Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Art of Flashing Forward

Or, How Alice Munro Pulls Off Those Long Leaps Through Time

An interesting question came up in one of my workshops last spring, from a fiction writer. The question was about how to pull off jumps forward in time. "How do you do it?" this student asked. "Is there a trick?"

This is actually a common question, and one that usually comes from someone in my workshop who is writing from "too close" a perspective. It is certainly natural to want to do that, to be right there, up close with your characters. Writers love that feel of "immediacy." The extreme version of this is to place your prose in the present tense, which a lot of newer writers seem to want to do these days. The problem with this, though, is that it makes the act of moving through time feel very awkward and jarring. If you are firmly rooted in a single moment, it's harder to shift to another time period.

While there's no single "trick" to making leaps forward in time, the best thing you can do is to "back off" a little in terms of your temporal distance as narrator. Gaining some retrospective distance on your material makes moving around through time much easier. In fact, if you are going to be making a lot of long leaps through time, as Alice Munro often does in her stories, you will want to place your narrator (or the teller of your story) as far forward in time as possible, so that the narrator is looking well back upon events of the story.

That way, even if you leap forward ten or more years with your characters, they will still seem to be standing "in the past" as far as your narrative-perspective is concerned. This will make your leaps forward seem more natural, and more like ordinary human memory--where you might remember different events from various time periods in the past all in one thought.

Munro, you will notice, often uses a deep retrospective viewpoint to pull off her dramatic leaps forward through time, often called "flashing forward."

For great examples of such "flash forwards," check out Alice Munro's story collections. My personal favorites are Open Secrets and The Beggar Maid.

A Brief Tribute to Alice Munro

This week, Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Price in Literature, a recognition that thrilled a lot of us women writers. Munro is one of the few working writers today who has really been able to capture the complexity of women's lives, our struggles for independence from our families and the orbits of men, the different stages that we go through in our lives (daughter, mother, lover, worker), and the many ways that others regard us as we go, and the demands they make upon us. Munro has explored how we often become our own worst enemies, has charted the lusts and rages that consume and distort us, and, like no one else, has captured the bewildering flow of time which has a way of leaving us dismissed and marginalized beyond a certain age, our energies dissipated by obligation, our youth and beauty spent, yet holding in our hands the cherished and priceless gifts of perspective, memory, and understanding. Nobody else has quite managed to show women as they are the way Alice Munro has. There is such respect and curiosity, and fearlessness, in her portraits of women, assets that are visible from her earliest work, which by the way she first published when she was nearly forty. I hope that Munro serves as a bracing reminder to any writer--man or woman--who hopes to capture women characters in prose, not to succumb to the lazy stereotyping of women so often seen in fiction and memoir, but rather to treat women as full human beings, the way Alice Munro has done. --Kim  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Poetry And Abstraction

What makes a work Poetry is the specific observation of the restless mind working. Frank Bidart did this in Watching the Spring Festival, and Rilke, too:


Inside the many ways to dance Giselle/The single way that will show those who sleep/what tragedy is.

Rilke, from The Duino Elegies (Mitchell trsl):

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels hierarchies.
For me, these passages become abstract, and lift the material beyond the strictly personal, beyond the reach of diary or note-taking, and allow us to attend to the universal, by which we mean the applicability to others, to the dreams and fears of others, that sense of waking up and of writing into ourselves and into understanding of what our lives are truly about. That we are the tragic Giselle.

I always worry about this with my own writing. That my journals are nothing but that, just journals, and they are. But if you keep working the language and attending to--what?--to what IS this poem actually about?--then somehow the larger elements of abstraction seem to rear up out of the material. And yet, I never want to stray all that much from the sweet and bitter Real--because, if I do, the poem disappears, and you lose that pungent physicality that makes all great writing sing:

A little more Bidart:

Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you/watch you think she is what art is, creature/who remembers/her every gesture . . .. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Memory in Fiction and Memoir--"Peeling the Onion"

Something I see in manuscripts I edit (and in my own writing) is how layered and difficult the issue of memory often is. Unpacking a memory, especially a childhood memory or the recollection of a traumatic event, is a bit like peeling an onion. There is, of course, the original memory you hold in your mind, which can often be spotty and full of holes. And then there are the multiple layers of interpretation that have been stacked upon that original memory over the years. The things that have been forgotten, the various embellishments. 

As writers we need to acknowledge the imperfections in our own memories, because a claim to perfect memory simply isn't going to be credible for the reader. Also, our minds tend naturally to block out difficult or traumatic events. Here's an example of a writer sorting through the layers of a traumatic childhood memory. This is from Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, where Karr is talking about being farmed out to a neighbor family when her mother "was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous":

I don't remember who we got farmed out to or for how long. I was later told that we'd stayed for a time with a childless couple who bred birds. Some memory endures of a screened-in breezeway with green slatted blinds all around. The light was lemon-colored and dusty, the air filled with blue-and-green parakeets, whose crazy orbits put me in mind of that Alfred Hitchcock movie where birds go nuts and start pecking out people's eyeballs. But the faces of my hosts in that place--no matter how hard I squint--refuse to be conjured.

It is interesting to note how sensual this memory is. It was famously observed by Proust how the senses can bring back to us, unbidden, memories we might otherwise not be able to recall. In Swann's Way, Proust samples tea and a madeleine (sponge cake), and his whole boyhood town of Combray is suddenly recovered by his mind:

As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of my madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

As writers, we can look for these sensual "Proustian triggers" in our own work in order to summon the past into the present, such as with familiar smells, foods, places, and so forth. The important thing is to show the process of remembering. 

Once our original, spotty memory is unpacked, though, that is only the beginning, the core of the onion. Next there is the question of How something has been remembered. Often the way things are recalled can be influenced by current motivations, or by family myths and stories. Here's an example of this phenomenon from Vivian Gornick's wonderful memoir, Fierce Attachments. In this example, Gornick's mother is telling the story of how she was fondled by her Uncle Sol, a soldier who had returned from the first World War to live with her family, when she was sixteen. 

He didn't say a word to me. He picked me up in his arms and carried me to his bed. He laid us both down on the bed, and he held me in his arms, and he began to stroke my body. Then he lifted my nightgown and he began to stroke my thigh. Suddenly he pushed me away from him and said, "Go back to your bed." I got up and went back to my bed. He never spoke one word about what happened that night, and I didn't either. (p. 8)

Each time Gornick's mother tells the story to Gornick, "it is both the same and different because each time I'm older, and it occurs to me to ask a question I didn't ask the last time around." Gornick says, "The first time . . . I was twenty-two and I listened silently: rapt and terrified." (p. 7) The second time she heard the story, Gornick says, she was thirty:

She repeated it nearly word for word as we were walking up Lexington Avenue . . . When she came to the end I said to her, "And you didn't say anything to him, throughout the whole time" . . . "It just seems odd not to have uttered a sound, not to have indicated your fears at all." (p. 8-9)

The third time she hears the story, Gornick is nearly forty. She says, "Ma, did it ever occur to you to ask yourself why you remained silent when Sol made his move?" Gornick's mother angrily retorts, "Are you trying to say that I liked it?" (p. 9)

Whether or not Gornick's mother liked being fondled by Uncle Sol, this example shows how malleable and subject to reinterpretation memories are, especially family stories and myths. The way we recall things can be greatly influenced by the stage of life we are going through. So, for example, a wedding might be recalled one way by a romantic young teenager, and another way by an adult woman about to enter into her own marriage.

Finally, there is the outer layer of the onion: It is often necessary in our writing to leave room in the present for those who are still standing around to account for what has happened in the past. In Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, for instance, the narrator has retold the story of his troubled brother's death (in a fight) when they were both teenagers. Maclean and his father both recall in the book what a beautiful and skilled fisherman the dead brother was, but we don't hear them discussing the brother's death until near the end of the book, and something is still missing. At last they talk about the brother's untimely death, and their discussion includes this passage:

Once my father came back with another question. "Do you think I could have helped him?" he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. "Do you think I could have helped him?" I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?" . . . "It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."

I guess the thing to take from this lovely passage is that the final accounting we seek of our memories often defies us. Still, it is important to ask these sorts of questions, and--when we are writing about the past--for us to show the struggle we go through to make sense of what has happened, even if--in the end--we are unsuccessful at doing so.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Point of View--Ironic Tone in Third Person

I wanted to talk this morning about point of view, and specifically about writing in an ironic or satiric tone of voice in the third person. This is an issue that has plagued some of the strongest writers in my workshops, and often surfaces during our point of view exercise, where I ask everyone to switch between writing in first person and writing in third person. If you usually write in first person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs of your work in the third person. If you usually write in third person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs in the first person. 

I often assign this exercise because the writers in my workshops are frequently writing rather autobiographical fiction, and I find that making them switch viewpoints can help establish a wider stance and "sense of perspective" upon the world they are creating. However, the more ironic, first person writers always have trouble with this exercise, and I thought it would be helpful to discuss why that is, and to get out a few examples of writers who have successfully used an ironic or "snarky" tone of voice. 

We are all used to the ironic or self-deprecating first person voice. To take a famous example, here's a snippet from the opening of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
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. 
Now we should be able to perform our "exercise" on this passage, right? Just convert from first person to third person. But watch what happens when we do: 
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where he was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but [I don't feel like going into it][or][he wouldn't want us going into it] if you want to know the truth. 
The trouble with this paragraph is that when you move from first to third person, you move from a narrator who is the same as the character, to a third person off-screen narrator who is not the same person as the character, and who now in fact sounds like he's "making fun" of the character.  

This can actually be a problem any time you write a bit ironically in the third person. The reader may begin to feel as if the narrator is beating up unfairly on the characters. The reader may also begin to question, who is this off-screen persona/voice who has all of these strong opinions? 

With a light touch, this sense of an opinionated off-stage voice may be quite pleasurable. However, handled badly (as in my example above), such a voice can leave the reader perplexed and struggling. 

Let's look at a couple of examples where writers have successfully used an ironic or snarky tone of voice in the third person:

Our first example is from the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
And so we go on to follow this mannered courtship drama. There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, a witty, ironic tone is fully in evidence--so it can be done in the third person. Next, while Mrs. Bennet's character will certainly come in for some rather unkind examination during the course of the novel, she is largely allowed enough rope to hang herself, and Austen generally takes a light and sympathetic tone with Mrs. B, and with all of her characters, and you never feel as if she's flogging anyone as in my example above. 

I think this point of sympathy is an important one. Narrators need generally to be sympathetic with their characters, though not in the sense of believing everything they say, but rather in the sense of being searching and curious about their situation. The narrator needs to find the difficulties of the characters worthy of serious, if playful, examination.

Here's another example, from an author who plays it closer to the line--This is a snippet from the opening of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which becomes a full-on social satire, and probably goes to the limit of how much fun you can make of characters without losing interest in them:
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid. Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.
Clearly there is a risk here of losing the reader--If Franzen does not step in and humanize these characters quickly (which, in fact, he does), we readers might start to say to ourselves, look, these characters are so pathetic, why should I care about them? So there is a delicate line we are treading here as writers. How much irony you think you can get away with must, in the end, be an intuitive decision as you write. And some of it is clearly a matter of taste. I personally love Franzen's writing, but I sometimes hear others complaining that his tone is "too much" for them. 

A couple more quick examples before I quit. Writers sometimes resort to the second person for an ironic or satiric tone of voice, and here's an example--A passage from the opening of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
The point about using second person is that it really writes like a subset of first person. You don't feel the presence of an ironic offscreen narrator as you do in third. Rather, for the reader, it is more like being asked to step into the shoes of the first person narrator. And the oddness of being in second person emphasizes the ironic tone and the strangeness of the situation. So second person can work well in this way. 

A final example, to show that in the third person it is important to distinguish between the narrator's ironic tone and character inflection, which is a very different thing. Sometimes the narrator can have a fairly neutral tone, but the character herself is being ironic. This is essentially a matter of distance: Are we up close with the character? Or farther out with the narrator and watching the character? You need to be clear about what distance you are working at in the third person. To illustrate, here's an example from the opening of Alice Munro's short story, "Royal Beatings" from her collection, The Beggar Maid, where Munro negotiates this relationship between narrator description and character attitude.
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating. The word Royal lolled on Flo's tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than her need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal?
Munro's narrator is reporting fairly neutrally, but the report is inflected with wonderful character attitude. 

I hope these examples help clarify this difficult issue. Happy writing everyone!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dialogue--Big Issues Come Out Over Small Things

We have had interesting discussions in my workshops about the way big issues tend to come out over small things in fictional dialogue. I want to elaborate a bit more on this subject, because it comes up a lot. The example I use in my classes is of a fictional mother and son pulling up to a fast-food drive-through window. The mother thinks the son is gaining weight and she is concerned about his health. The son, being a hungry teenager, wants to order the super-sized meal. As I was saying in class, the mother would usually broach her "agenda" gingerly: "Oh, honey, you aren't really that hungry are you? Why don't you just get the regular size fries." And the son might respond: "Trust me, Mom. I really do want the super-size dinner. I'm hungry."

The point here is that the big issue--the issue of the son's weight and health--tends not to come out in a direct way. This is simply a matter of social convention and of the niceties with which our personal interactions are conducted. People have to live together, right? And so we try to gently nudge each other in the "right direction" (meaning the direction we want them to go), rather than waging a battle at every turn. 

We tend not to start with: "If you keep eating like that, son, you're going to turn into a fat pig." Or even, "Son, I'd like to talk to you if I could. You have been putting on weight, and from now on I think you should think about cutting back on your fast-food consumption." There's likely to be a lot more dancing around the issue before the fictional characters ever get to anything that direct.

The beauty of having a dialogue run in an oblique way like this, is that it also opens up a lot of other interesting possibilities besides the son's health and eating habits that may be brewing under the scene. Such as the amount of control the mother exercises over the son's life, and the son's need to break free and make his own decisions. 

As writers, we need to be alert to these various emerging agendas and to emotional nuances that may be revealed as our dialogue progresses. At first the mother might seem genuinely concerned about the son's health, but then gradually we begin to detect that this concern disguises an overriding controlling nature, and that's really what the son is reacting to. In fact, the son may be overeating to prove a point.

I think of dialogue as having both "global" and "local" weather. The local weather is governed by the immediate agendas of the characters. The son wants a larger meal because he's hungry; the mother wants him to get the smaller meal. However, there's also a "global weather" operating behind the scenes, the "jet stream" if you will. These are the bigger issues of character dynamics and nuance that we can detect developing moment to moment as we write.  

Here we may find larger motivations such as control issues. Or, profound emotional nuances that make our characters seem more human. In our example, we might begin to see the mother's well-meaning attempts to "help," and then her resignation and sadness that her son has rejected her efforts, and her defeat that he's probably turning out all wrong and it's all her fault. We might also see the son's burgeoning rebellion and anger, his need to be his own man, his silent, inflamed victory as he chews through the greasy fries, occasionally glaring at his mother.

Note here all of the different nuanced emotions coming out step by step as the scene runs and the global push and pull between these characters: The attempts to help, resignation, sadness, defeat, rebellion, anger, victory, etc. These feelings won't all come out at once, but must be doled out by the writer as the dialogue runs, slowly revealing to the reader all of the various emotional complexities at play, the true affections, the hard truths, the self-interests of each character. 

In fact, you can think of scene--and specifically of dialogue--as a string of such emotional "moments," strung together like pearls on a string, one cascading into the next. Sometimes these moments will come across naturally as the scene runs, but often we can underscore them by forcing nuances like these into character gestures and facial expressions within the scene. So, for example, at some point in the conversation the mother might sigh with resignation. Or the son might chomp his fries in victory. Use of gestures can be very helpful in pulling more emotional depth out of our scenes.

At the end of our class discussion, someone asked me, "So, do the big issues always have to come out in small ways? Can't they ever come out directly?" Good question. 

I certainly did not mean to suggest that there can never be direct discussion of a big issue between characters, or perhaps even a big fight. Sometimes the mother and son may need to have at each other: "You are turning into a fat pig" and "Get off my back, mom." They just don't usually start out that way.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Creating Dialogue for Nonfiction

"But what if I don't remember the exact words we said!" I often hear this cry of distress from the memoirists I work with. (This is the single most common concern next to, Can I say mean things about [fill in name], and get away with it?) Not to worry. There are several techniques we can use to help us create compelling dialogue for nonfiction essays and memoir, even when our memories are spotty. One of the most useful things to do, if you don't remember the exact words people said, is simply to put your dialogue into summary. This relieves you of the problem of having to come up with exact quotes, in quotation marks.

So, for example, you could write, He told me that I should go home to my mother. Rather than writing, "Go home to your mother," he said. You can then save the direct quotations for those few pungent lines that you really do remember exactly.

Another useful device for creating nonfiction dialogue is "compositing." It is generally allowed--in dramatizing for memoir or essays--to roll several conversations into one, or to consolidate dialogue that may have occurred over a period of time. In creating dialogue for nonfiction, I also encourage my students not to be shy about having their characters say the sorts of things they usually said, or the kinds of comments they always made.

Often in memoir, we are writing about people--such as family members--whom we know so well that it's pretty easy to put words into their mouths. I tell my students to be brave about re-creating these characters for us on the page. You know more than you think you do, I say. Just get your scene with dialogue down on paper, and then step back and look at what you've written.  Now ask yourself: It this a fair and accurate representation of what happened? If so, you are done. If not, then start deleting anything that feels inaccurate or misleading to you.

One thing to keep in mind is that all memory, to some extent, is a re-creation. Unless you are one of those rare people blessed with a photographic memory, your task in writing memoir is to get down, as best you can, the way you yourself remember things. Other people may recall things differently. And part of the exploration of memoir is the search for what we remember, and why. It can be fascinating, for instance, and an endless source of exploration, to discover that you and your siblings remember things completely differently.

If you really get stuck, and simply cannot remember, as for example with a scene from when you were eight, this still should not prevent you from coming up with an effective dramatization. This is where the imagination can kick in, and you can fill in what the scene "must have been like" based on what you know. 

The key here is to be clear with the reader when you are starting to invent or imagine. Put a little disclaimer right in the text, such as: My memory is spotty, but I picture my mother with her bouffant hairdo and shirtwaist dress, serving breakfast to my brother and me . . .. If you are going to do this kind of thing a lot, you might consider putting some sort of disclaimer right up front in the preface of your memoir as to the amount of inventing or conjecturing you are doing. Or, if you are writing comedy, the amount of exaggerating or embroidering you are doing. What you don't want to do is to mislead the reader. In the end, it is all about NOT misleading the reader. See my related post on using disclaimers in creative nonfiction.

This post is expanded and updated from an older post.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Revising The Workshop Method: How to Make Writing Workshops Creative, Not Punitive

It has taken me years to really begin to put into practice in the writing workshop the so-called "positive or operant," training theories discussed in my book, Teaching The Dog To Think/. Ostensibly my book is about an experience that I had with "positive" dog training almost ten years ago, but really the memoir is something of an explanation and exploration of how I have arrived at the teaching methods that I currently use in my creative writing workshops:

What Is Wrong With The Traditional Workshop?

The trouble with the traditional workshop method, as I see it--and as I have previously discussed in this blog--is that it is primarily corrective or punitive in nature, and is a rather ham-handed teaching mechanism. Twelve to sixteen students are placed in a room together, and are allowed to comment on each others' work. Because the students are competitive, the comments tend to be extremely harsh and biting, unless the workshop leader (me) steps in to exert rather strenuous control. Even then, the basis of the commenting tends to be mainly critical or corrective in nature--as in, "I don't like that," or "Something isn't working on page five." That sort of thing. 

So is this a bad thing?

Well, perhaps the basic workshop method has some facility in breaking to beginning writers "the news" that their writing needs some work. A lot of very new writers have a rather inflated view of their own skills and capabilities, and when you have fourteen people in a room all weighing in to say that something is going wrong here, the weight of opinion tends to get through in a way that just one beleaguered teacher saying the same thing doesn't. However, that being said, the workshop set-up also makes it very difficult to move beyond this "corrective mode" of simply telling writers that what they are doing isn't working, and leaves most writers floundering, saying, "Well, if this ISN'T working, then what SHOULD I do?" The traditional workshop model offers no answer to this question.

Positive Teaching Theory

The corrective, punitive workshop model is also all wrong from the standpoint of teaching theory. Good learning should be a positive, happy experience. It should be about seeking and discovering new patterns and exciting new information. At its best, learning should engage the "seeking" and "mulling" pathways of the brain, and the learning experience itself should be exciting enough to drive the student forward. And, specifically, in the case of creative writing, no good writing can ever occur without a positive and creative mental engagement with the material.

Creative writing is about the excited, open and receptive mind filling itself up with things in the environment, engaging with those things in an active, creative and thoughtful way, and then converting the results into an almost musical composition of words. What contemporary learning theory is beginning to show us is that these mental pathways of "happy seeking" and "relaxed mulling" are essentially incompatible with harsh or punitive teaching modalities. (This, by the way, is why the Tiger Mother's approach is completely wrong, and in my opinion is essentially harmful and damaging.) If you want more on learning theory, I highly recommend the work of Karen Pryor (Lads Before The Wind, Don't Shoot The Dog), and particularly her latest book, Reaching The Animal Mind. While much of Pryor's writing on "positive" or "operant" training is focused upon animal subjects, the same principles apply to human learners. 

Seeking "What We Love" In The Writing

What the work of Karen Pryor and other "positive" teachers and trainers has shown us, since approximately the early nineteen-nineties, is that punitive or corrective approaches to learning essentially "shut down" or "switch off" the learner. This may explain why so many writers find themselves getting so "blocked" in the traditional writing workshops offered by contemporary creative writing programs. A redesigned workshop must take this into account, and must work very hard to make sure that the learning experience within the workshop itself is never harsh or aversive. 

So what do we do in a "positive workshop," instead of looking for what is wrong? 

Well, we spend a great deal of time looking for what is RIGHT. For what is WORKING. This, in my experience, is much more helpful information for the creative writing student anyway. When the student has done something right, he or she can go out and do it again. If all you tell the creative writer is what isn't working, then they have nowhere to go.

But--I hear you cry--what about all the stuff in the manuscripts that needs correcting? Well, I still allow my students to write each other "comments," and they still have a fine time "correcting" or "editing" each others' work, even though they are learners, too, and they often are poor judges of what is actually good writing. Still, students want feedback from each other, and often if everyone in the room has a problem with something the writer is doing, the writer may find that helpful information to take home with him or her. However, I want to emphasize: That sort of corrective feedback is no longer what my workshop is about. Within the workshop itself, poor performance should be utterly ignored. It needs to be treated as essentially irrelevant information, because that's what it is. 

Craft Exercises To Assist Performance

I suppose the risk of a strictly "positive" approach to creative writing is that you don't want to be rewarding or praising bad performance. Certainly, you don't want to be telling someone you "love" their work when their writing just isn't very good. So then the question arises of how to make sure your students produce a good product that you can then reinforce with praise and encouragement. This is where craft exercises come in. I think most of my students believe that I am giving them craft exercises in order to get them to practice skills that they need, and that is true to an extent. Most fiction and memoir writers who come into my workshops are smart people. This is Harvard Square after all. Lots of these writers have a college degree under their belts, or two or three, and many have had successes in other professions, so they are pretty sure they "know how to write." The trouble is that most of these students have a fairly limited set of narrative approaches upon which they tend to fall back again and again. Part of getting them to be better writers lies in getting them to expand their repertoires, and to try new approaches. So this is one way that I use exercises in my classes, to show them a wider range of options and approaches that they can draw on.

However, the larger and much more important reason that I use exercises is this: The skills-building exercises I use essentially make my students do things right. My writing exercises start students off with greater narrative distance than they would otherwise use, or with a greater temporal remove, or perspective. Or perhaps I will create exercises that force them to dramatize, or create better characters, or that provide characters with opposing agendas, making the dialogue in the manuscripts spring to life. Many of these exercises are based upon examples from successful published work, and so we are using narrative attacks that have worked in the past. My students are being asked to emulate these successful approaches. The result is that students who would probably be considered "bad" writers by their peers in a traditional workshop suddenly find themselves producing a much better quality of work that I can then "mark" for them as "moving in the right direction" at the level of skill mastery. The work ends up being praised with genuine enthusiasm by me and by their peers. We suddenly have some truly excellent writing before us that we can then discuss in a positive way, and that we can help the writer shape into truly excellent work. And that's what it's all about, right?

For more on this subject, check out Karen Pryor's books and websites, which cover the ins and outs of positive learning theory. Pryor also has many illustrative videos online that are great fun to watch.