“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
So what exactly is Workshop Wednesday? Well, it’s going to be an ongoing discussion of ways to read and critique (and hopefully improve) writing. Basically, I’m going to be drawing on my experiences in writing workshops through undergraduate and graduate studies and sharing them with you all. These posts are for everyone, whether you’re wondering how you can give good feedback to a writer friend, or whether you’re a writer yourself and want to find new ways to look at your writing. Hopefully these discussions will be helpful. And hopefully seeing a compelling first line in each post will inspire you to write your own, or to read the rest of that story!
Well, Happy New Year everyone! I’m a little late to the party on this one because I’ve been really sick since the weekend (no parties for me ). But you’ve all seen my blogging resolutions, so here’s hoping for a great year in 2012!
Anyway, so far in Workshop Wednesdays I’ve given advice for the reader giving critique as one person. Hopefully this has been helpful for those of you with a workshop/critique partner gig. But I realized today I haven’t really addressed being in a workshop or a critique group itself. That is to say–how do you handle critiques within groups of people?
I could go over all of the different aspects of workshop etiquette, but I think I’ll just focus on one aspect for the moment. And that’s speaking up. I think this one is really important. You see, it might happen in a workshop that there will be people who speak more and people who speak less. This is okay. I would encourage you as someone with a critique in mind to speak up, no matter which extreme you tend toward.
Some people might think it’s silly to confirm something that’s already been said. I think it’s actually helpful for the writer in question to see that there is some kind of consensus. I know it might be hard for you shy folks, but think about how that writer would feel if you didn’t contribute to workshop. If you say something, even if it’s to agree with someone else, it shows that you care about that writer’s project and respect the writer enough to share your opinion.
If you’re in a situation where you’re submitting written critiques as well, don’t feel that speaking up is redundant. Sure, the writer will have the written comments to turn to, but there’s something that happens in workshop discussion that is magical and can’t be captured by a short paper that was written beforehand. You never know when bringing up a point or an observation might lead to a discussion that can change the way the writer looks at his or her own work. In fact, my recent workshops worked so well because they were interactive. The group as a whole would come up with ways I could approach certain problem areas, and even though it was kind of intense, it was also really, really helpful. It could not have happened on paper, in just one person’s critique.
As someone who used to be super quiet in workshop, I understand if you feel shy. There are so many reasons why someone might not want to speak in workshop. Mine was a fear of sounding stupid. I was scared to counter what someone said very eloquently, because I was afraid of being wrong and falling flat on my face. I also thought that my own observations were trivial and unimportant. But I was so, so wrong on all counts. Every reader brings something different to the table, and should not be discounted for a different point-of-view. If you want to counter someone’s point, I say counter. Not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of the writer. The writer is ultimately the person making the decisions about the story, and knowing different sides of one issue is vital. I’ll admit that I sometimes make observations about changes that could help a story, then someone will note that while I have a point, the change can be handled with a sentence or two. Well, good! Now the writer’s not scrambling around and worrying about trying to change this one thing over the course of a hundred pages. And now I have also learned that certain issues don’t have to be big writing issues. Everyone wins.
So those are some reasons why you should speak up in workshops/critique groups. Trust me, I had the worst time trying to be more vocal in workshops. But once I warmed up to my group, I enjoyed contributing more and more. Like anything, it takes practice. And remember, everyone else is there to help the writer, just like you.
It’s been some time since I’ve written about writing (got distracted by giveaways and wanting to have and read ALL THE THINGS), so I thought I’d give it a (brief) go tonight. I’m just going with the flow of my thoughts here, so pardon me if the path of this post seems to be winding.
I wanted to start by talking a bit about my piece, “Stay.” I haven’t really written creative nonfiction since I first decided that I was a writer of some sort. I don’t know if I’ll ever write anymore CNF, though I have been encouraged to. This story was borne simply of inspiration. The day “Stay” happened, at that moment in the ending, I had an odd sensation of observing the event as if it was not happening to me. As I was going all meta on myself, I remember thinking that the climax of this little episode in my life felt very… narrative, for lack of a better word. (I think it may have been the irony of the exchange I had with my mom.) It wasn’t a life-changing revelation; it was simply a chapter of my life with my mother. So I sat down and pounded out my feelings into a word doc. And the first draft was done.
I edited “Stay” a bit, adding details here, and editing out unnecessary information there. One thing that has surprised me and my friends who’ve read it is that it’s so… short. If there’s one thing I have problems with, it’s writing short stories. Sure, I can stop at page 20, but to have only gone on for three pages? That was like a miracle. And the piece felt fine at three pages. I didn’t feel like I needed to pad it.
I guess the point I’d like to discuss is restraint. The things I had to keep from leaking out onto the story and ruining it were details that fleshed out my life with my mother. There is so much that didn’t make it into “Stay” that is part of the whole larger story, so many other stories behind the few sparse details I did give. But, this was about one day, one incident, and I had a theme to stick by. There was a point when I realized that even a five-word sentence was too much, that it painted a stroke in the picture of a color I did not want others to see. So I held back, and I am glad that I did. I can probably use that sentence to write another piece, if I so desire.
Fiction or not, I think it’s fine–no, I would even encourage–that everything be on the page in that rough or first draft. But there comes a time when one has to choose between what serves the mission of the story and what hinders it. It’s similar to what happens wth deleted scenes in movies. Sometimes there just isn’t room in the story that’s being told for everything to get in there. If one writes poetry, one must take into account in the editing process that the words serve several purposes, some of which include meaning, sound, and visual space. Even poems have the potential to evolve drastically over time.
Supporting the whole of any writing form should be a main priority. I think there should be as few instances of details or images or scenes calling attention to themselves going “ME! ME! ME!” as possible. I’m not saying that writing should be mundane or that it must be subtle–rather, I think the ability to hold back in the right places makes writing feel tight and purposeful and much more powerful when the punches do get thrown.
In a couple of workshops or critiques (I can’t remember clearly) last year there was discussed the notion that good writing involves some type of risk. I think narrative restraint is an exercise in the ability to channel one’s strength into one or a few focused risks rather than many.
Hm, this was not what I originally sat down to write. I like my metaphors, though. I hope this was helpful!
As I sat down and actually thought about how I could go about writing about writing, I started to worry about how I could post content about a process that is different for everyone. I decided I could only write from what I know, and hope that others find it helpful to see one writer’s take on things. So this is based on my own experiences.
Today I’m going to talk about ideas.
Ideas an come from anywhere. Snatches of conversation I overhear, my own interests, things that happen to me or my loved ones, random thoughts inspired by anything I hear or see or know.
I’ve noticed over the years that most of my stories make themselves known in one of two ways. If I’m lucky, I get them both.
1) Things I know and have experienced come together in a new way. This includes books I’ve read, homilies I hear in when I’m in church, words I happen upon by simply browsing the library and the library catalog. Or questions I realize could be answered. For instance, earlier this year I bought a copy of Ella Enchanted from a book sale. Though I haven’t read it yet, it put in my mind the idea of the story about the girl who was maltreated but got her happy ending. The book sat in my “to read” pile, but not too long after I was browsing the library catalog (I can’t remember what for now) and happened upon a title that got me thinking a big “what if?” The word and the story and the question came together in my mind, and now I have plans for a different sort of fairy tale.
2) Random inspiration. I suppose this one sounds similar at first, but there is a difference. I don’t know if I’m just a weirdo, but sometimes I just hear a line in my head, as if a character is speaking, someone I’ve never heard before. If I’m not in a position to write the line down, I usually try to remember it as best I can. It’s often not a complicated line, and often these lines are the openings to my stories.
The important part about random inspiration is getting those words down, even if I don’t know what they mean. Because once I get those down, I write more. And the more I write, the more I learn about the story and its characters and the world they inhabit.
But ideas don’t stop there. From that first glimmer of what I want to think is brilliance, ideas have to evolve. Either because of the plot that emerges, or the direction the characters want to take, or most importantly because of what my audience is telling me.
This evolution is vital, and while I can of course shape ideas by talking them out or making outlines, the most important step is the actual prose. This may be because I have an odd writing process where I tend to discover the story as I write. But the benefit of writing and discovering is that it keeps me in a mode where I am thinking about story.
I once sat down to transcribe the words of a character. I came up with about a page before I had to stop and get back to life. When I came back to the story, and sat down to try to continue, I asked myself a series of questions to get my creative juices going. Then a question came up I didn’t expect, and the whole thing went in a completely different direction. Parts of the original page now is now of the beginning and ending of one of my favorite pieces.
But the evolution doesn’t stop once I complete a draft. I took workshops in fiction, screenwriting, and tv writing all through my first year of grad school. I had the good fortune to study fiction with Michelle Latiolais, Ron Carlson, and Marisa Matarazzo as an undergraduate. One valuable lesson I’ve learned through all of these classes is that the first draft is only the beginning. Sometimes I have to write twenty pages to get one good page. Sometimes it’ll come down to just one line that is the clue to the real story that’s waiting to be brought to light. Having to start with so much and end up with so little can be disheartening, but there is always that promise that nothing, and I mean nothing, I write will ever have been in vain. It’s not about whether a story draft is “good” or “bad,” it’s about what I can take away from it.
Once I was talking to Ron about my next submission for our workshop (coincidentally the story I mentioned earlier), and he laughed and suggested that I try to not write about death (again). This led me to ask the question I didn’t expect. While I won’t say one must comply with every suggestion one receives, I think it’s important to be open to exploring new directions. Not knowing what I’m getting into is half the fun of writing, after all.
So, ideas are awesome. I love them, any way they come to me. But sometimes I have to let go of aspects I’m attached to or crop them or push them into different shapes to access the stories that are meant to be told. I was taught once that a first idea is good, a second idea is better, but it’s the third or fourth that is the one on which you need to follow through. I know I shouldn’t ever be afraid of writing a first draft, and I also should expect to write a second or third or fourth one.
That’s my rumination for the day! Stay tuned for a brief, motivating guest blog from one of the volunteers at my library.