Thursday, September 6, 2012

Fiction Writing Class: Week 1


So last night was my first fiction writing class proper. I've sat in on my wife's workshops and tried some of the activities that were used in this class, but this is the first time I have sat in the room for four hours and done all the activities and in-class writing with a roomfull of writing students. There will be fourteen more classes like this, and as I said near the beginning of the class, my goals for this class areas follows:
"I have a lot of starts and slightly longer pieces of creative non-fiction based on memories of my childhood. Some of these have strayed into fiction after beginning with a real memory. I have used a lot of the shorter pieces in my visual art, too -- videos with voice over, audio recordings, even performance. But so far I feel that I haven't gone as deeply as I could with this material. So I want to use this class to explore what comes out when I try different forms, ways of telling, ways of seeing a story. I want to be completely open to where the writing takes me. If that's fiction, if it leads to something that I'm not aware of yet, I want to see what that is, what it sounds like. I also know that there are talented writers in this class, and I want to use the listening part of the activities to feed into my own writing, too. I don't even necessarily want to end up with a 'done' or finished piece, though that would be nice: just getting a good start on the voyage will be great."
The class is called Fiction Writing, but I believe that the Fiction Writing Department's teaching method, called the Story Workshop approach, is designed for people to find their voice in any genre or form. I've sat beside teachers who use this approach, and have used elements of it myself in teaching journal and sketchbook. But this was the first time I've been able to immerse myself in it and direct it to my own writing. First of all, everyone sits in a tight semicircle with the instructor on the diameter line. No hierarchies, no front of class and back of class. Everyone sees everyone else's face. Everyone becomes the audience for everyone else, like the first storytellers around the giant fire. That might sound poncey, but in practice it works.

The activities in the first class went like this (as far as I can recall): a listening exercise, starting with close-to sounds, moving out to the street, then to action, gesture, a moment of story; an activity called One Word, in which you go around the circle putting forth the first word that comes to mind -- but I noticed the instructor very cleverly led us eventually towards objects, verbs, smells; taking a place from some story material, seeing it in the mind, trying to place other people's "object words" in that place; telling a moment from that place you're seeing in the mind; writing the moment of scene that emerges from all these imaginative word based activities; reading back what you wrote to the rest of the group. Then lots of reading and writing assignments for the next class. Homework! I haven't had to do homework in over twenty years!

One of the main differences between this Story Workshop and the more conventional writing workshop is there is no handing around fourteen copies of your first drafts to be vivisected by your peers. I know that some people miss that if they come to Columbia College's fiction writing classes from that kind of workshop, but having experienced both kinds of teaching close-up, I am convinced that this one ultimately trusts the writer more. But I don't even need to generalize: I can just say that already, after one class in which I reconnected with a piece of writing that I started last year, I saw more in the scene than I did before last night's class.

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