I’m back from teaching in the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Workshop and I’ve been trying to get used to not having the stimulation of excellent readings by faculty and participants alike, thought-provoking craft talks, and the excitement of the daily workshop that I led. I had a group of six talented writers who are working on novels. By the end of our time together, I think each person had a re-energized plan for the work necessary to completing or revising their manuscripts. They were also a very good-humored group who tolerated my corny jokes and even told me some of their own. Also, I added to my wind-up toy collection when one of the participants learned from a former student of mine that I liked such things. Warning to my Autumn Quarter classes at Ohio State. I’ll be bringing my new wind-up caterpillar to class!
So much of my work with these novels, which were in various stages of composition, concentrated on the shape of the books. Teaching a workshop in the novel, especially one that only meets for two hours and fifteen minutes each day for five days, can seem quite daunting, but I’ve found that focusing each day’s conversation on a separate craft element can lead to a helpful consideration of how to form the material that the writer has already conceived.
I like to start with a consideration of characterization since I believe that literary fiction exists for the purpose of allowing us to think more deeply about the mysteries and contradictions connected to what Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart.” I want novelists to first understand that characters create the plots that unfold via their own actions and responses to the world around them. Then I spend some time talking about the structure that can emerge from an initial premise and a character’s response to it. In this workshop at Vermont, we used The Great Gatsby as our common text, and I spent one meeting talking about the structure of that novel, pointing out how the original premise (Gatsby’s desire to reunited with Daisy) gives rise to a sequence of events that takes us to the moment where the car that Daisy is driving, and in which Gatsby is riding, strikes and kills Myrtle Wilson. From that point, the structure that Fitzgerald has constructed from the elements of all the characters’ through-lines, can no longer stand. The characters have pushed their own desires, fears, etc. too far, and now everything must come apart, as it does once George Wilson murders Gatsby and Nick Carraway is left to make the funeral arrangements. The final third of the novel is a dismantling of all that’s been built. It’s as if the novel reaches a tipping point where the narrative can’t continue along the path it’s been charting during the first two-thirds of the book. The characters’ actions have created events that have brought everyone to this point of no return. Of course, this tipping point and the resolution that follows are both contained within the very opening of the novel, but they’re submerged. The pressures of the plot that the characters create bring them to this tipping point, and then their lives unravel. It’s not the only way to structure a novel, of course, but it’s one that can help a writer think about the shape of his or her own material.
I spend the other days of the workshop considering issues of point of view, detail, and language. Of course, when looking at an excerpt from each participant, we talk about all five elements of fiction (characterization, structure, point of view, detail, and language) because in a successful novel they all contribute to an organic whole (I wrote this term on the board in a class many years ago, and my handwriting was so bad some students thought I’d written “organic whale”; the class book that we published that semester had artwork on the front that was a drawing of a whale with my face attached to it!). Still, I’m convinced that the most important part of getting a novel underway lies in creating characters who are capable of setting a sequence of events into motion. Characters who are complicated because they’re made up of contradictions. Characters who don’t know themselves fully. Characters whom we don’t know fully. These are the characters like Gatsby and Daisy and Tom and Nick and Jordan who are dynamic in the sense of being able to create motion. The motion of narrative. It all comes from the characters.
If you’re working on a novel and would like to hear me say more about the strategies and craft issues relevant to the writing, please don’t hesitate to post a comment and a request for me to talk more about whatever would be useful for you to hear. I welcome, as always, all your questions and comments.