I recently completed an intensive seven-day writing conference as part of my degree. Each day, two writers visited campus, gave workshops (one in the morning, one in the afternoon) and read from their work at lunch.
The writer Beth Kephart gave us a few exercises during her seminar, and one, “List the five things you remember most from your childhood bedroom,” was pretty effective as instant writing analysis: people read their lists out loud, and she pronounced her advice, treating the list as a micro-cosm of that writer’s craft. To one person: “You are very visual, and skilled at creating sensory detail, but you probably struggle with plot.” To another: “That bare-bones list means something important to you, but your readers aren’t getting it yet. You need to flesh your writing out.”
I didn’t read my list in class, so I present it here and then offer my own interpretation. If Beth is reading, she can advise.
1. “I had stickers on my bed’s headboard, of cartoon characters which I cannot remember at all, only that getting them made my mother cry. She had been holding them back from my brother and me for some unspecified future celebration: I wheedled and nagged until she stormed upstairs, found them and threw them at me.”
By this point the allowed three minutes had run out. As the class went on I surreptitiously wrote two more:
2. A round, thick yellow rug of Mickey Mouse.
3. A two-shelf bookcase that I climbed once, my weight ripping it from the wall.
I started with a perfectly good, dramatic sentence, but rather than completing the exercise in time, I tried to explain and justify it. I spend too much time explaining actions; read Hemingway.
After the week of classes finished, us students got together and read to each other and an audience of friends, relatives, and lovers of high quality literature. I had rewritten a very old four-page story, trying to make the humour and unreality that had been implicit in the first version explicit. I wondered if people would get the humour. If not, I imagined the audience would stare at me, in bewildered contempt, as I recited a very plain love story. Fortunately, laughter came quickly, and I had a powerful moment as I was reading, scanning ahead to the coming paragraph, seeing a sentence I had cut out from the draft, and somehow feeling in the crowd, “They’ll like this,” speaking it, and getting the biggest laugh of the piece.
Umm. Unfortunately no photographs were taken during that event, so here is me addressing an audience at another reading.
Best wishes to you all,