HOW THE CLASS WORKS
WELCOME TO THE ONLINE WRITING WORKSHOPS
During the course of the next ten weeks, this class will expose students
to a variety of narrative techniques through exercises that will allow
you to "try on" different narrative voices. Students will have a chance
to use voices/personas that they may have never used in their writing,
while also exploring their narrative strengths and weaknesses. Until you
have learned to create and sustain a compelling narrative voice, you will
not be able to write a poem or short story-let alone a novel. This is no
easy task, but the creative and personal rewards for practicing and gaining
some mastery of the craft of writing are great. Being a skillful fiction
writer or poet is one of these rewards. This obviously does not happen
overnight or even over ten-weeks. Writing, like any art, requires persistence,
and I ask that you be patient with yourself and this process.
Practicing your craft-like practicing scales on a piano-will give
you the skill to create your own distinct style. I'm sure you will agree
that art-literature-is distinct from a diary or journal entry, journalistic
reporting or navel gazing. I assure you that people will not read your poem,
short story or novel to hear you grind your ax or stand on your soapbox.
They will read because they are engaged, intrigued and moved, and that is
what art does. We will spend the class considering exactly how different
narrative techniques allow for the most artful and compelling expression
in fiction and poetry.
The method we will be using was honed by the teachers of The Writers
Studio and has proven to be a highly effective method of training emerging
writers. The online program, by contrast, is still fairly new, and if you've
taken the class before, please note that some things will be different this
time around as we try to find the best way to teach in this new environment.
I will cover the methodology we'll use during the next ten weeks -
how class will be structured, how critiques will work, what to look for when
doing your exercises, etc. Technical issues - browsers, Web sites, chatting,
uploading, etc. - are addressed in "Getting Started," which can be found
in the Introductory Documents folder in The Writers Studio MSN group.
Some Notes on Craft in Fiction
If you haven't done so yet, please take a look at the page titled "The
Elements of Craft."
Here you'll see brief summaries of terms like persona, tone, and
mood. Persona, tone, and mood are your central building blocks of narrative.
They are the basics. Worry about them for now, and we'll address
elements as necessary.
If you look at the definition of Persona, you will notice that it says
"the distance between the writer and the story's narrator." What
exactly does that mean? Your persona narrator is not the writer.
The writer creates
a persona that s/he uses to tell the story. This distance between
the writer and the narrator allows the writer to play and create.
For example, if
you are too attached to the facts of a true story you want to tell
or too invested in getting up on your soapbox about a particular
will feel obligated to "tell it exactly as it happened." Fiction
cares little for the facts or journalistic reporting. Fiction is
more interested in artistry and drama, and there is no artistry or drama
freedom or distance to be irreverent, take chances with language
or change the facts to create the most engaging story.
Why is distance important? Well imagine if John Cheever sputtered
on for page after page about how hard it was to be a homosexual trapped in
a loveless marriage. Or picture Flannery O'Connor coming up to you on a street
corner and telling you how important it is to give your soul over to Jesus
so you can be baptized and take communion and die and go to heaven. You might
nod your head and pretend to listen just to humor her. Or you might run the
other way. For Cheever, you might pat him on the back and tell him you're
terribly sorry to hear that and then hustle out of earshot as soon as you
could. But when their narrative personas speak, you can't resist paying attention.
Cheever puts you right in the middle of the loveless marriage, and O'Connor
makes you feel the flames of purgatory licking your neck. The genius of both
of these authors is that they found a way to make their own private dramas
as compelling to their readers as they were to them. This is what the proper
distance can do for you.
During the course of this class, we will spend four weeks on first
person and three weeks on third person. (The remainder of the class will
be devoted to working on a specific story or poem developed from one of the
exercises in the previous seven weeks.) Second person narrators are rare.
You will most often find second person used when a first or third-person
narrator uses direct address (where the narrator addresses "you").
Persona also refers to "the personality of the first, second or third-person
narrator and its narrative distance from the characters." Take J. D. Salinger's
first-person narrator in The Catcher in the Rye for example. This boy is
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably
want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and
how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David
Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want
to know the truth.
In first person, your persona takes the form of an "I" whose job is
to reveal him or herself to the reader. Throughout a first person narrative,
you are always learning something new about the "I". The most effective first-person
narrators have a particular take on the world and show that world as opposed
to telling us about that world.
When we refer to "narrative distance," we are referring to the distance
between the narrator and the characters. A first-person narrator is inherently
closer to the characters s/he is dealing with by virtue of being in the story.
Third-person narrators are just as much a construction as first-person narrators
in that they also have personalities. Again, narrative distance refers to
the distance between the narrator and the characters. In third person, narrators
can look from afar at characters like little ants or watch them like a bystander
seeing a scene unfold or they can be very close, peering over a character's
shoulder, showing us the world from their perspective.
John Cheever's third-person narrator in The Country Husband watches
the scene from a distance, outside of the plane and then zooms in on his
To begin at the beginning, the airplane from Minneapolis in which
Francis Weed was traveling East ran into heavy weather. The sky had been
a hazy blue, with the clouds below the plane lying so close together that
nothing could be seen of the earth. Then mist began to form outside the windows,
and they flew into a white cloud of such density that it reflected the exhaust
fires. The color of the cloud darkened to gray, and the plane began to rock.
Francis had been in heavy weather before, but he had never been shaken up
Tone and Mood
Mood is the primary emotional response you want to evoke in your reader.
It's the feeling you want to creep up your reader's basal ganglia as
he or she reads. The basic categories of mood are surprisingly few:
sorrow, depression, fear. These are all basic emotions. One exception:
anger is generally not considered a mood. Rather anger is used to defend
emotions, usually sorrow. Your narrator can have an angry tone, but
realize that anger itself is not a mood, but rather an aspect of tone.
is how the story is told - the voice the persona uses: conversational,
formal, humorous, matter-of-fact, etc. In Chekhov's case the mood for
some of his greatest works ("Lady With a Lap Dog," The
Cherry Orchard) were devastating
loss and sorrow. Yet his narrator's tone is incredibly cool, even
clinical. If you followed the discussion about persona, you probably
already know why he had to write like this. When Chekhov wrote "Lady With
a Lap Dog,"
he didn't have long to live. Not surprisingly, the sense of doom
in the story is palpable. By choosing a cool, distant tone, Chekhov
to get enough
distance on his material to be able to write it. Had his persona
narrator been any closer to the mood, he probably would have found
story this close to his heart impossible.
The best single quote I've ever read about tone and mood is from
Chekhov: "When you want to touch a reader's heart, try to be colder.
It gives their
grief, as it were, a background against which it stands out in
greater relief." Chekhov wrote incredibly moody stories, but his normal
narrative voice was
incredibly distant, formal and restrained. My personal experience
with Chekhov's stories is to feel like I've been run through the
wringer emotionally and
then I scratch my head and say, "How on earth did he do that?"
answer simply is that he understands the separation of tone and
Of course, the point is not to write like Chekhov, though you
could do worse. There are many combinations of tone and mood available.
Take Ellison, for example. The mood of his Invisible Man is clearly
depressed and paranoid
(and prone to violent outbursts, we learn later). He communicates
this through a tone that is incredibly formal, almost like the
headmaster of a private
school. You can feel the pain his narrator is in - "I might even
be said to possess a mind" - but he needs an air of formality
to communicate the
pain without collapsing into maudlin sentimentality.
thing to remember is that we all have things that we want to communicate
in our writing, and that the best way to communicate
is to clearly identify the tone and the mood beforehand. And
and keep the tone
separate from the mood. We will discuss this in greater detail
during our weekly chats.
Craft in Poetry
So where does poetry enter into all of this? Actually, though
the previous discussion is couched in the terms of fiction,
it applies equally well to
poets. You still have a narrator (most often a first-person
narrator), and you still have to reveal something about the
"I" in first
or the character(s)
in third person. You still need to separate tone and mood,
and you still need to find a way to connect to your audience
in a way that makes
concerns equally interesting to the reader. The biggest difference
between fiction and poetry is obviously that poetry is a
much more compressed form.
You are asked to get to the heart of the matter in fewer
lines. Take these openings, for example:
There's a section in my library for death
and another for Irish history,.
- Billy Collins, "Tomes"
The afternoon the neighborhood boys tied me and Mary Lou Mahar
to Donny Ralph's father's garage doors, spread-eagled,.
- Marie Howe, "Sixth Grade"
From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea.
- Elizabeth Bishop, "The Moose"
All three of these poets have their own way of catching their reader's
attention. With Collins it's humor - the juxtaposition of death and Irish
history. He's keeping the tone light in the beginning, but with just enough
of a hint of darker material to come so that when the narrator takes a sidestep
to talk about his deceased mother, the reader goes along with him. Howe takes
a different tack. She's describing a horrifying situation - metaphorical
rape, really - and she's going to put you right there in the midst of it.
She's keeping a lid on the agenda here by forcing her narrator to be really
specific about the situation: she and Mary Lou Mahar (as opposed to anyone
else) being tied to Donny Ralph's father's garage doors. A lesser talent
might have left it at, "tied us to those garage doors," but Howe wants to
make sure you know whom these garage doors belonged to. Later she lets you
know that Donny Ralph has nine brothers and sisters and a grandfather, all
of whom were absent on the day in question. These observations are not here by accident. The poem derives its strength not from
being indignant about what happened, but from the narrator illuminating how
people relate to each other, even when the unthinkable is happening. The
narrator leaves it up to the reader to be indignant on her behalf. She herself
holds no grudges.
Elizabeth Bishop is a special case; in that she is so subtle she confounds
almost every discussion of an attention-getting persona in poetry. To sidestep
this, I sampled from one of the few poems of hers that starts with a drum
roll, as well as with a sentence that goes on for six stanzas and two pages.
But I could have just as easily have started with one of the most ungainly
openings I know in poetry:
In Worcester, Massachusetts
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
- Elizabeth Bishop, "In the Waiting Room"
Bishop was famously shy, and each one of her immensely powerful poems
is an odd contradiction: she steps in to the spotlight by shuffling,
crab-like, out of it. Even in the opening lines of "In the Waiting Room,"
narrator who knows where she's going and what she's doing - a supreme
confidence in the midst of diffidence. There's a perfectly good aesthetic
the clumsy opening: she's putting herself into the head of a six year-old,
and telling the story from a largely six year-old point of view. The
illusion is almost perfect, the voice authentic. It's like a tightrope act.
reading just to see if she'll slip and fall. She doesn't. This is artistry
at a level you don't experience often: an artist so sure of herself
that she's willing to sound plain, homey and winsome.
Again, the idea here
is not that you're going to write like Bishop
or like Howe or like anybody else. The real goal is to write like
yourself, but the first step toward doing this is to gain a healthy
curiosity about the different sorts of strategies different poets have used
Gain an encyclopedic knowledge of what you can do, and when you sit
down to write you'll know instinctively what you should do, and whom
read to help you along your way. And doing this, if you're a poet,
will mean that you learn how to read poetry differently than you
have done in the past.
One last word about poetry: there are many technical
we won't be addressing in this course. Technical matters of prosody
- iambs, trochees, spondees, enjambment issues - are all good things
to learn but
pale in difficulty before the task of creating an engaging persona
in your poetry. Learn how to do this and people will forgive the
Reading As A Writer
Persona, mood and tone are three elements of craft that we
will pay particular attention to as we read established authors and
the pieces submitted in class. You will be encouraged to read
as a writer during this
When reading as a writer, these are some questions you might
Who is the narrator? Is it a first, second or third-person
narrator? Why is this
written in first, second or third person? Does this narrator
use direct address? Why? What tone is the narrator using? Am
I getting a sense of the mood? What
is the mood being evoked if any? Where is the narrator in relationship
to the characters? This last question is especially important
narrative distance in third person. If your head is swimming
at this point, don't worry. We will deal with these questions
One of the oldest and most effective ways of writing is to
model your piece on another writer's work - to use that work
as a springboard
own ideas. That's what we'll learn to do in this class. It's
a technique that will stand you in very good stead for the
rest of your
career. If you're really on top of your literary game you'll
notice that that's what
Ellison did. The first paragraph of Invisible
Man is a direct
homage to Dostoevsky's Notes
from the Underground. ("I am
a sick man. I am an angry man. I am an
unattractive man. I think there's something wrong with my
liver.") It's what writers have done since time immemorial and in this
you will learn
how to do it as well.
On Friday of each week I will post a text that will serve as the model
for your exercises, along with a short discussion of what the exercise itself
will consist of. You will have until the following Friday to write your exercises
and post them to the appropriate folder. On Monday at 8:00 P.M. Eastern Time,
we will have a one-hour online chat to discuss the exercise. The chats are
not mandatory, but excellent if you have questions and would like clarification
on the exercise. For those of you who miss the chat, I will post the transcripts
to a folder so you don't miss anything. (See the "Getting Started" document
for a discussion of how to post, file formats, etc.)
Half the exercises will be based on works of poetry and half will
be fiction. Everyone should do all of them. Fiction writers write fiction,
and poets write poetry regardless of what the exercise is based on. Use the
exercise to try to capture the voice of the persona in the text as fully
as you can. It will stretch your abilities and help you find the voice that
best works for you down the road. I will also point out in the exercise the
elements of craft you should be paying attention to.
Your exercises should be fairly short; fiction writers should produce
two pages on average. You want to produce quality over quantity. Remember
this is an exercise. Don't try to squeeze an entire story into two pages.
Work on using the technique within your two pages. Poets should be naturally
safe here, as one-to-two page poems are a fairly standard length. Don't worry
about quantity at this point. Connect to a true persona narrator and a palpable
mood and quantity will take care of itself.
If the exercise is based on a work of fiction, then I will generally
only post the beginning of the piece, not the full piece itself. This limitation
is intentional. It's too easy when reading a ten or twenty page story to
revert to reading like a reader. When you have just a couple of paragraphs
it forces you to go back again and again to each word, each phrase, each
sentence. When you start to do this you begin to read more like a writer.
One last point about exercises: you won't like every text we study
in this course. I'll be deliberately choosing from a wide range of authors,
casting as wide a net as possible so that you can get a large number of strategies
under your belt. Some of them will fit your style, others won't. Some will
seem easy, others nearly impossible. Withhold your judgments of the texts.
Your concern is not whether you "like" an author's work, but what can you
glean from the narrative technique being used. All of the writers we read
will be at the top of their craft. This caliber of writer has a lot to teach
you, so try to keep your mind open to the lesson. You will certainly benefit
more from paying attention to their narrative technique than listening to
the conversation in your head about your personal preferences.
A friend of mine once took a wine appreciation course in which the
teacher told the class, "Your opinion about what you drink is not of
interest here." The point of the class, according to the teacher, was to
taste buds to recognize different things. That's pretty close to what
we're doing here. It's not that you won't or shouldn't have opinions, just
of the extent to which opinions can stand in the way of experience.
Critiques - Giving and Receiving
Critiques to posted pieces will be due by Sunday. After you have
written your critiques, I will start to post my responses to the pieces
Don't feel you have to respond to everyone's piece, but do try to
critique at least three or four. I may ask you to comment on a particular
I feel it's appropriate.
It goes without saying that your critiques should be constructive
and helpful. You should judge your colleagues' pieces based on craft and
technique rather than content. Did they do what the exercise required of
them? If so, let them know what specifically worked in terms of the exercise.
Feel free to quote sections of text that work and note what specifically
worked. If something did not work, tell them how their piece differed from
what we were setting out to do in the exercise. Was something confusing or
not clear? Let them know. Be honest and be fair.
The quality of your critiques will have a direct impact on the quality
of your own writing. It's much easier to see what is or isn't working in
someone else's work. Once you see something in someone else's work and have
an insight into an element of craft, you are more likely to apply this insight
to your own work.
It's more of a challenge to be on the receiving end of a critique.
There's a natural tendency to want to defend your piece from its critics.
Please do not do this. When you respond to criticism you lose the opportunity
to learn from what the critic is telling you. Just sit tight. Listen quietly.
Absorb the lesson, and apply it when you do your next exercise. After all,
it is only an exercise. There'll be another one next week.
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