February 10th, 2012 / 12:00 pm
Craft Notes

Chance and Attention

Ideally what happens in creative writing classes is less different from the way we write on our own than academic trappings and the rituals of workshop™ might make it seem. We’re hopefully reading widely and intently regardless, developing a personal canon and an ear for line-level nuance, an eye for overall shape. We identify techniques, try them out, learn to recognize our failures, and move on. We do most of this on our own, and presumably want to.

While planning the introductory poetry and fiction class I taught last fall at UMass, foremost in my mind was how in classes I’ve taken, discussions led me to my own variations of terms or techniques, either right then while class went on around me, or later over texts whose formerly mystical workings became suddenly plain. Happy accidents—the confluence of readings, instructor, classmates, beverages caffeinated or alcoholic. In each instance, class was only the primer. The instructor didn’t know what proved important for me; I don’t know what others in the class might have fastened onto. And each instance occurred during craft study, not in workshop.

I wonder if at least for beginning writers, workshop—though of course no two are the same—is less useful than exercises to push them into unfamiliar territory, and craft study (hopefully of writers unfamiliar to them). I don’t think that most of my students, even those who’d had creative writing in high school, had the concept of identifying words’ effects versus meanings, of “reading like a writer,” in Francine Prose’s phrase; of how inextricable significance is from the particular tone in which it’s experienced, and with what finesse we can adjust both. Function and structure, too: how in Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” the radio performs a crucial rupture enabling motion and change; how in Munro’s “Jakarta” single lines of dialogue without accompanying scenes lend expanse to offstage relationships and syncopated texture to narration. Craft study lets us name such things, reveals effects to be the result of technique. That those techniques mechanically repeated without something to say are insufficient doesn’t diminish their transformative power when something is being said.

***

I organized the fiction section of the semester topically: beginnings; arc/shape; dialogue; point of view/voice, etc. Poetry we read more or less chronologically, with our main attention from the 1920s on. I suspected the students would have different preconceptions for poetry and fiction, and would have read less poetry, and I thought how better to experience its progression than the order in which it occurred. I adjusted readings as we got to know one another; I had assumed most students would have read “The Waste Land”; none had, so we gave it an entire class, reading aloud, discussing and presenting sections in groups, with an exercise afterward to write our own multi-part poems.

I assigned at least one exercise per class, collecting as we went. Do the assignment, pass; stellar work meant extra credit. I wanted to give as much feedback as possible, show the sort of comments I expected in workshop (the last third of the semester), and get to know their writing before grading it. Grading creative work doesn’t bother me in the abstract (what’s acceptance/rejection but ‘A’ and countless flavors of ‘F’?) but I thought it vital to separate generative from evaluative, and that the biggest risk of an academic setting is of summoning all-too-available habits of acceding to (perceived) instructor expectations, or else natural inclinations feeling to writer as somehow reactive, defiant.

Sci-fi, mystery, fairy tale; all genres were welcome, as long as they rang true at the line-level—commercial fiction needn’t read like Dan Brown. A number of my students had not signed up write literary fiction, and did their freest, most original work within genre.

But beginning writers are likely to know little of potential outlets. Teaching in Amherst, I was able to give a list of over 30 readings and assign attendance and a reaction to least two. They also had to read, react to, and present on one “independent” and one “establishment” journal from a list of 200.

***

Some exercises:

–      Begin a story or poem with one of these four sentences. Swap whatever words you like, keeping the grammatical structure:

  • Jan popped down to the bodega.
  • I swung by Schaffer’s on the way.
  • I remember going to the market on Forsythe Street.
  • Wednesday meant groceries.

–      A story or poem, at least 50% dialogue

–      An everyday task. A transformation unexpectedly occurs

–      A life in two pages

***

At the end of the semester I asked them to choose a paragraph or stanza that had affected their writing or that they thought would inform it in future. One chose from Cheever’s “The Cure,” one of their holiday and vacation-themed readings over Thanksgiving:

I drove from the station to the house and put the car in the garage. From there I heard the telephone dinning, and I waited in the garden until the ringing had stopped. As soon as I stepped into the living room, I noticed on the wall some dirty handprints that had been made by the children before they went away. They were near the baseboard and I had to get down on my knees to kiss them. (Stories of John Cheever, 164)

In discussion, another student noted with excitement Cheever’s narrative sleight of hand with “had to” in the last sentence, how we’re no longer getting actions linearly but inferring the narrator’s—what, longing? Love? Superstition?—from his sense of necessity about an action we don’t see except by way of setting.

I don’t know if she was mentioning an observation she’d already made, or first articulated it then. I don’t remember whether anyone else teed off. I have no way of knowing if any of them added that arrow to their quivers (the student who made the point wrote mostly poetry). I suspect they were unlikely to have otherwise read that story, though any number of others could have sufficed. But it was the sort of attention that transformed my writing, and took years on my own, without classes, to articulate.

 

Sarah Malone’s writing has appeared most recently in Five Chapters, PANK, Keyhole, The Good Men Project, and The Common. She is currently a Juniper Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and blogs at sarahwrotethat.com.

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