Week three: the terrible sound of silence

Here's the big secret about teaching writing: you don't have to be a monumentally successful writer to do it. You don't have to have a significant amount of publication experience behind you; you don't have to have been writing for twenty years. Both certainly help, of course, as does having a writing degree, if only because all three look good on a CV. But teaching is fundamentally about being able to explain stuff. If you know your subject, and you can explain that subject in a way that gets other people on the road to to knowing it just as well, you can teach.

When you enter a graduate writing program on a teaching assistantship, you begin teaching workshops without a whole lot of guidance: sometimes they'll walk you through the material first, and give you helpful tips about lecturing and fielding discussions, but it's essentially a baptism by fire. You're on your own. It's up to you to figure out what it is you know, and how to transfer that knowledge to your students. A writer who teaches is forced to figure out very quickly what it is that she believes about what she does-- why it works the way it does, how it can work better, why it's worth trying to make it better.

That's is the part I'm good at. I know how to think about writing. What I haven't learned to do so well is lead a group. Up to now I liked to think that I knew how to get people to write, that I was good at that, too. Now I'm not so sure.

Perhaps it was foolish to suggest to my current workshoppers that we operate on the honor system as far as weekly assignments go. The workshop is voluntary; I thought it might be better, as We are Not in School, to send my writers away with an assignment each week, but not insist that they hand in typewritten copies of their work. Please do the assignments, I said, and then bring in your results to share with the group if you want to. That way, those workshoppers wanting feedback could have it, but none of them would be under any obligation to expose themselves to critique earlier than they felt comfortable.

This was a mistake, and I worry that in making it, I've let my workshoppers down to a very serious degree. An enforced deadline is like a buoy at sea: when you see it, you'll swim for it. My workshoppers, on the other hand, have been left treading water. Because the short-term requirements aren't enforced the way they might be in a college class, my writers aren't writing much outside sessions. This is a problem: because they're not writing or practicing the techniques we cover in sessions on their own, they're not seeing much point in either the assignments or the session activities. You can't have one without the other in a workshop setting: you do the in-class stuff, and then you have to go away and practice. Then you come back and talk about how practice went, and you get feedback on your practice. You go away with a sense of having learned something; you apply what you learned the next time you practice. And so on. That's how it works.

Or how it ought to work, at least. As of next week, we're going to start turning things in. If over the next three weeks my workshoppers start writing, I'll know I've done something right.

This week we backed off with the sentence-level torment, and talked about details.

Points of focus

When setting a scene, it's important to remember that the quantity of detail you include isn't enough on its own to make the story powerful. Much of a story's power rests in the selection of the right details-- details that will give the reader just enough information to imagine clearly what you're describing, then make his or her own imaginative leap into a given setting, with those characters, in whatever situation they find themselves. The same holds true for the decisions you make about which events to dramatize in the course of a narrative. Details and events must not simply be present in a piece of fiction: they must seem inevitable.

But how to choose?
  • Focus on a point of action, or decision, on the part of a character. Choose a moment in which something happens.
  • Pick up in the middle of things. Pick up dialogue in the midst of a conversation; begin at a point at which several events have already taken place.
  • Focus in on something small, which is relevant to the action. A description of an object, a sound, or some other part of the setting.
Exercise: Sensory Detail

Think about the first house you can remember living in: walk through it in your mind, even sketch a quick floor plan of the house if that helps. Set a scene in the room you remember most vividly, involving a character-- any character, someone you know or someone you invent, so long as it's not you yourself-- doing something in the room, and what they see as they go about whatever action you make them do. Any action is fine: they can be waiting for someone else to arrive, they can be dusting, they can be snooping through drawers. Whatever action you choose, include as much sensory detail as possible. Are there smells? Textures? Tastes? What's the light like? What does it feel like for that character, in that room?

Making mind-movies

To determine which events and details to focus on, it can be helpful to think of your story cinematically-- each scene, each moment, as though you were watching it on a screen. If your story was a movie, what would the camera focus on, and in what order? What would appear in close-up, at what point in the scene? What sorts of sound-effects might there be, or background sounds? How would it be lit? What kind of music would you set the scene against, if it were possible to accompany it with a soundtrack?

Exercise: Sequencing Details

Imagine some household "disaster": something breaking, something leaking, a strange noise, some sort of mess. Picture it in your mind: what happens first, and then what, and then what? Describe the event in as much specific detail as you can, exactly as it occurs. (It might be interesting to come back to what you've written in a week or so, and try writing it from different perspectives: try writing it from a first-person or third-person perspective, and see if the scene turns out differently.)

  • Read Italo Calvino's "The Distance of the Moon,"* and Le Guin Chapters 5&6.
  • Le Guin exercise 5, p. 62-63, "Chastity": Write a page or so of narrative description which does not use adjectives or adverbs, and does not include dialogue. You may wish to use this exercise to write the next page of the story that you're working on.

*I haven't been able to find an online version of this story, but it appears in Calvino's short story collection Cosmicomics, published in 1965. The version I have appears in Fred Leebron and Andrew Levy's Creating Fiction: A Writer's Companion, published by Harcourt Brace.


spacedlaw said...

I really suffered reading through the cosmicomics.

Jess said...

I've never read the whole thing but I really like "The Distance of the Moon"-- that's one of my favorite short stories.

Calvino's an acquired taste, I think. I love him for his weirdness, and his humour, and the way he just sort of spins off into odd and beautiful places in his prose.

The Goldfish said...

I can sympathise with the deadline thing; I would be one who did the exercise, but lost my nerve about anyone else seeing it, if it wasn't compulsory.

I do love these posts of yours. I'm very deep in re-editing my novel at the moment, but every time I read here it seems to help with some little problem that has come up. Your timing is impeccable. :-)

Jess said...

That's very nice to know! I'm glad it's proved so helpful-- especially as I know how much frustration you've had working on that book. It's wonderful that it's coming along so well. :)

Dread Val said...

I adore Calvino.

The same thing happens at the studio. Voluntary homework doesn't generally get done, except by the extremely driven and motivated. Even as motivated as I am, I don't always get all of it done to the degree I'd like. (Though, I do have a 70hr/week day job, so I get a bit more slack than the people who are students and nothing else.)

But, even managing to do some work every week has been a huge help. Writing, like art, or music, or sports, isn't something you can do once a week and expect to get anywhere with.

Jess said...

Me too. I need to read more of him. Well, I need to read more of everything. But Calvino, definitely.

I think things went a little better this week, with the required homework in place. Learned my lesson there...