I wasn’t sure I’d be able to run this morning. A light snow was falling, and the streets already had patches of ice on them from yesterday’s storm. I walked a ways and had just about decided to play it safe. Then I saw a stretch of pavement with no ice on it, and I thought that maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try to run a few steps. An hour later, I stopped running.
Last week in my undergraduate fiction workshop, I found myself talking about the value of mystery in the opening of a short story. Of course, there are a number of ways to open a story, but let’s say you’re desperate for one. Let’s say you’re in the pre-writing stage of a new story, and not only are you at a loss for where to begin, you also have no knowledge of the characters or the plot. A good opening line that contains a bit of mystery may be just what you need.
Consider the following examples of first sentences:
A few days ago, I made the following post on Facebook:
My MFA in Creative Nonfiction workshop at Ohio State went through some activities last week to help them with revising their essays. Two of the people in the workshop, Cait Weiss and Jody Gerbig Todd, have been kind enough to allow me to share the activities that they devised. I hope you’ll find them as useful as I did. Revision is often a matter of thinking more deeply about our material. Sometimes it’s helpful to do that thinking from perspectives we usually wouldn’t consider, as in the brainstorming activity that Cait gives us. The deepening of our thinking can also occur, as Jody points out, when we’re invited to consider how a particular craft choice such as the white space between sections provides us an opportunity to consider where the tension lies in a piece.
Often the thing we’ve come to say in an essay hovers just at the periphery of our first drafts and in us as well. There are places in those drafts where we can almost bring our most important thoughts to full articulation via reflection, narration, or the artful arrangement of images. Subsequent drafts are usually necessary to more fully integrate what we carry inside us with what we say on the page. Since the MFA students in my creative nonfiction workshop will soon be turning their attention to revision, I’ve promised them an exercise to help them along. I’m happy, of course, to share that exercise with you and with the assumption that it could work equally as well with other genres.
Sitting peacefully, doing nothing
and the grass grows all by itself.
I’m nearing the end of the first draft of a new novel. Maybe a scene or two more, and I’ll have it. Already, I know what my first revision strategy will be. Put that sucker away. Put it out of my mind. Write that short story I’ve been meaning to write. Live in a world other than the one of the novel. Forget, forget, forget, so I can finally read the novel with fresh eyes, so I can see clearly and analytically, so it’ll seem as if someone else wrote this book, so I’ll know what needs to be done.
Last week’s entry featured my advice that undergraduates delay their applications for MFA programs, but if those undergraduates are still intent on making their applications, it’s time to think about how to choose where to apply. Of course, this advice will work for any applicant, no matter his or her age.
Follow the Money
‘Tis the season when undergraduates’ thoughts turn toward applying for admission to an MFA program, which has me thinking of how different the culture is these days than it was when I got my B.A. in 1978. Although I knew I wanted to write, I also knew I needed a bit more seasoning. In those days, it was assumed that some much necessary time would pass between that undergraduate degree and the attempt to enter an MFA program. It was also very clear that the competition was fierce and admission wasn’t guaranteed. When I finally thought I was ready to try four years after that B.A., I wrote to the Associated Writing Programs and asked them for a list of MFA programs. When it arrived, it was a single sheet of 8 1/2” by 11” paper. The list from the front side continued on the back and stopped about half-way down the page.
After years of writing both fiction and nonfiction, I’ve come to believe that the term, “storyteller,” best fits what I do. Sometimes I tell stories about things that really happened in my life, sometimes I tell stories about things that really happened but with a healthy dose of invention added to the tale, and sometimes I make everything up by using my imagination. The point is that no matter the approach I take to the material at hand, I’m always relying on the tools of the storyteller to construct an interesting narrative. If I do it well, the story will also take me to a place in which I know something I didn’t before the telling began.
My mother, when she was in her last years, had a habit of sitting in her chair, her hands on the arms, her fingers lifting and pressing down, one by one, as if she were playing scales on the piano. She’d never played a piano. In fact, she had no musical talent at all.
She was a soft-spoken sort, long on patience and kindness and compassion. She believed in the Golden Rule. She was a Christian woman who endured my father’s temper and my battles with him until finally both he and I saw how wrong we were and became the sort of men she deserved to have in her house.