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Working Backwards

28 Jan
View of Elliott Bay from Lower Queen Anne.

View of Elliott Bay from Lower Queen Anne.

I haven’t posted story snippets to this blog in a long time, but I had such a wonderful time this morning at a generative workshop for the Jack Straw fellows, I wanted to share one here. We discussed our writing concerns and what we’re dwelling on now, and the general theme among us all had to do with connecting dots and making leaps. Kevin Craft, our curator, then offered this concept he learned from Heather McHugh about hypotaxis and parataxis–the causal-oriented and the free associating, waking logic and dream logic.

Then he pitched the Story Spine exercise, which originates from improv. It’s a basic exercise offering a rigid structure for a story that is then written quickly, using free association. The stakes are low. I used the basic plot of the novel I’m working on now, which made the exercise feel somewhat mechanical, though the final step seemed to open up for me a more expansive way of seeing the ending–something I will continue to ruminate.

Then Kevin asked us to do the exercise in reverse. I decided not to write from my novel and just let myself go. This version of the exercise was very fun. And I can see why you need to go forward first, to feel the mechanics of an unfolding story, and why thinking backwards can allow the writing to get wilder. Here’s that backward story I wrote:

And ever since that day, she held that stone in her mouth before bed, as a reminder. Finally, she chose a slick green stone on a rocky beach strewn with sea vegetables. And because of that, she went to the coast, to look at something wild and open and to fill her lungs with salt. Because of that, she felt all tied up in a box, a sensory deprivation tank. Until one day she crouched in on herself into the tightest ball. And every day she tried to be smaller and smaller. Once upon a time, she didn’t want to be seen.

One month into this program, and it is already so helpful and generative and amazing.

Triangular Relationships

1 Dec

My 15th set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog explores triangular relationships in fiction, with discussions of Mavis Gallant’s “Lena”, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science, and featuring Kathleen Skeels’ wonderfully suggestive drawings. Here’s how it begins:

In a previous blog post, I mentioned my difficulty with conflict and tension.  For this reason, I love triangular relationships, which bring up conflicting desires, competing loyalties, and dilemmas. All the things that make a juicy story go. When I was just starting out writing fiction, when my writing tended to be a formless blob and I learned that good writing needs a shape, a design, I turned to the idea of things happening in threes, and then I turned to triangles. As I learned along the way, there are many, many ways you might use triangles in your fiction.

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Intro to Fiction: Writing the Short Story

21 Nov

This winter, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction: Writing the Short Story, a six-week class at Hugo House laying out crucial elements of story. Here’s the course description:

This class will zero in on the three-part backbone of story: character, plot, and landscape. Who is your main character? What do they want? What keeps them from getting what they want? Readings and discussions will include canonical and contemporary stories from James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Jamaica Kincaid, Louise Erdrich, and others. Writing exercises will focus on crucial craft elements as well as generative exercises to get started.

I’m also teaching a special one-day class at the Henry Art Gallery in conjunction with Ann Hamilton’s show the common S E N S E, which I’ll write more about in a separate post. Registration for Hugo House members begins on December 9 and for the general public on December 16. Hope to see you there!

The Tangible, The Visceral

3 Nov

My latest blog post for Ploughshares explores the sense of touch in writing, with wisdom from Aristotle, Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E at the Henry Art Gallery, Natalie Goldberg, Diane Ackerman, and John Edgar Wideman, and with a bit of inspiration from Hieronymus Bosch. Here’s how the post begins:

Touch is the sense common to all species. So wrote Aristotle in Historia Animalum and De Anima. And so is the premise for the art show Ann Hamilton: the common S E N S E, which I’ve been helping out with here in Seattle, and which explores the sense of touch and our relationship to nature, as well as our ability to be touched, emotionally and intellectually, through the private act of reading.

This got me thinking about the importance of touch in writing. Like the sense of smell, touch is a tad neglected when compared to the senses we gravitate toward first: the visual and the auditory. But think about how connected you’ve felt to a text when the author captures a particular tactile sensation or visceral reaction? How do those moments create emotional and intellectual resonance?

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“Skitter” on LitRagger

14 Oct

“Harush” by John Osgood, painted during the 24-hour art marathon at CoCA (text painted by yours truly).

I’m very happy that my story “Skitter,” first published in The Massachusetts Review and previously only available in print, is now online at LitRagger. I love their project of reprinting stories, poems, and essays so that they have an online presence. Here’s how “Skitter” begins:

Another tooth plinked into the tea glass and Harush blinked at it twice.

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Escalating Conflict

13 Oct

My latest blog post for Ploughshares offers suggestions for inserting and escalating conflict in fiction, with advice from Stephanie Kallos, Janet Burroway, and Merrill Feitell. Here’s how it starts:

In fiction, only trouble is interesting. For the conflict averse, instilling a story with juicy conflict may take some practice. Someone who has read many drafts of many of my short stories once dubbed me “Anca Did She Forget the Conflict Szilagyi”–a moniker that has become helpful as I work on second and third drafts of stories. As is often the case in learning something, I was aware, theoretically, that I had this problem. But how to proceed?

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Experiments in Perspective

29 Sep

My twelfth set of writing prompts for the Ploughshares blog explores writing from the perspective of characters unlike yourself, with insight from Jodi Angel, Chris Abani, and Keith Ridgeway’s great short story “Rothko Eggs”. Here’s how it begins:

A crucial lesson I learned early on in my attempts at writing fiction is that every character is you–and not you. Characters have parts of you inside of them because you wrote them. But they are still not you. Chris Abani once said in a workshop that readers will always wonder if your characters are you–even if your main character is a Chihuahua. There’s not much to do about this wondering except write the characters you want to write with complexity and empathy.

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Classy Talk: The Fiction Workshop at Richard Hugo House

18 Sep

Over on the Hugo House blog, my Classy Talk interview sheds a bit more light on my upcoming  fiction workshop. Take a look, sign up, and help me spread the word about it! Class meets Wednesday nights, 7-9 pm, starting October 29. I’m already excited about the story we’ll read on the first day,  a short-short by Angela Carter, which will be atmospheric and  fairy tale-ish and spooky.

Thoughtful Imitation

11 Sep

In the spirit of back to school season, I wrote a blog post for Ploughshares on rolling up your sleeves and learning by imitating the writers you admire. I’ve done the prompt on structure a couple of times now with Chekhov stories; one of the stories that came out of that exercise ended up in Propeller Magazine last December. As always, do let me know if you try out the prompts and if they’re helpful!

Fall Fiction Workshop at Hugo House

27 Jul

I’m excited to be offering a six-week fiction workshop at Richard Hugo House this fall. The class meets Wednesday nights 7-9 pm, October 29-December 10 (with no class November 26). Here’s the course description:

Many students of fiction say they learn more by workshopping others than when their own work is up for critique. If you have some drafts you don’t know what to do with and want to learn by giving others helpful feedback, this class is for you. We’ll touch on forming neutral questions and focus on helping the writer achieve his or her intentions. All students will workshop one story up to 5,000 words, getting feedback from their peers and the instructor. Time permitting, students may workshop a second story.

Scholarships are available and applications are due August 19. Member registration opens August 12 and general registration opens August 19. Hope to see you there!

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