Teaching at Writers’ Conferences
At the end of this week, I’ll be in Oxford, Mississippi, teaching a memoir workshop preceding the Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and then sticking around to be on a panel during the conference proper. Thus begins the season of writers’ conference teaching with other visits to Rowe, Massachusetts; Yellow Springs, Ohio; and Montpelier, Vermont, to come. I love teaching at these conferences where folks are generally passionate about their craft and eager to pick up some little tidbit to help them along their writers’ journeys. I also love meeting folks I otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to know, and getting to have some small part in the work that they’re doing. If I can share what I know in a way that will be helpful, maybe I can save someone a bit of time in the development of his or her craft. By so doing, I can pay back all the wonderful teachers who did the same for me. Like the handyman character, Red Green, used to say on his television show, “Remember, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together.”
I was first drawn to creative nonfiction by memoir. I was a fiction writer who decided to turn his skills with narrative into storytelling about the self. I quickly learned that I loved being able to dramatize moments from my life and arrange them in a narrative thread of cause and effect. I also loved being able to reflect upon those moments, interrogate them, use them to think more deeply about the person I was/am and the people around me. This is all to say that I’m very much looking forward to my trip to Oxford, and the conversation I’ll have about memoir with the folks in my workshop.
Here’s what I hope to give people when I teach at a writers’ conference:
1. A clear sense of what they’re attempting in the project that they have underway. An idea of what first brought them to the page. I like to invite people to get in touch with what they don’t know when they begin to write. What are they trying to sort through, figure out? What single question might provide a guide through their material and also a way of judging what belongs and what doesn’t?
2. A good idea of the narrative arc. What constitutes the beginning, middle, and end? Also a sense of how the writer’s emotional/intellectual arc responds to the pressures of the narrative arc. I was reading an article by Benjamin Percy in the May/June 2013 issue of Poets & Writers, called “Writing With Urgency.” He talks about Freytag’s Pyramid, that diagram that indicates the rising action of a narrative. Then he says, “But you must also imagine the emotional arc of your character inlaid in this pyramid. To create suspense, a story must have both: what is outside of the character (whatever is intruding on the character’s life) and inside of the character (whatever is desired that is just out of reach). When these two things come together, you build the potential for something to happen.” I’d like the people in my workshops to reach a better understanding of how the narrative arc and the emotional arc are inseparable.
3. A sense of what they’re good at. I’ll usually read a few passages that demonstrate the writers’ strengths so they can hear where their work is what I’d call “white-hot.” In other words, those places where I’m most engaged as a reader. I like to use those passages to invite folks to think about the artistic choices that the writer has made in order to create memorable effects.
4. Some questions about the material that the writers can use to produce more writing in an attempt to find some answers. In our first drafts, there are usually moments that need to be opened up. Sometimes our drafts suggest the questions, but sometimes readers can provide them by telling you what they’d love to know more about.
5. A confidence in the shape of the project and the things to be investigated. A center for the piece and a feeling that the writer is in control.
Ultimately, I hope folks leave my workshops knowing that their talents have been appreciated. I also hope they’ll have a clear plan for further work with their projects as well as craft issues to consider in future work. If we can accomplish that in Oxford, we’ll know we’ve had a good day’s work.
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Lee, as someone who has received the bounty of your teaching, I can say that you treated both me and my writing with utmost respect. I came away from your workshop last summer in Vermont with a clear plan for finishing the draft of my novel. I am happy to say I have finished the draft as well as two more. You helped me find a firm footing into my story. I can’t thank you enough.
Thanks for the endorsement, Bren. I’m thrilled when folks made significant progress after being in one of my workshops. We truly are all in this together.
This is a wonderful post and I hope it gets read by many writers who will or are teaching. I think it’s important to have a vision of what you have to offer and how you can help another writer. Otherwise it’s easy to get thrown off by the pages in front of you, especially when the piece has plenty of problems. Having a starting point makes it easier for the teacher to be thoughtful and clear with the feedback and questions he eventually offers and this makes for an encouraging (not discouraging) experience for the student.
Thanks so much for the kind words. You’re so right about the importance of having a vision of how you can be most helpful to a writer at a certain stage of his or her project. So much of our work involves sensing what each writer most needs to help him or her move forward. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment. All Best Wishes–Lee
This is the first I’ve heard of TWO rather than one arc. And it helps me solve something for a stalled short story I’ve been working on. I was able to attend only part of a seminar you taught on memoir and I’ve been interested in writing one ever since. This recent post is rich with guidance. Thank you.
Auburn, I’m glad this post was timely for you. Many thanks to Ben Percy for his clear articulation of that emotional arc in the Poets & Writers piece.
Somewhere, I cannot remember where, Toni Morrison said that, rather than the traditional Freytag’s pyramid, she saw her narrative unfolding more as circles inside of circles. I didn’t really understand what she was saying, but I felt something liberating and intuitively right about it. When I think of The Bluest Eye or Sula, I can see broader circles of “outside” narrative involving characters, situations and social predicaments circling inward to devastating, personal epiphany. This too encompasses both arcs you’re discussing.
Auburn, thanks for calling our attention to this other important way of thinking about narrative. Circles of connection and disconnection.
Yes! We are all in this together. Thank you, Lee, for posting this community-minded approach to writing development. I appreciate it as a teacher and a writer with the fortunate opportunity to be in your Oxford workshop. Very much looking forward to meeting you in person.
Thanks for the comment, Amy. I’ll see you soon.