June 18th, 2013


Writer Camp, Day II

We talked about Hope Edelman’s Strong Men and how the group of men was a character as a whole. How details show character. How Edelman left it open whether or not she was, in fact, an alcoholic, and how the line “It wasn’t bottom. Not yet.” implies that the bottom is coming, for either the author or her father.

Then, we all repeated (more or less) our introductions from yesterday, and talked a little about what makes the room intimidating.

Sarah, our teaching assistant, assigned us a short, on-the-spot essay (7 minutes) in which we wrote one paragraph introducing the group as an intimidating group. You could do this about a group of friends or co-workers or whoever, and you don’t have to read aloud so you could put another slant on it. Sarah had us be laudatory because we were going to read them out loud in front of each other.

We used the metaphor of a car mechanic looking at vehicles to frame how we look at essays by each other or from our reading packet. If the car is zipping along, something fine and German, let’s pop the hood and see what makes it run so well! If the car is a sputtering heap, we still pop the hood to figure out what’s wrong. We want to have discussions first about what we admire, then what we can learn from, then what we’d suggest.

We read our own short pieces (the 250 words from one of yesterday’s prompts, either from the childhood questions or the cherries) aloud to the group, discussing the essays as we went. Dinty (teacher) reminded us as authors to pay attention to where others saw problems, but not necessarily to follow their solutions or suggestions.

Things that came up in discussion:
- Why are you telling this story? If it’s not journalism, what’s your connection to the material?
- Reading how a piece focused in on a person or detail, expanded outward to talk about the world, then contracted in again on a person or detail. How we can pay attention and make deliberate choices about the broadness or narrowness of our focus.
- Puzzle-solving. We heard a piece in which historical events were presented obliquely and we had to remember which ones they were, i.e., “the third assassination in two years, four kids dead in Ohio.” There was one in the list that no-one knew, and it was distracting to try to figure it out. So when the reader is being asked to solve a series of puzzles or make connections, you have to be confident that they are all solvable or you lose the reader while they figure it out or get frustrated.
- Physical motion. Some pieces were lyrically pretty, but it was hard to understand the actual physical movement of people or of objects in physical space.
- Time shifts. How if you’re going to shift from time to time, it has to be signalled to the reader. (Which is the problem I had in this piece and which I think I solved, scroll down in comments to see the next draft).

Our 30-minute break came in the middle of the readings above.

We talked about Instructions, As If and whether we felt the character was successfully created (consensus: yes, but we didn’t like her). We agreed there was tension in her vision of the afterlife. We noticed contradictions in the narrator, saying “As if I could commit to anything,” and yet she’s been married for 25 years and walked the dog in the same park every day.

We discussed Field Guide to Resisting Temptation and talked about technical structure versus content. The men in the room found the essay sweet and the women disliked it. Someone pointed out that a “field guide” is typically description rather than instructions.

Going around the table several times, we each threw out topics/titles for potential pieces about instructions/directions/how to/field guide.

Read for discussion tomorrow:
The Memory of My Disappearance by Meg Rains
Things Gone the Way of Time by Rebecca McClanahan

Freewrite on both of the below topics for 15-20 minutes each, then
Write 250 words in which a group is the main character or the setting.
Write 250 words on an instructional/how to piece.
Bring one ready to read tomorrow.

Rest of the Day
Writing time on my own, a little bit of life maintenance/business catch-up. I watched an animal documentary for my “Coming Back as a _______” essay that’s due this week.

Evening readings from the instructors. I noticed that stories with action, rather than theorizing or ideas, were much more interesting to listen to. One of the poets had a very interesting, breathy delivery that was exactly how I imagine Ingrid in White Oleander. Two authors together presented an art book, which was less successful because the book was meant to be physically interacted with. Also, they combined their allotted time, so their reading lasted approximately ETERNITY.

Compliment of the Day
From the teacher, after I read my piece and we discussed it: “Keep working on that.”

I floated back to the dorm!