By Janet Moore
The esteemed sportswriter Red Smith once said that, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not far off the mark.
What stirs our imagination is as individual as we are. It can be, as in the case of Proust, “remembrances of things past.” For others, it might be an event, a person (family members are always fair game), an aroma, an observation, or a random encounter with a stranger. From there, we dive deep inside ourselves to find what we need to push a story forward.
Every now and then, however, we all need something more to spark our imagination. I learned this valuable lesson during a short story class at Wildacres Writing Workshop (http://www.wildacreswriters.com/) several years ago. Turn to old friends the teacher advised. By that he meant learn from the writers you like and use them to ignite your own writing. It is easy enough to do. Go to a favorite short story or novel. Find a paragraph you like. Read it once, paying attention to the sentence structure, the words the author uses, the point of view; in short, all the elements that make this writing so appealing. Then use that structure to build your story.
In class we worked with the opening paragraph of a short story by Reynolds Price. I was doubtful. The great Reynolds Price and I had nothing in common, and yet it worked. The beginning I’d been struggling with came into sharper focus. It was literally like putting jumper cables on a dead battery. Within two paragraphs I was up and running and could wave good-bye to Reynolds Price.
I mention this example because as we labor away alone at our keyboards, crafting plot, creating characters, searching for just the right word, there are times when we need to be in the company of others, and I don’t mean characters in a book. This is where workshops come in.
I fall into the category of an emerging writer. My first short story will be published in the 2018 Fish Anthology later this year. And while I love working in my office, with only the cats to keep me company, it is the companionship of other writers that rejuvenates me. Such was the case in 2017 when I had the privilege of studying for a weekend with Jane Smiley at the Looking Glass Rock Writers Conference (http://library.transylvaniacounty.org/lgrwc/) at nearby Brevard College.
The prospect of having my work critiqued by a Pulitzer Prize winning author was frightening enough. Add to that the fact that she holds three degrees from the fabled and sometimes feared University of Iowa Writing Program where, legend has it, writers are reduced to tears during critiques, and I was terrified. But I persisted, and it was well worth the effort. As it turned out, Jane Smiley was another funny smart teacher with so much knowledge to impart that I could scarcely take notes fast enough.
I left that weekend with more questions than answers, and that was a good thing. What are you emphasizing in your work, she asked each of us. Is it plot, character, setting, theme? Analyze what you are doing in the first draft and ask yourself this. What is the pay-off for the reader? By the second draft, you need to know what form you are pursuing, she said. (To learn more about what she means by form, I recommend her 2005 work, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.”)
I don’t write novels. I’m a devotee of short stories. But Jane Smiley’s admonition has stayed with me — write in such a way that readers happily engage in the “willing suspension of disbelief.” To do that requires imagination, and on occasion, the company of others.