This is the second in my “Teaching at Stonecoast” series, about what I did during this summer’s Stonecoast MFA Program residency. In this post, I want to talk more about the sorts of things we covered in my two workshops. The first workshop was for new students: it oriented them to Stonecoast and got them started workshopping stories. The second workshop focused specifically on short fiction, and was co-led with my own former teacher, the science fiction writer James Patrick Kelly.
This is the first building I would enter every day: where we held our graduating student presentations. I told you Bowdoin is beautiful!
In my first workshop, after we had workshopped the two stories for the day, I walked about elements of a story: setting, character, plot, and style. (We only had four days, so four elements). For each, I had three examples, and toward the end of the workshop we would read and discuss them. Here’s one:
“You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was a white mane, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked around her waist, one hand on the reigns of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father’s service revolver and, behind her, the breaker of the savage, indifferent sea, like the witness of a furious justice. And my husband stood stock-still, as if she had been Medusa, the sword still raised over his head as in those clockwork tableaux of Bluebeard that you see in glass cases at fairs.
“And then it was as though a curious child pushed his centime into the slot and set all in motion. The heavy, bearded figure roared out aloud, braying with fury, and, wielding the honorable sword as if it were a matter of death or glory, charged us, all three.
“On her eighteenth birthday, my mother had disposed of a man-eating tiger that had ravaged the villages in the hills north of Hanoi. Now, without a moment’s hesitation, she raised my father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through my husband’s head.”
This is from a story called “The Bloody Chamber,” by Angela Carter. If you’re looking at it as a writer, there are all sorts of things you notice: the point of view, for example (first person, talking directly to us). The pacing, which stops and starts: the movement of the mother, the stillness of the husband, the movement of the husband, then the pause in narrative momentum as we learn about what the mother did when she was eighteen. And then, suddenly, the shot. The pacing is brilliantly handled. Word choice: “seized,” “blown,” “exposed,” “tucked,” “rearing,” “clasped” . . . all the active verbs. And then the opposition of Medusa and Bluebeard, two different mythical figures, almost as thought the story were posing a hypothetical question: in a matchup between Medusa and Bluebeard, who would win? Medusa, duh.
My goal was to get the students to think, not like readers, but like writers. That creates its own problems . . . you can’t read stories the way you used to, anymore. But putting together even the shortest story is an act of craft, and writers need to learn the craft. (There’s art too, but you don’t learn art. You become an artist. Art isn’t taught but embodied.)
So that was my first workshop, and I was very happy with how it went.
Oh, I’ve forgotten something! I also gave the students an exercise: they had to write pieces of flash fiction (no more than 1000 words) and send them to me. For the last class, I compiled them, then gave the students the stories without the authors’ names. I had written one myself, because if you make a student do something, you should always be willing to do it yourself as well. During our last workshop, we discussed the stories — then they had to vote on who had written which one. I was the only one who knew. If you’re a teacher, steal this exercise — I stole it myself from Jim Kelly. Every time I’ve done it, I’ve gotten writing from students that was actually more creative, more innovative, than the polished stories they had turned in. In the short format, students felt free to try something new. At least once, when I tried an exercise like this, it turned into a student’s first published story.
This is a small part of the book table, with my books on it. We would pass the book table every day on our way to lunch . . .
And what about the second workshop? That was filled with students who had been at Stonecoast for at least one semester, students who were already writing steadily, some of them starting to publish. That workshop was really about how to turn short stories that were already interesting and well-written into stories that would hopefully be published by one of the genre markets. Jim and I took turns leading the workshop. On our days, we both also lectured briefly on aspects of writing short stories. On my first day, I talked about the components of a short story, the things I wanted a short story to do and have, taking examples from my own stories. Here are the things I covered:
1. I want a short story to start quickly. The setting, central characters, and theme should be established by the second paragraph. But while the first two paragraphs are about establishing, about creating stability for the reader, they are also about destabilizing the reader. I want to create the forward momentum that will carry the reader through the story. What does the reader not know? Give your reader both a jumping-off place and a direction to jump, I told them.
2. I want to create a setting that is dense, appealing to multiple senses. The setting should be both immediate (where are the characters now?) and expansive (what is their larger world like?). A good description of setting should do both.
3. I want to describe characters quickly, with descriptions that give a sense of the inner and outer at once: both what the character looks like and what the character is like. And if another character is doing the describing, the description should say as much about that character as the one being described.
4. I want to continually advance the plot. Here I talked about my favorite definition of plot, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Actions, if they are to be part of the plot, should have consequences. So think through the consequences of each action . . .
5. I want to raise the stakes, and the stakes are always emotional. The plot means nothing if we don’t care. (I don’t think I mentioned Vladimir Nabokov’s injunction that the author should put her character up a tree and throw rocks at him. But I think that sort of rock-throwing is important.)
6. I like to reveal secrets, things the reader doesn’t know, and maybe the character doesn’t know either. I like to lead up to the revelation of a secret. I think this makes the story more interesting, like a mystery . . . The revelation should be both inevitable and surprising.
7. I want to conclude effectively. The conclusion should bring together both the inner and outer arcs of the story: the emotional arc and the arc of the action. It can be a big ending or a small one: an ending that underplays the emotional consequences is often more effective than a big fireworks-going-off conclusion. In the example I chose, two men are walking together, talking about breakfast, and the important thing is mentioned as an aside: one of them has chosen to stay in his homeland and fight the Germans. We know that World War II is coming, although they’re talking about sausage and eggs.
This post is already a bit longer than I intended, so I see that I’ll have to go on to a third one! In it, I’ll talk about what I discussed on my second day leading the workshop: breaking the rules and becoming an artist. The handsome beast above is one of the stone lions in front of the Bowdoin art museum, and a close personal friend.
And below you’ll see one of my favorite things in Brunswick, which is Heath Bar frozen yogurt with Heath Bar topping, from an ice cream shack named Cote’s that is about a block from the inn. This is a “mini” and sells for three dollars (the next size up is a small, which is, you guessed it, not particularly small).