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It's Complicated!

The third and final Clarion West workshop for which I signed up over the course of the month of May was in some ways the most useful of the three. It was called "It's Complicated - Adding Depth to Your Stories with Leslie What". Even the title was complicated! All three workshops were given by topnotch writers and teachers. It’s just that this one addressed more directly my current needs in writing. However, unlike the earlier two, the subject matter was less easy to discern, or at least describe. What Leslie was describing was, first of all, an intention. You have to decide you want to find ways to expand the import of what you write, and perhaps accept the idea that there are flaws in the way you are doing this currently. That said, I also recognize that much of what we learned, or heard, concerned things we already knew, intuitively, although we don’t always succeed in putting them into practice. To an extent, therefore, the learning consists of rendering implicit knowledge more explicit, so you can play with it more consciously.

So, another weaving image - this one is so appropriate, when I shared the image everyone said "It's so complicated!", and in fact one of the reasons this is complicated is that I am doing triple weave, that is, adding depth to my weave!

The guided writing exercises help greatly in achieving this. I noticed we read aloud less what we had written in this class than the earlier ones. This was partly because Leslie wanted us to focus more specifically on the process of writing than on the results. And this actually did work, even though it broke with my earlier experiences in these kinds of workshops. She also gave us a set of tools for engendering “depth”. For example, being very specific and detailed. This is, of corse, a general principle emphasized time and again in writing classes. However, I tend to think that this makes the writing stronger, cleaner, sharper. Leslie suggests, however, that if one attends to the details, the story that emerges is not just stronger, it is also larger. It extends the scope of the writing.

Another tool was to focus on the problem of writing emotion. This sounds like what writers do, but in fact it is harder than it would appear. As she pointed out, emotions are actually complex states of being : “sad” or “angry” doesn’t really say much. Findings ways to give expression to emotion requires careful practice. For example, I worked on my children’s story, Patou. My character was a flower, an aster. How does one convey a sense of emotional response in a flower? In a way to which a child could relate?

She also talked about the difference in writing style between a sequence of problem-solving exercises, what she called the try-fail cycle, or ’plotting’, and another kind of writing where it is the reader’s perceptions that are disrupted, and less the characters’ lives. She also noticed many of the best writers integrate both styles.

Among the exercises we did was a series of prompts beginning with “write about two things, one hidden behind the other”, moved to “write about two distinctly different characters, one of whom is uncomfortable, and develop a dialogue between them,” and then “introduce a third character, and see if you can surprise the reader into, as David Long said, ‘making us forget what we already knew”. Not an easy task. However, one of the things I most valued about this teacher is she offered to provide an extended writing session later in the week. This will allow me to further explore this burgeoning practice and see if I can’t arrive at a fuller realization of what she proposed.

As always, hearing the process as presented by other participants was also extremely useful. I often discovered that other people had interpreted the instructions more liberally, or used them in ways I hadn’t even thought of doing. The technical support person, Rashida Smith, also offered some amazing comments, as well as reading beautifully one of the excerpts. I loved this workshop, all six hours of it, and am left not just with new tools, but with an open road stretching out into the distance before me. A place to stretch those legs I talked about at the end of the previous post!

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