Thursday, January 13, 2011

Work in Progress: 2011 Residency

Well, you had to be there to get the full flow, of course, but I thought I’d note a few of my memorable highlights from the Converse College Low-Residency MFA get-together last week:

--Elizabeth (Betsy) Cox was the keynote speaker, and she was inspiring on every possible level. She read the story “Saved,” found in her collection Bargains in the Real World, about a girl who decides to “save” people and starts off by cold-calling the local bar. She’s a great reader, with such a rich voice and Southern accent, that the crowd was mesmerized.

--Betsy’s craft lecture the next morning was also inspiring. I was
fortunate enough to sit with her at breakfast, and when I asked what she was
going to speak about, she modestly remarked, “You probably know everything I’m
going to say about writing already.” Oh, puh-lease! I scribbled away
in my little notebook as she talked about “being true” in fiction. A few
takeaway points (paraphrased):

--being “true” doesn’t have anything to do about fact
--she compared good writing to an experience she had of looking at a comet: you can see the comet not by looking at it directly but in your peripheral vision; in writing, you can’t speak directly of those strong emotions like love-hate-rage directly because the minute you do, you lose sight of them
--Her brilliant and succinct exploration of Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” was a stunning revelation of the power of small details to create characterization
--on dialogue, she noted that when writing an argument, you must make sure you’re not on only one side and spoke about the immense tension of the moment where one person wants something as the other person says no
--she spoke about learning to pay attention and mentioned that she tries to sit in silence every day for 20-30 minutes, and “then my day is different”
--When asked in the Q&A why she likes to write, she simply said, “Because I’m lonesome when I don’t,” which was a bare, beautiful truth that resonated in the room
--Finally, when asked about the dilemma of untangling the unconscious in writing (and life), again, the simplest words were the most powerful” “I always trust it.”

--I also enjoyed Susan Tekulve’s craft lecture: “Are There Too Many Trees in My Story?: How to Harness the Forces of Nature in Your Narrative.” She’s definitely my kind of speaker, with a handout of thoughtfully chosen excerpts of The Grapes of Wrath, O Pioneers, and A River Runs through It, showing how natural landscapes work beyond a pretty backdrop. I also loved seeing eight nature writing tips from Thoreau. For example,
#2—Write about storms
#4—Write about the night
#8—Write about the natural world that you observe while doing a variety of activities (i.e. ants on the patio at the coffee shop; what’s going on out the window at a boring meeting)

--My co-teacher Marlin (Bart) Barton talked about various options in writing endings of short stories:
1—A character changes
2—If a character doesn’t change, there can be an illumination for the reader
3—Epiphany (he shook things up here by quoting from Charles Baxter’s essay, “Against Epiphanies,” found in Burning Down the House, a collection of Baxter's writing essays)
It was an excellent talk, and I loved the way he opened, by noting that a story’s ending begins with its first line; the first line is already beginning to dictate what the story’s ending will be.

--I spent one session of our fiction workshop leading a collage exercise that resulted in some amazing—and amazingly noticeable—writing breakthroughs for several students. (You can read more about my collage process here.) I was very proud of the class, too, for giving the process a fair a try, though they were dubious at first—which I saw very clearly on their faces around the table at first, the almost-visible thought bubbles: “this is ridiculous, this is too touchy-feely, what a waste of time.”

More, more, more—but this is enough for now. Fabulous and inspiring and exhausting and thought-provoking and just a touch gossipy…exactly what you’d want from an MFA residency! (Remember, the application deadline is February 15…maybe I’ll see YOU in South Carolina in June.)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.