Characterization—creating believable and interesting people on the page—is an absolutely essential part of successful fiction writing, and it is equally important to narrative nonfiction forms such as memoir or literary journalism. It is also one of the most complex elements of craft, with many different means of achieving it and quite a few ways in which it can fall short.
We all have stories inside of us. Stories to tell, to share. In fact, one might argue that we are stories —creating our lives, day to day, every day. One of today’s most exciting writing forms—the personal memoir— is swiftly becoming the narrative option and publishing entry for many writers willing to embark on journeys of self. Yet for a memoir to speak with any resonance or relevance, the writer must achieve a fragile balance between the self and others, between content and form.
In an effort to answer the cardinal question of memoir—who cares?—this workshop/seminar zeroes in on what’s most compelling about our life stories. What about you is potentially interesting to others? What’s that inciting incident, organizing principle, heat-seeking moment, that could drive your memoir?
A novelist has it easy—her characters, sprung from her imagination, don’t talk back when they’re not happy about the way they’re depicted on the page. But what if your character is your ex-husband, your twin brother, your mother? Are familial loyalty and literary integrity necessarily at odds? How can we most effectively navigate this touchy terrain, to maintain our real-life relationships without compromising the stories we need to tell?
Whether fiction or memoir or something in between, many powerful works of literature are structured in a fractured, fragmented, nonlinear style. In this course, we will experiment with forms, styles, approaches to time and structure, point of view, and character, to tell (and retell) a story. Through in-class writing prompts, we will construct a series of short pieces all linked around a larger theme or subject.
In this course, we will write a series of short personal essays using a range of approaches in style, structure and point of view. Whether it is a story you’ve told many times, one you’ve wanted to tell, or one you don’t think you can tell, this course will offer you ways in and around your particular story. We will ask ourselves why we tell the stories we tell; what we might gain from telling the same story from different perspectives; and how our own telling might alter the past, allowing it to become deeper and richer.
This workshop is based on the premise that the “whole” story is made up of parts, that writing a memoir starts with a compilation of many pieces—episodes or anecdotes or stepping-stones or moments held in memory. Designed for those who are in the process of sketching out these moments, this workshop will look at ways to “fashion a text” as Annie Dillard says, from “fragmentary patches of color and feeling,” especially those trying to write about family with its many competing voices. We will look for form inherent in the material, narrative potential, and vividness in language and detail.
Stories, plots, themes, characters, scenes, sentences, even single words emerge from many sources—from the mind, from memory, from family and friends, from experience lived and imagined. They also emerge from deep within—a place with no physical boundaries, a place where the essence of you, as a writer, resides. Call it your inner self, your soul, your quintessence. It’s where you get in touch with your Writerly Self. Rather than seek what’s in your mind, reflective writing seeks what’s within you but may not be immediately apparent to you.
Imagine a story of people with no depth. Or characters without emotion. Imagine scenes with hollow dialogue. Or a setting that doesn’t rise even to blandness. Imagine a story that blatantly disregards the richness our senses deliver. That may happen when we don’t utilize the five basic tools that unleash soul and spirit into our writing.
All of us encounter dramas in life that seem tailor-made for narrative. But when sitting down to pen such seeming “ready-mades,” we often find that they don’t come to life, drag, or simply seem to lose their once-brilliant shine when committed to paper. So, we ask, how do writers such as Bill Bryson, Jon Krakauer, and Sebastian Junger write such engaging narratives? Or Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, and Jeannette Walls? This class will examine a variety of nonfiction forms, from the memoir to the specific-subject yarn drawn from a decades old once-hot news item.