Teaching at Stonecoast III

I meant to write my third blog post on teaching at Stonecoast before I left for Mythcon, but I just didn’t have time. It’s been such a busy summer . . . But here it is, the third and final post. I think last time I was talking about the workshop on writing short stories that I co-led with James Patrick Kelly? He led two days, and I led two. On the first of my days, I talked about the things I look for in a short story and try to put into a short story myself. On my second day, I talked about ways in which I break the rules — or expectations would be a better word, because the truth is there are no rules. Just ways we think stories ought to go, expectations we have of narrative. If those expectations aren’t met, we tend to be grumpy — unless the writer is good enough to “break the rules” effectively.

Bowdoin, by the way, has the most beautiful small jewelbox of an art museum. On one of our last days in Brunswick, I and a couple of other faculty members found time to visit and see an exhibit on painting the night, which was fascinating and very well curated. You can see the front of the museum here:

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But actually you enter through a class addition to the side of the main building. You go down the steps or elevator, into the basement shop and gallery. And from there you can go back up again, into the main building. You’re not allowed to take pictures in there, or I would have some to show! Here was the sign for the exhibit:

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Back to breaking the rules, such as they are. I told the students that I like to make things difficult. For example, in “The Rose in Twelve Petals” I changed the entire history of England. I’m not sure how much my reader will notice that, but I think it adds a layer of density and interest to the story. In “Child-Empress of Mars,” I included words in “Martian” that I never explained. Because . . . I could! I got away with it. So how do you get away with it? Well, first it has to be intrinsic to the story, not something you add simply for the sake of being difficult. Second, the story has to make sense, to still satisfy, without it. The reader has to be able to understand my story despite the alternate history in the background, or despite the “Martian.”

Why break the rules in the first place? (And by “break the rules” I mean “not meet reader expectations” — the reader expectations are all the things I talked about in my second blog post, on what I try to do in a short story.) After all, it makes the story more difficult both to write and read.

Well first, the story might need to be told in a different, unconventional way. You might not be able to tell that particularly story conventionally. Second, you might want to play with form and narrative structure. That’s a perfectly legitimate reason: you’re allowed to play, to experiment. So it could be driven by the story, or by you. Third, there is a pleasure in difficulty, both for writer and reader. You might want that pleasure . . . And you’re allowed to break the rules all you want to. But there are consequences, and you have to accept those.

This, by the way, is the program from the Stonecoast graduation ceremony.  I always love going to graduation, seeing the brand-new MFAs.  Including students I’ve helped complete their theses!

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So how do you do it? You can play with any of the elements I discussed: setting, characters, plot, etc. You can break the rules a little or a lot. In general, the more you break the rules, the more you need to give the reader something to hold on to (in “The Rose in Twelve Petals” it’s the fairy tale plot; in “Child-Empress of Mars” it’s the parody of the John Carter books).

I gave the students an example of where I had broken the rules: my story “Beautiful Boys.” It doesn’t do any of the things I talked about a short story doing: it doesn’t start quickly, and one could make the case that it doesn’t start at all — it keeps trying to start; there is no concrete setting; the narrator is never fully described and is unreliable anyway; the only other character may or may not be an alien, we don’t know; there’s no plot, not really — except maybe the professor got pregnant by an alien, or maybe not; and the ending doesn’t resolve anything. It leaves us hanging. What the story does have, though, is a pretty clear emotional stake — at least, I think it does. And it taps into our own memories of the bad boys of our youth, the ones who got into trouble, and started bands, and dated cheerleaders. It’s anchored in our own knowledge of how difficult and painful relationships can be.

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So what are the consequences of breaking the rules? Well, there are both good and bad consequences. The possible bad consequences is that readers may get mad at you, and the story may be harder to sell in the first place. I remember a reader commenting on “Beautiful Boys” that while he liked it, it wasn’t science fiction, and therefore shouldn’t have been published in Asimov’s. But if you can pull off a difficult, complicated, innovative, rule-breaking story? That’s the sort of story that gets attention, that is discussed, possibly nominated for awards. There are rewards for breaking the rules.

We had a beautiful week at Stonecoast, but toward the end it rained. That’s me in a puddle, above. I mean, reflected in a puddle — I didn’t have to live in a puddle. No, I stayed at a beautiful inn. (But what if the selves we are in puddles have their own consciousness, their own lives? The problem with being a writer is that you never really stop being a writer . . . The entire world becomes story.)

There was one more thing I talked about, at the end of the workshop. What I often see is that writing is limited by the writer. The writer can’t write better stories because he or she isn’t more open, more vulnerable to the world. The writer doesn’t listen or experience enough. Part of becoming a writer is creating yourself — like a dancer, you are the instrument of your art. So you need to become the best instrument possible. How do you do that?

You deliberately experience: read books, visit museums, listen to concerts, talk to people. Travel to countries and places other than your own. So many people in this world limit themselves, but if you want to be a writer, you shouldn’t — really, you can’t. You need to take in, to observe, to experience, a great deal — and then filter it through yourself so that it becomes a part of you, and comes out of you, as your own.

You do need to make sure that you don’t become overwhelmed, but think of this as a sort of diet for your mind. Just as you want to eat a healthy and varied diet for your body, you want a diet for your mind — not to eat everything, but to deliberately experience, observe, learn. A dancer might work on her pliés — you might read poetry. Or listen to people talking on the subway.

Ultimately, the work comes out of you — so you need to work on yourself, as well as on the writing.

Have I mentioned that Bowdoin is filled with lions?

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And that’s it for my Stonecoast residency! Although I might still post about the presentation I made on Magical Realism. But I hope this has given you an idea of what the residency was like, what I did there . . . and that there were some useful ideas in it, for the writers among you.

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