Saturday, August 27, 2011

And We're Back: Fall Writing Workshop Class Notes-- Session II

This week I've decided to post the class notes here at the blog. I do that sometimes. There's no method to my madness, except perhaps to give non-attendees a peek at our otherwise top secret, behind closed doors, weekly literary extravaganza. (And if you're reading this and you are one of those outsiders but would like to become an insider and join us, just email me at for details.)

So for Session II we covered lots of topics. I asked for thoughts about recurring themes in literature and movies. We touched on the biggies-- man vs. nature, man vs. self, redemption, etc. And I asked a question not unlike one I asked the first week-- what is your goal for your writing: fame, catharsis, legacy, revenge, etc?

Then it was time for Spike's NYT Clipping Service, the portion of the class where I whip out interesting articles I've read during the preceding week and share them in the hopes of inspiring you. I started off with In Defense of Secrecy an Op-Ed piece written by Julie Salamon published on 8/20/11 in the Sunday Review section. Salamon is the author of a just-released bio of Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright who won both a Tony and a Pulitzer for The Heidi Chronicles, and who died a very untimely death in 2006. Salamon writes about how Wasserstein simultaneously appeared to live her life out loud and in public while actually harboring many secrets. She uses this as a jumping off point to look at privacy vs. secrecy, and ties this into how these things have been influenced and changed thanks to the Internet. I was really taken by this piece as it fed my current appetite for contemplating how, increasingly, privacy is becoming the hottest commodity out there.

I also mentioned a review by Madge McKeithen for a memoir called I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl by Kelle Groom. I brought up this particular review because the following passage pertained to a question brought up in Week I (the question being something like, "How do you frame a memoir-- chronologically or what?")

Dynamic passages, often intentionally unhinged, tug against familiar expectations that paragraphs are units of cohesive thought. Groom’s essays move back and forth across time; “El Paso” begins with desert “weed and thistle,” springs ahead to Cape Cod and back to the author’s 4-year-old flower-­girl self before again leaping forward. Distinctions among dreams, memories, dates and places are rendered subordinate to the central character’s perception. Groom writes about herself without pretending and about others without blaming, delivering wide-eyed observations even in low-lit, murky places.

And since I'd accidentally brought in the Sunday Style section, I used that as yet another opportunity to point out that the weekly Modern Love essays that run in this section offer a great chance for folks who wish to submit essays. Mod Lov publishes work by people from all walks. I even had a piece in, way back in 2005. Here's a link to pages and pages and pages of Mod Love columns.

Next we talked about internal landscapes vs. the physical world and which is "preferable." Of course that's a matter of taste. I like both when I'm reading-- I love a good long look inside the heads of the characters (and I mentioned Ian McEwan is a master at this) and I also love rich descriptions of surroundings, objects, nature. In my own writing, I often totally lack the physical side-- so busy am I trying to capture what's happening in my head. I asked everyone to keep both in mind as we tackled the in-class assignment, which was to write about a meal. It could be a big meal, a small meal, a holiday meal, I didn't (don't) care. Just write about a meal-- maybe the actual food, maybe the people who partook in the food-- totally up to you.

During sharing time I got some feedback from folks suggesting that these in-class 20 minute bursts are fun because you are forced, on the spot, to come up with something. I said that I, personally, would loathe such an assignment. But since everyone seems to like it, maybe I can get my hands on some old TAKS tests and we can play Standardized Test Prompts for Session III!! But seriously, folks-- we had, as ever, some really good sharing time.

For homework (always optional) I suggested that you write two short book reviews with the following constraints--
1. Pretend the book being reviewed is a book YOU wrote. Or, more to the point, THE book you most want to write. Pretend you've actually written it, and now it's being reviewed.

2. For the first review, take on the role of a reviewer who flat out hates the book, or just doesn't get it-- there's no resonance. Write up the review from that perspective.

3. For the second review, take on the role of a reviewer who couldn't love the book anymore, who totally gets it, whose only lament is that the book came to an end.

I mentioned that next week I will reveal the purpose of this exercise (there is one!) And I also mentioned that in real life I've had this experience-- watching as reviewers wrote passionately in both directions about my writing: how very much it sucks or, conversely, how utterly fab it is. Very interesting.

Okay, see y'all next Thursday.

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