A series of essays on writing short stories, timed to coincide with my class “Spellbinding Short Stories” at the 2011 Cape Cod Writer’s Center Conference. — Sallie
These five days are about your expansion.
This doesn’t mean belittling who you are right now as you sit here. It reflects what I’ve learned from my own writing and from teaching workshops: that we all have more possibilities and potentials than we realize.
There may be only a small part of you that notices with the fresh eyes of a five year old; these are the eyes I want you to begin to use.
There may only be a few minutes of your daily life, maybe on waking up or going to sleep, that are free of the influence of computers, cell phones, radio and televison, and the attitudes and opinions of the people close to you. Those are the few minutes out of which I hope you will generate ideas for your writing.
And there may be areas and ideas that frighten you, that draw on the dark night of the soul. Those are the areas and the fears that will produce fruitful writing.
As the poet William Stafford said, we are not talking about correcting writing, but about correcting lives.
You will discover, in these short five days, I hope, your native language—but it is not likely to be the language you speak or write in today.
And I hope you will also discover that your liveliest writing, your most engaged and engaging, comes from using a point of view that is not your own.
To that end, your first assignment is to read “Don’t Write What You Know,” an essay from the current Atlantic Monthly. We will discuss it tomorrow. Please come prepared to ask one question.
A few ground rules: I will touch on the elements of writing fiction in each class, with opportunities for you to read short passages from your work that illustrate these points. Since only five of you have handed in examples, I would like the rest of you to send me a few pages of fiction, today, if possible—or if you don’t write fiction, non-fiction, although as I’ve explained, this is a workshop in writing short stories. However, a lot of the rules and the breaking of the rules apply to both forms.
A few reminders: in the bad old days, I used to have to warn students not to be cruel to each other in their criticisms, but since we now live in an increasingly cruel world, I find that most adults don’t need this reminder. But the workshop should not be a soft and downy nest. So, when you are listening to someone read, try to think of one question you would like to pose—a question, not a comment.
You will notice that the examples I cite are all from masterworks that have stood the test of time. This does not mean that they are above being questioned but they perhaps offer us lasting value for the time and effort we invest in reading them.
If you don’t already keep a notebook—a trail guide—go out and get one right away, for your assignments, questions, and for observations made through and with the new eyes you are going to acquire.