Workshopping for Story and Narrative

By Shelley Evans, Sonya Huber, and Bill Patrick

You’ve got a terrific idea. It would make a great short story or perhaps even a novel. You know it would. Or maybe you’ve just finished that once-in-a-lifetime immersion opportunity, following detectives or migrants or crusading doctors for a year, and you have notes and photos and hundreds of hours of audiotaped interviews. Some structure will emerge as you transcribe, right? Or maybe a specific scene has already presented itself to you – an amazing scene, with characters and action and dialogue, one that almost seemed to write itself, but now you’re stuck. You’re not sure what the central dramatic question of your story really is – or even which story you should tell.

 

Sooner or later in the writing process, the problem of structure arises. Even though it remains largely invisible, structure both supports and expresses the truth of the story. In spite of this, structure is not often discussed or taught in writing workshops. Structural principals, reduced to quick formulas by Hollywood studio executives, are borrowed and used by writers searching for better momentum or a stronger spine. The principals behind those formulas need to be better understood and more artfully employed. Bill Patrick and Shelley Evans, experienced writers in a number of different genres and faculty members in Fairfield University’s MFA in Writing Program, have created a story development workshop for the programs MFA students to give writers strategies for transforming good ideas and promising scenes into workable plans.

This “big picture” workshop grew out of creative collision and conversation in the classroom. Bill Patrick explains:

This workshop idea grew out of the Screenwriting for Prose Writers workshop that I developed a couple of years ago. When Shelley first came to Enders as a visiting screenwriter last summer, she co-taught this screenwriting workshop with me, and we realized pretty quickly that our focus could be expanded. We saw how helpful a workshop based on story development would be for all the students in the program, no matter what genre they were working in.

Well, I love handouts, so I put together what I thought was a minimal story development checklist, and that spurred Shelley to develop her own list of questions for the students.When we offered it for the first time last residency, in Winter 2015/16, we had a poet, a nonfiction writer, three novelists, and a screenwriter in the workshop. We presented both handouts, and then I added a list of strategies during the workshop itself, and we all jumped in with both feet. All the students experienced breakthroughs on their projects during the brainstorming sessions, and Shelley and I were floored by what we witnessed.

The workshop itself elucidates some guiding principles of structure, and then uses them to practice building more intentional and effective narratives. Instructors lay out time-tested principles of dramatic narrative development, offer pragmatic tools that de-mystify the process of constructing plot, and help brainstorm a viable plan for whatever you’re working on.

Shelley adds:

Before I came to Fairfield, I was developing a course called Story Development at Harvard Extension School, where I have taught screenwriting for many years. My feeling was that students in my screenwriting classes and many of my novelist friends weren’t taking enough time with story, sometimes getting jammed up in really big story problems as a result. I wanted to teach story as a creative and flexible element of writing, just like language. Then I met Bill, who was already teaching a version of that course at Fairfield, only calling it ‘Screenwriting for Prose Writers.’ After my guest stint at Fairfield, I said ‘Let’s call it Story Development, to make it clear that it’s for novelists as well as screenwriters.’ And Bill said, ‘Why limit ourselves to novelists? Every writer who works with narrative needs these skills.’ Since Bill has basically written something great in almost every genre, I took it on faith. And I have been amazed by how helpful these principles are, even in non-fiction and poetry.

I imagine students would be better able to speak to the progress they made with their writing. For my part, I found it really inspiring to watch so many different kinds of writers apply these story principles energetically and enthusiastically to their own work, and with each other. It seemed to me that they all became more skillful at thinking about structure in a very short period of time.

Samantha Keller, a novelist and a student in the workshop, writes:

In terms of my own work, the workshop broadened my perspective on my novel and enabled me to see it as a whole, unlike traditional workshops where you look at things in a quite detailed and specific way. I came out with a clearer vision of what my book is about, who the main character is, and even some ideas about themes or events I could include, and others I should exclude. I’d definitely recommend the workshop. In fact I would argue that everyone should take it at some point during their MFA, just to give you that birds-eye-view on what you’re trying to achieve. I felt like I had to come up with real answers to some quite hard questions, but I left feeling more confident about the direction my novel is taking.

Rah Gist, a poet, writes:

Coming into the workshop we prepared as usual, having read each other’s work and made notes of ideas for replacing words or reordering sentences, etc. What we did in workshop was light years beyond that—literally developing the story concept behind what made it to the page. It was like Bill and Shelley searched us, individually, for the creative pulse of our story and then we all tried tapping into it with a collective energy that at times produced pure synergy. I came into the workshop with poetry and stepped out with a clear vision for prose–a direction I welcomed and is still guiding my work. It was this flexibility that drew me to the workshop. I also gained a new appreciation for other genres (all were represented) and was supercharged by the energy of the group.

“Whatever the origin of the story idea, the writer has no story until (s)he has figured out a plot that will efficiently and elegantly express it. Though character is the emotional core of great fiction, and though action with no meaning beyond its own brute existence can have no lasting appeal, plot is—or must sooner or later become—the focus of every good writer’s plan.” –John Gardner

Image via Flickr here

Post-low-res-MFA, Dipping Toe into Academic Job Market

Last night I gave a reading at a great school where a faculty member who got an MFA from a low-residency program is now in a wonderful tenure-track faculty position. It can be done, but unfortunately winning a tenure-track position is a leap that is difficult for both candidates from high-residency and low-residency MFA programs. High-residency program students, however, have been circulating around PhDs for years in the hallways and the bars, so they know a bit more about the nature of academic and the absolutely intense nature of the academic job market. To be clear: it is TOUGH to get an academic job. This is mostly because the number of tenure-track jobs have been shrinking and shrinking over the decades.

The other challenge for any MFA (I’ll just speak to that crowd because that’s what I know) is what I described the other day to an undergraduate student as “The River of Fire.”

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The student wanted to know how to get a job like mine, and I said that after graduation comes the River of Fire. I didn’t want to sugar-coat the intense post-degree experience (yes, that’s post degree) when, without the support of a program, I had to make my thesis into a book, keep publishing short stuff, get the book published, and keep accumulating teaching experience. And I had to keep writing with even greater focus than I did in graduate school.

In my case, I did this while my son was a toddler. Holy moly.

I luckily got a job teaching a few classes at Ohio State’s College of Engineering teaching writing classes for engineers (I went to OSU for a high-res MFA). And I did a lot of freelance proofreading. And when I had any extra money I paid for daycare so I could finish the book, and it took two more years, and my book didn’t come out until 4 years after graduation. Along the way I was also publishing in literary journals.

I’m describing this because I want to be clear that your odds of getting a tenure-track job as an MFA can depend completely on your published work, with teaching experience as second. That means you need a book and you need to teach. You can, however, also go for a tenure-track job at the community college level. That, I think, is a completely different kettle of fish. They may look for a book, or they may not, but they will want some teaching experience. What community colleges want is specifically community college teaching experience. So if you can get into a community college as an adjunct, take that opportunity. Community colleges tend to have heavier teaching loads, so they want to know that you have experience with their specific population as well.

So what is a person to do if they need to eat and survive during this process? What if you already have a full-time job and want to transition, or at least think about it? Work on your book like a house on fire next to that river of fire. Pick up an evening class adjuncting if you can (no need to quit the day job as long as this mix of multiple responsibilities doesn’t make you crazy).

Then, begin to learn about the academic job market by reading job ads.

1. To find jobs, you should join CRWR-OPPS, which is a listserv that offers many job listings as well as places to publish. To join, send a blank email to CRWROPPS-B-subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

2. More job listings are available through the job list within AWP, so you should join AWP and get access to those listings. You can also look at the extensive list offered by the Modern Languages Association. This includes academic PhD level jobs; read each job carefully, as most in this list are looking only for PhDs. The job “season” begins in the fall, with interviewing beginning in January, sometimes via phone, with finalists brought to campus for visits.

3. The academic job market normally focuses on two kinds of production: scholarly work or creative work (i.e., at least one book of creative work). Jobs that require fewer publications tend to come with higher teaching loads. If you have ANY teaching experience, such as leading workshops, community education–anything at all–you do want to list it on your CV.

4. That’s right, you need a CV instead of a resume. A CV, or curriculum vitae, lists everything you’ve ever done that’s teaching or writing related. It’s the pizza with everything instead of the pared down resume you’re used to. Here’s one sample. Here’s a guide from Sarah Lawrence College. There are many others online.

5. Anything having to do with organizational work in creative writing counts as service to the profession and should also be listed, so that includes your work in helping to organize conferences. The philosophy of a CV–unlike a resume–is that it’s much longer and anything possible goes in.

Know that every single person who has an MFA who is teaching at a university wakes up and looks around and says, “Huh, I can’t believe this actually worked. They let me it.” So it’s a tough road, it can totally be done, but read and be aware of how tough it is.

And more good resources: A wonderful PDF from Natasha Sajé through AWP about preparing for the job market as an MFA. (That certainly is a mouthful of acronyms). And here is a fantastic and honest reflection on working in academia as an MFA by Karin Lin-Greenburg.

To sum up: Don’t go in alone. Go in aware and research. Write that CV. And then dive into the river of fire.