The writing workshop has a relatively short history in the grand scheme of academia, appearing first at the University of Iowa in 1936. Since that time, writing workshops and degree programs have proliferated across the United States, with creative writing majors and non-majors alike enrolling for these dynamic and challenging courses.
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs or AWP (http://www.awpwriter.org/) was founded in 1967 to encourage literary talent and growth, and to set hallmarks and guidelines for successful writing workshops and creative writing programs. One of the hallmarks of a successful creative writing workshop is a rigorous curriculum that includes the use of literary terms in a workshop setting. This helps the workshop maintain its focus on the craft of writing. For those of you who wish to continue your study of creative writing, you should study the AWP website and become familiar with its resources, services, and philosophies.
Professors of creative writing can structure their courses in endless ways, but they all wish to achieve similar goals. One of the main goals of the fiction workshop is to allow students to learn the literary craft of fiction from the inside out: reinforcing key concepts by practicing them. A student learns about foreshadowing by writing foreshadowing. A student learns plot development by developing a plot. Another goal of the fiction workshop is to highlight the importance of revision and editorial input. Students bring working drafts of their writing to the classroom for feedback. They then take that feedback and use it to make substantial revisions.
In this writing workshop my focus is on the close study of writing using literary terms and techniques. In my 14 years of teaching, I have come to the conclusion that to be confident readers and writers, students must be empowered to discuss their reading and writing the same way experts do: with specific literary terms that show an understanding of fiction as craft. For that reason, I ask for peer responses that transcend emotional reactions (we’ll do that too, though less so) and focus instead on educated and studied responses to the craft of the work.
Writing workshops can become what they weren’t meant to be: counseling sessions, self-esteem camp, debate grounds for personal taste, or “easy A” fluff courses. While I don’t mind if these are fringe benefits, they must not be the main goal. Instead, the main goals of my courses are that you feel a new love for literature because you understand it better, you learn to see writing as a craft not an accident, and you view fiction as an art and not as a form to copy.
Another main purpose of the writing workshop is to gather with a community of writers to receive input on your work so that you may revise it for an audience. Therefore, I advise that you do not bring in work that you do not wish to revise or that you already feel is completed and you don’t want to change. Also, don’t bring in any work that is intended as a personal form of self-expression. Instead, bring in the work you would like to improve for an audience. By doing so, you will benefit greatly from this community of friendly, interested writers.
Your workshop responses will appear in list form in the text of a Blackboard message. Please proofread carefully. View this as a polished quiz. Please follow these instructions and answer the questions using examples from the story and literary terms. I have provided an example.
READ the story once, then read it again. Then answer the following questions.
Theme: State what you think the story is about in a single sentence.
The First Sentence: How does it serve the story? What is the tone? Is there anything about it that makes you want to read on? How does it relate to the last sentence of the story?
The Beginning in General: What evidence of the theme of the story can be found here? What promises does it make to the reader? What type of writing is in the first paragraph: summary, narration, description, dialogue? What makes this a good/bad way to start the story?
The End: In what way does the story come full circle? What elements of the beginning are present and how, specifically, do they fulfill the author’s promise? Is the end satisfying? If so, why? If not, why?
Plot: In a few sentences say what happens in the story.
Scene: List the scenes and consider how each one moves the plot and provides characterization. Is each scene fully rendered, with sensory detail? Are there enough scenes? Are there parts of the story that might be better rendered in scene?
Tension: Where does the tension of the story lie? What or who causes tension? Are there several kinds of tension at work? What are they?
Transitions: Where are they? How do they work to make the story a vivid and continuous dream? Are there places that need stronger transitions?
Characters: What complexities, paradoxes do they reflect? What details of their lives move you? Identify details, actions or speeches that could only belong to that particular character, and explain why. Is there anything you don’t believe about the character? Why?
Point of view: Who is the point of view character? What do you learn about this story that you couldn’t have learned if it had been written in another point of view? How does that relate to what you think the story is about? Is the point of view consistent throughout? If there are multiple points of view, does the author move you from one to another smoothly? Is there good balance in the different points of view? Is one more or less interesting than another?
Dialogue: Identify speeches where the characters’ voices seem especially in tune with who they are. Identify speeches that work on multiple levels (characterize, inform, move the plot.) Is there too much dialogue? Too little? Where does the dialogue seem untrue?
Voice: Describe the voice of the story. What makes the narrator unique?
Sequence of Story Elements: What is the logic behind the order in which the author presented the events of the story to the reader? Is there another sequence he might consider?
Time: How much time is covered by the story? How does that effect the story structure? If there are multiple levels of time in the story, identify and analyze passages that reflect the variety of kinds of writing techniques used to accommodate them. Why do you think the author chose to treat time this way? Would there be a better way?
Setting: Where does the story take place? What details of setting are missing? What description could be added?
High Points/Low Points: Is the story too sentimental? Too didactic? Does it earn its tone? Do you care about the speaker, the characters, the theme? What is your personal opinion/reaction to the story?
If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now, by Joe Bowers
It was cold. Cold for this time of year anyway. Cold for Louisiana. The wind cut as it blew by. The heat so common to this place, the sticky wet heat and insect buzz that filled most of the year was gone; cold had come and taken its place. But the sky was still overcast. It usually was. The grey was constant. The boy was grey, too. He wore an olive green trenchcoat (an army cast-off like his boots) over funereal black, greasy hair obscuring his eyes. They must have been grey. He was narrow-shouldered and small, and walked like he was in a trance. I suppose he was. It was trance weather.
He wore headphones. He didn't sing along. He turned left after he crossed the railroad tracks and walked down the road. The ground was covered in leaves, wet and thoroughly dead. They were a hundred shades of light to dark brownish-gold, and might have been almost beautiful on warmer days. As it was, all shades hit the eye together, as a variation of a more familiar color, an echo of the sky. He walked past Brewbacher's Grill and The Daiquiri Cafe and into a shop with its shades down.
The writing on the front said: FUST'S COMIC BOOK EMPORIUM Buy, Sell, and Trade New and Back Issues Sports Trading Cards and More!
The boy went inside and stayed there for quite some time.
When he came out, he had a brown paper bag with him. He sat down in front of the store, pulled a bright colored magazine from the bag, and began to read. A passerby might have thought the boy was dead. He sat with a blank look on his face, pale and black and green against the vivid paper cover, blasting Action! and Adventure! and sometimes Terror! or Romance! into the atmosphere in lurid red or blue or sharp yellow lettering. He sat still. Very still. Occasionally he would turn a page, with an almost undetectable move of the thumb. He was that way for a long time, breaking his trance every once in a while quickly to exchange the comic in hand for one in the bag. He was never without an open book for long, dropping the used issues on the ground, where they lay swollen with vibrance on the icy concrete.
The daylight was dimmer when he looked up into the real world again and he blinked and shook his head quickly, like one newly awakened, shaking sleep from his mind. He rose slowly, painfully, like an arthritic. He gathered up his books and walked back past the bars, then across the tracks past the Circle K and down the road a ways. He passed a Chinese restaurant, its parking lot filling up for evening business. A group of young people hung around in front of it, getting out of their cars, not much older than he was. They were typical Baton Rouge youth: grinning young men in baseball caps with broad shoulders and cheeks and close-cropped hair. One had his arm around a girl with a painted face and a beautiful scraping false giggle. The boy stopped to watch them in the twilight, hiding himself in the pool of shadow by the side of the building. They shouted good-natured insults at each other in the cold, and went inside. They looked like angels. The boy walked on.
It was almost dark when he got to the hobby shop. It was dark when he came back out of it, carrying a plastic bag with model paints and glue.
He passed the Chinese restaurant again; the evening rush was in full swing. He took his headphones off.
The light was bright and gold through the glass door, and he shaded his face with an arm as he walked by, squinted under it as he passed. God, it looked warm.
It was warm, and busy. Had he walked inside he would have heard the low rumble of a thousand conversations, blending till no one word was intelligible. The sounds of people laughing, of small talk and ordering, the sounds of men telling women how beautiful their eyes were, of women telling women how all men were scum, of people complaining about the cold, of people complaining about the food, of people, people, people would all run together into a wonderful life-hum, sweet like night crickets and the rustle of leaves in the wind of summer, sweet like a woman's sigh or the warm beat of her heart. But he passed by the door in the cold and back into the dark, hearing only the wind. There was no sense in warming up if he only had to face the cold again on the way home.
He put the earphones back on; walked more quickly back past the Circle K and over the railroad tracks, through the leaf-mud on the side of River Road. The levee came into view, separating the dark road from the Mississippi. He hurried past the entrance to a subdivision and past houses and houses, past people eating dinner behind lit windows. He took three turns (a right and two lefts) and then stopped at one of the houses. He didn't go in. He walked around back.
The carport light was on. A bicycle, more rust than dull, chipped red, sat against a moss-covered wall. It hadn't been used since the fall. The moss had frozen to death. He passed through it, stopped when he got to a sliding glass door in the wall. The curtains were down. He opened it and stepped into blackness.
He placed his purchases on the floor beside him, keeping his feet planted firmly in place as if there were things on the ground he would rather not upset. He felt the wall for a switch. Then he spoke.
He cried, "Let There Be Light!
And there was.
And it shown down upon a city and countryside in miniature, a model landscape of houses and green trees spread out on foam grass and dirt over three card tables, a desk and the tops of two dressers. The light was warm and golden, and revealed incredible microscopic detail in brilliant color, down to a tiny orange Circle K sign in front of the convenience store, down to the painted wavelets of a brilliant blue river, down to a shining red bicycle parked outside a tiny Chinese restaurant. The light shown down from a ceiling painted bright, brilliant blue, the same color as his eyes.
READ the story once, then read it again. Then answer the following questions.
Theme: The theme of the story is about an outsider who becomes obsessed with the very society he shuns.
The First Sentence: The first sentence does a lot of work in the story because it not only gives an important detail of setting, it also describes the protagonist’s personality.
The Beginning in General: The beginning paragraph uses narration and description to set the scene and introduce the main character. It draws the reader in by offering specific details.
The End: The final paragraph shows the main character’s attention to detail and his obsession with the town he seems to shun.
Plot: The story follows the main character through several shopping trips: first to a comic book store, then to a craft store. The character seems like a misanthrope, but then the reader learns he is actually making a careful study of the world he inhabits.
Scene: The main scene of the story is the city streets of Baton Rouge on a cold day. A boy goes about his normal routine, and we learn about his obsessions and interest. The action is shown in one main scene, which works for his story because it helps highlight how isolated the boy is.
Tension: The tension of the story occurs from descriptions of the boy that imply that he is misanthropic, perhaps anti-social. We fear he might get into some conflict with the young crowd in front of the Chinese restaurants. He wears a trenchcoat and headphones.
Transitions: Transitions are show through action “he put the headphones back on” and through the passage of time “The daylight was dimmer.” The reader knows when and where things are happening because of these transitions.
Characters: The character begins as a somewhat stereotypical boy with an interest in comic books. But his complexity becomes clear when we learn he is creating a model of the city in which he lives, with close attention to minute details.
Point of view: The story is told through a third person omniscient narrator. It works because we are able to gather details about the protagonist that might have been hard to surmise had it been written as a first person narrative.
Dialogue: There is no dialogue in this short story.
Voice: The narrator is unique in that the descriptions of the setting and action are delivered with no judgment.
Sequence of Story Elements: The story is told in perfect chronological order. This works well for the story since it was so short. Had it been longer, some use of flashback or foreshadowing might have been a good technique.
Time: The story covers only a short time—an afternoon into early evening.
Setting: The story takes place on a cold day in Baton Rouge. We get many descriptions of streets and shops.
High Points/Low Points: This is an interesting short story with a clear theme. The author gives lots of specific details that create a surprising ending for the reader that furthers the complexity of the main character rather then tying up lose ends in a predictable way.