its nuts, bolts and gears, and knowing what each part is for.

We have a loose goal of having one short story by the end of the six weeks-- it can be a first draft, but the idea is to start something, and follow it through. If any of you out there following along would like to share what you've been writing-- exercises or otherwise-- please feel free to do so. Slap it in the comments section or even email me with it, if you like. If you do email please bear in mind that it may take me some time to get back to you; my regular workshoppers have priority, because they've paid a registration fee to be there. But I'll do my best.

Or just work along quietly. That's okay, too. Whatever works for you.

What Stories are For, and Where They Come From

If you want to write, you have to allow yourself to write stuff down. You have to tell the page what's in your head.

When we ask ourselves what a good story should do, we often think in general terms: stories "make us think," "comment on the human condition," "spark our imaginations/give us wings/plant seeds in the soil of our dreams," etc. But good stories actually do all of those things, to one extent or another, at once. In order to understand what makes a story a "good" one, we need to ask ourselves not only why we tell stories, but what we enjoy most about our favorite stories-- in other words, what aspects make them work for us as well as they do.

Beginning writers-- and experienced writers-- sometimes pick up this idea that, once we get serious about writing, we have to approach stories the way we imagine a great painter might approach a canvas; we imagine that they come striding in with some vision, or concept, and execute it in a few grand strokes. (Of course, it's really not like that at all, as any painter could tell you.) While concept and vision may be where art begins, they aren't where stories begin.

Think about the stories you loved as a kid-- the ones that made you want to run home and act them out, or to draw a picture, or to head off to the library for more books. It's easy to forget, sometimes, what it is we love about stories, and telling them-- and to forget what it is that made us want to write them down in the first place.

A good story can be about anything-- even something we presume everyone's heard about before. A story's worth has less to do with the material itself than what you do with it. Often, the best stories are the ones that come out of something very simple, small, and commonplace-- a moment, an image, a thought, even just a word or two.

Look at Sandra Cisneros's "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn" (you may need to zoom in a bit to read it) and Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl". Neither follows what you might call a traditional story structure. Ask yourself: how do we know, then, that they're stories? What's happening in each one-- what are they about, who are they about? What does each writer's use of language tell you about what's happening, and who the characters are? What else strikes you about the writing, the narration?

: Following a Line

Take two nouns, and two verbs, at random from a nearby book. Write down all four words, consider them for a bit, and then pair them off in different combinations-- write them down, or connect them by drawing a line between them.

Once you've done that, try writing a sentence, or a couple of sentences, using your favorite combinations; try to use all four words. Then rewrite what you've written: elevate the language, be poetic, be gorgeous, be rhythmic.

Part 2: "Being Gorgeous," Le Guin p. 26. (Follow the link and scroll about halfway down the page for the exercise.)

Begin with the line you just wrote. Write a short narrative, in a paragraph or two, or even a page, following on from that train of thought-- whatever comes into your head. Focus on how the language sounds as you write: it can be a rambling description, or part of a character's internal monologue, or something else. Do try to make it a fiction, but don't worry about whether it makes too much sense at this point. Just follow one line into the next, and see where it takes you.

Start Small, Make it New

The way we write stories, the things we choose to write stories about, have much to do with our individual perspective-- in his essay "On Writing," Raymond Carver calls this a unique and exact way of looking. By this he means not so much "originality" as "individuality." No two writers, or readers for that matter, see the world in exactly the same way. As we read a story, that individual perspective is the thing which can startle us, delight us, or disturb us; when we find precise ways of expressing that perspective, whatever it is, we bring it to life.

Look at "The One Sitting There" by Joanna H. Wos. Notice that very little action takes place; the story line itself is very simple. But what does happen? What do we know about the narrator? There's obviously much more to the story, and the narrator's past: why do you think the author chooses to tell so little of that background? How might this story be different if she did?

Exercise: The Meaning in the Moment

Think about this morning's routine, from the time you got up until you left the house. Choose a moment during that period of time-- some activity or event, be it brushing your teeth, or making coffee, or getting dressed-- and dramatize it in a way that hints at a problem, or something about to happen. It doesn't have to be an enormous, earth-shattering event. Start simply, and walk yourself through the scene. Find the meaning in the moment.

Which exercise did you find more challenging? What seems to work for you?

  • Read Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" and Le Guin Chapters 1&2. Do the exercises at the end of chapter two. Think about the way Chopin narrates the story, the language and details she chooses, the perspective she chooses. How does it compare with the others we've looked at? Do you prefer one style of narration over the others? Why?
  • Use one of the exercises we just did, or one of Le Guin's exercises from the second chapter, to begin a new story. Shoot for 300 words or so, or longer if you wish; just get started on something.


Now playing: Tom Lehrer - Lobachevsky
via FoxyTunes


Phiala said...

This is fantastic, thank you!

But I shouldn't even think about it at work. I grabbed the closest book, and found:
noun: first derivative; cluster model

verb: promoted enthusiastically; consider

That would read like a Greg Egan story, if I could pull it off.

It was difficult to find good verbs, since the book in question is written in academicese, which frowns upon strong verbs.

Jess said...

My pleasure. I'm happy if anyone finds it useful! :)

Hmm. "First derivative" and "cluster model" are definitely a challenge. Yet strangely compelling, too. I'm not sure I could pull it off without a lot of preparatory reading first.

"Promoted enthusiastically"...oh dear me. What's wrong with something like "championed"? Seems respectable enough. Academia has a lot to answer for when it comes to weak language usage-- even in literature studies. You see much the same thing there, and those are writers who are supposed to know better.

Maybe I should modify the directions: pick a favourite book near to hand... :)

spacedlaw said...

I might have to postpone reading and studying this to later this week (or next week actually) when I am not brain dead from all the walking around combined with little sleep and over eating...
But I'll be back.

Dragonsally said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dragonsally said...

I had to giggle, the advertisement at the bottom of the page at Google books - find a Urine Off Retailer in Australia

Google has challenged me on the topic already.

I am SO going to enjoy going through this with you.

Dragonsally said...

As an apology for posting the same thing twice, here is my quick little story, spawned by a google ad.

I had to find a Urine Off retailer in Australia.

The situation was desperate, and Google just had to help.

The owners were due home in a day, how would I explain the smell in the house if Google didn't come through for me, if it failed.

It had started off as a normal girls' night in. A selection of DVD's to chose from, chick-flicks, romances, comedies, old musicals.

What I hadn't counted on was a case of Keystone Cops, bladders full of champagne and a room full of gals in hysterics.

It would have been okay if Lynn hadn't done a classic Keystone Cops fall coming back into the room with a tray full of nibbles.

Who would have expected that 8 women would actually wet themselves laughing at the same moment, all over the new suede sofas?

Oh god, I only had 24 hours to find that elixir and have it work its magic or I would never be employed to house sit again.

Phiala said...

Um, that is a favorite book, if by favorite you mean frequently consulted and completely essential.

Jess said...

Hmm, let's try again..."non-technical, non-academic book to hand..."

Find something with some real verbs in! :D

Sally - ha! I love it. That's hysterical. And, I have to say, eewww, because twice I read that as "urine off-retailers," rather than "Urine Off™". I kept thinking to myself, They sell the stuff after retail? In bulk? For what? Gaah, it's too early to make these kind of speculations...

This is the bit where I work you harder, now. Oh yeah. I'm gonna make you work. You're in for it, now. ;D

I was thinking there might be a way to combine the two exercises-- say take what you've written for the second one and try elevating the language, messing around with sentence lengths and paragraph lengths-- but still keep the sense of the original. Might be fun to try something like that-- because the idea with all of these exercises isn't that you write something and then say, "There! Finished!" but to keep messing around, expanding things, and finding new ways to look at what you've got. What you get at the end of an exercise like this isn't a story, but the germ of a story, raw material you can keep playing with.

So your next assignment, mwhahaha, is to go back to that piece and narrate more of it. Tell me about that party. I want to hear the jokes that made the girls wet themselves. I want to know what the smell's like. I want to know just how the narrator's stomach feels as she frantically searches Google for a way to save the sofas.

...if you want to. Obviously I wouldn't try to force anything on you, but I think there's actually something in the scene you've written which, if you keep thinking and tinkering, can turn into something more. How did that house sitter get into the house sitting situation? What made her decide to have that party in the house which wasn't hers to give parties in? You see: you've written the crisis point in a much bigger story. The next step is to go back and start figuring out what that bigger story might be.

All from an ad for Urine Off! Well done you! :)

Oh, you'll be back, Nathalie. You'll be back...muhahahahahaa.

spacedlaw said...

I am back but even more brain dead.
I need some brains.
Anyone has spares?

Jess said...

Here you go.

Phiala said...

I ignored pretty much all of the other instructions, but I did use both nouns and both verbs.

Nyssa sprawled on the bench, or as close to sprawled as you could get on these new benches with their hard metal backs and skinny arms. She missed the worn comfort of their wooden predecessors, though not the splinters and broken slats. She doodled trees in the margins of her notebook while she considered cluster models. The trees moved from mathematical perfection with nodes and branches neatly spaced to something more like the elms around her, gnarly trunks and haphazard arrangements of leaves. Neither matched the system; too random was as wrong as too regimented.

The computer had become overwhelming, the endless stream of ideas promoted enthusiatically by mathematicians striving for tenure, the urge to try one more transformation: maybe the first derivative, the arcsine, a natural logarithm. Every idea led to forty more, and Nyssa finally had to escape the infinite abundance of options. She fled to the bench, a favorite refuge, equipped only with notebook and fountain pen. She thought sometimes that the computer was the natural opponent of thought, of doing rather than understanding.

Nyssa swung her legs over the arm, wiggling until she found an acceptable arrangement of bench and spine. A campus squirrel wandered over, looking for handouts, chittering angrily when none appeared. The clouds overhead coalesced and divided past the screen of branches and the last few yellow leaves of fall. It was warm for October, and the slantwise afternoon sun blended with the vegetal smell of trampled leaves into the essence of autumn.

The not quite random movement of the clouds and branches in the light breeze mixed with the patterns swirling in her brain, and she sat up, pen zipping over the page. If you fit the dependent variable like _so_, then adjust a bit, and repeat enough times... Nyssa stood, oblivious of pedestrians, squirrels, bicycles, autumn itself. This could work.

Jess said...

Thanks, Phiala! I like that. That was a tough one to pull off-- I wouldn't have known where to go with that particular set of nouns and verbs myself, but you've worked in the ideas very effortlessly. :) I like how you keep linking tree-shapes and cloud-shapes with the models and variables Nyssa's working with-- it's a terrific insight into how mathematicians and scientists really think, and work, and see the world. Keep working with this character-- I think there's a great story here.

I know you've read through the book once already, but if you haven't yet, try those exercises as instructed sometime. It's really worth it. You've already got such a knack for choosing the right image, and the right sensory details; I think letting yourself wax poetic with this passage might yield some really interesting, and beautiful, additional results. :) Good stuff!

Phiala said...

I told you it was a favorite book. :) I'm glad you think it worked; it was challenging to get the feel without the substance. You never even learn what the problem is she 's working on, since it doesn't actually matter (and, well, since I didn't bother to figure out one that was interesting and used those concepts).

I also couldn't come up with a way to combine _that_ word list with the exercises you gave that would make any sense.

And, by the way, they really did put in new metal benches this fall, replacing the battered old wood ones, but I haven't sat in one yet.

Jess said...

You have followed the instructions for both, though, sort of-- there's much that's gorgeous in these paragraphs (I especially like The trees moved from mathematical perfection with nodes and branches neatly spaced to something more like the elms around her, gnarly trunks and haphazard arrangements of leaves.), and you're working with very small, specific actions-- which is the point of the second one. It's not really about following the instructions to the letter, of course-- just finding a way in to a story that works for you, and also becoming aware of what you're doing as you write.

Now, see, that's an okay change for campus! they needed benches. Moving the Creamery, though-- I still can't get past that one. It's like, I dunno, moving the London Bridge to Arizona. You just wouldn't. Oh, wait. :D

Jennifer said...

Yay, Jess! I'm glad to hear you thought session one went well! You know your subject, that's for sure!

Moderating the conversation was my biggest challenge when I led that creativity workshop a while back. I was fine with the "lecture" bit, but a little tense during the rest of it.

It's really cool of you to share your session plans like this. I'll be reading along and trying some of the exercises. This was great stuff!

"f nothing else, it never hurts to be reminded of what you already know, to realise that you know it, and to reinforce it."

True that! Plus, when you go back to the "basics" every so often, you can end up seeing a whole new facet of some fictional aspect that you've never noticed before. At least, that's what keeps happening to me. It's the foundational things that keep blowing my mind, and seeing the connections between them.

So tonight was session two, yes? Looking forward to hearing how it went!

Jess said...

Hey, Jen!

It's hard to moderate on the fly-- particularly when one member of the group gets overexcited by a certain idea and begins to dominate the table. It took me a while to learn that I don't have to keep talking, or steer the discussion-- the best thing to do generally, is ask specific questions, then back off; if the conversation derails, you look for an opportunity to redirect everyone with another question.

We need to talk about that online workshop you're taking-- details! It sounds great; I'm glad it's going so well. :)