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?
Exercise: 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