Creating Characters from Everyday Experience by Anna Jean Mayhew

After a trip to Wal-Mart my Swiss-born husband told me, “The man who checked me out heard my accent and asked, ‘Sprechen sie Deutsche?’ He told me that his father came over from Germany after World War II, and never learned English, so his seven children all speak German.” I began to think about someone living many years in America without speaking English, and how astonishing it was that a man with two languages—unusual in this country—would wind up clerking at Wal-Mart. What’s his story?

In my workshop at Table Rock, I’ll ask you to carry paper and pen with you at all times, and to make notes on pieces of stories you stumble on in the course of your daily life. Maybe you’re in a convenience store because you didn’t get a receipt at the gas pump. The cash register is out of paper, and while the clerk changes it, you’re compelled to wait. The clerk hollers to someone in the back of the store, “When’s Roxie getting here? I gotta go.” What is the clerk’s story? Who is Roxie, and why is he/she late? If Roxie is a man, how did he get such a feminine name? (Think of “A Boy Named Sue,” by Johnny Cash) A voice from the back of the store responds, “Cool your jets.” Who is that? What has happened to make her/him grouchy?

Over the years I’ve made notes about characters I’ve stumbled on. Sometimes I use these scribbles to create a complex individual, but many of the notes are just stored on my computer, available when I need a prompt. An example: I was on my way into work and walked through a group of smokers puffing away in the bitter cold of a January morning. A man had his arms resting on a woman’s shoulders, looking her in the eyes, and I heard him tell her something as I passed by. Phonetically it sounded like, “Ah ain nuddin out chew.” I entered the building, walked down several long halls, and went up three floors on the elevator, repeating those sounds in my head. By the time I got to my office, I heard in my mind’s ear, “I ain’t nothing without you.” A sweet declaration of love. Was the couple married or had they just started dating? Was the woman a smoker, too, or was she braving the icy wind just to be with him on a coffee break? Maybe I had misinterpreted the remark, and they were a brother and sister who had recently lost their mother. What are other possibilities?

I’m going to challenge the people in my workshop to craft personalities from snippets of conversation or from seeing someone standing in line at a bus stop—any chance encounter—to create a character from found objects.

There are a few spots left in A.J. Mayhew’s workshop section at Table Rock Writers Workshop this fall. Join us September 17-21, 2012 on the Blue Ridge Parkway about an hour east of Asheville for an extraordinary experience.  See our website. Beautiful mountain views, excellent meals, noncompetitive environment of beginning and seasoned writers.

Free Writing by Abigail DeWitt

For almost thirty years, I’ve started every class the same way: whether I’m teaching composition to eighteen-year-olds or the novel to retirees, I give my students a prompt—something like the house I grew up in smelled like —and tell them to “free-write” whatever comes into their minds for fifteen minutes.  They must write without stopping, without worrying about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or even making sense. They don’t have to write about the way their houses smelled; they can write about how their feet are itching. They can make a shopping list, or a list of baby names, or a list of favorite profanities. They can write their names over and over, or they can write about what a stupid exercise I’ve given them. All that matters is that their pens or pencils don’t stop moving, and that they don’t cross anything out.

In part, I start off with this exercise simply to give my students an alternative to staring at a blank page. I spent so much time hunched over blank pages when I was young that the thought of it still chills me. I’d rather scribble what should I writet write werite I don’t know today I knew yesterday but not today  than worry about crafting the perfect opening line. Once there are words on the page—even nonsensical words—I start to relax. I remember that a preliminary draft need not be a completely serious undertaking. Revision and editing require careful attention and discernment, but producing a first draft is something else altogether. Let’s say, for example, that I want to write a story about a young, healthy woman named Mary who works in a morgue. I could try to come up with an image to suggest the conflict between Mary’s vitality and the death all around her, or I could play: What should I write Mary oh mary who works at the morgue who washes the bodies in the cool room with the bins and shelves of bodies so orderly and clean not like her house which is a disaster of egg-caked plates in the dish drain…There will be serious work down the road, but just getting words on the page—giving myself something to work with—can be as fun and loose as a game.

What’s more, once I have those words on the page, the work of revising and editing is not nearly as hard as it seems when I’m staring at nothing. After my students have “free-written” for fifteen minutes, I ask volunteers to read their pages aloud. People are often pleasantly surprised to discover that, mixed in with the “nonsense,” are some wonderful ideas and images and even mini-scenes they can use in their “real” writing. Sometimes, people find that, with minimal punctuation, they’ll be able to use their free-writing verbatim; sometimes, it’s pure nonsense, and that’s fine, too—they only spent fifteen minutes on it.

The truth is, free-writing doesn’t just help with writer’s block; it helps us generate our best work. It’s a form of improvisation that allows us to bypass the rational mind and draw on the rich material of unconscious. Ironically, free-writing works best when we follow very strict rules: our hand must never stop moving, there must be no crossing out, we must begin and end at a set time. (The reasons for the set time are a topic for another day.) The only optional part is what to do about the prompt.  After all, it isn’t free writing if you have to write about the smell of your childhood home. But you may find yourself writing about the smell of baby names, or the profanities that were beloved in your childhood home. And then—and here’s the wonderful thing—the smell of baby names may lead you to think of a particular baby’s smell, and the strange circumstances of his birth, and suddenly, when you least expect it, you have a story.

Come join Abigail and our happy band of serious writers for free writing and more at the Table Rock Writers Workshop, September 17-21, 2012 in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Abigail will be teaching long form fiction writing.  See details at: tablerockwriters.com

Meet Scott Huler and learn about how he’ll teach his workshop this fall at Table Rock

My class will be something of a polyglot — like my work, I guess. We’ll of course do exercises and read our work to each other every day, and if anybody has brought more-developed pieces they’d like to workshop, they’ll do that. Exercises will work both on information-gathering and on writing itself. Information-gathering, being at the core of good writing, plays a large role in what I like to work on.

But most of my teaching focuses on cultivating the habits that make writing a constant part of your daily work and get your writing in front of the readers who make writing worthwhile. Habits of working, of observation, of note-taking, of rigor in thinking and questioning.

I’m a writer of nonfiction — only nonfiction — so if you want to work on your fiction, we won’t do that, though of course all the techniques of reporting and writing that we’ll work on apply to any work you’re doing. We’ll get out of the room to go see stuff and talk about HOW to see it, and how that seeing will — must — inform your work. And we’ll talk about learning to hear a story, to let it come to you. That is, with all the tools we all now possess — video, audio, print, online — for both gathering and sharing stories, I advocate learning every new tool you can and thus being able to let the story tell you what it is. A picture with a caption? A 300-word tone poem? A 3,000-word magazine piece? A book-length study? A video involving only interviews? only music? only narration? Only shots taken with infrared, during the day, when people didn’t know you were shooting them?

Writing — storytelling — is a craft of constant decisions. We’ll talk about how to make those decisions. And yes, of course, we’ll sit and write and read to each other, and read some other stuff I think is great, but we’ll talk a lot about how we do this job of being a writer. I emphasize the job nature of writing a LOT. That is, it’s a thing you do, a product you create, and if you can’t get people to pay attention to it in a way that has meaning (financially, artistically, however) then what’s the point? So I plan to spend a good bit of time talking about treating this work like work.

I love teaching, and we tend to have fun when I teach. I think of situations like this as an opportunity for half a dozen or a dozen writers to get together and learn from each other, and I love doing that. In my own writing work I do everything from onstage live storytelling to video production; writing newspaper, magazine, and book-length nonfiction; working in radio; writing online; and telling stories for corporations, civic organizations, and governments. So I like to think if you’re doing nonfiction, I can help you at least figure out where you’re going next and then help you on the way to wherever that turns out to be.

Scott Huler will be teaching a workshop for up to 12 students, as will  A.J. Mayhew (Writing Characters), Darnell Arnoult (Memoir), and Abigail DeWitt (Novel) at this year’s Table Rock Writers Workshop.  Novelist Dawn Shamp will also be working with individual students on manuscript critiques. Memoirist, novelist, and poet Judy Goldman will be our special guest speaker.  Please consider joining us September 17-21, 2012 at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, NC.   http://tablerockwriters.com for more information and registration. Or write tablerockwriter@gmail.com

The Upside of Down Time by Dawn Shamp

Dawn Shamp (left) and her class at Table Rock Writers Workshop in 2010

Maybe you’ve seen that greeting card of a befuddled-looking mastiff with his head quirked between his owner’s bowed legs? The one with the Ashleigh Brilliant quote, “My life has a superb cast, but I can’t figure out the plot.”

Well, he’s not the only one. Besides writing this summer, much of what I’ve created has taken place in my head. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying I’ve taken to loafing. Reading good fiction (long and short), dawdling around the house, and the occasional sitting in a stupor. I’ve become highly disciplined in all of it. The reason I bring it up is this. I’m working on a new novel, set on the cusp of WWII and told from multiple points of view. But my story reached a point recently that got the better of me (hence, the loafing).

This writing slump, or dry spell, whatever you would like to call it, usually happens when we start having doubts or second-guess what we’ve written. Does what I’ve devised, so far, make sense? Have I delved enough into my characters’ minds? Does each character’s actions serve a purpose and move the story forward? Are the words precise? Or (insert foul invective here) am I trying to chase a butterfly up a mountain? After a while you start to think that the writing won’t ever come back. But it does—it did! Loafing, as it turns out, provides a greater deal of stimulus than we might think. We need to put the … um … “smart” phone away. We need down time to be creative. Yes, even dawdling. Learn to appreciate crushing boredom.

Waiting for something to shake loose, I revisited a book on craft and gave myself a writing assignment. That refresher happened to be therapy. One simple exercise, and now all of my characters are fighting to get on with it. Oh, there are pages of action still to write—detailed events and conflicts—but I’m thinking now I might just have this “dry” thing licked. Like a mastiff’s chops, it’s all about flapping the tongue, assessing the surroundings, and getting on with the possibilities of search and rescue … or reading the messages of the day.

Dawn Shamp is teaching this fall at the Table Rock Writers Workshop, September 19-23.  Join us by visiting the website.

The Goal of Enchantment by Ed Southern

I’ve been thinking about ‘Making Up the Past’ since the fourth grade.  That year we studied North Carolina history, and my best friend Sam and I wrote a play about the Lost Colony.  We didn’t worry too much with the details of writing in the past; we would have had no idea what ‘anachronistic’ meant, if a critic had lobbed that charge.

Later that year, though, I wrote a story of my own about World War II fighter pilots.  As I was writing what was supposed to be the climax, an odd and unexpected thought crept into my head.  Without warning, the notion occurred to me that young men in the 1940s probably didn’t talk to each other the same way fourth-grade boys talked to each other on the playground.

Of course, having become and then been a young man, I now know that most young men in any era or circumstance talk to each other almost exactly as they talked to each other on the fourth-grade playground.  The vocabulary changes (not for the better, all in all), but the conversational essence stays about the same: “Watch this!”  “That’s nothing, watch this!”  “You suck.”  “No, you suck.”

Still, little fourth-grade Ed was onto something.  I was writing characters who spoke the same slang words my friends and I used, and somehow the writer in me knew that while some words are made to last, these words were transient, unstable, and would not have been used forty years before.

Many years later, I remember that early effort every time I write something set in the past.  Now I know about things like the Oxford English Dictionary, and how to find and study contemporary accounts of times and places.  I know how language can change, how the looping, discursive narratives of the early colonial era become the more rational, less artful descriptions of the Revolutionary era.

I’ve learned how just one or two ill-advised, inauthentic word choices can break the spell of a book.  One author, writing about NASCAR, described Dale Earnhardt as the governing body’s bête noir, and the crowds in the Darlington infield as hoi polloi.  Earnhardt may well have been NASCAR’s dark beast, but he sure was nobody’s bête noir; infield crowds usually are common people, but they are never hoi polloi.  That book lost more than a bit of its enchantment, and I lost a little respect for its author.

Keeping the reader enchanted is the goal of any story, whatever time or place it’s set in, and that has less to do with strict historical accuracy than with an unbroken sense of authenticity (only a miserable pedant would fault Shakespeare’s references to striking clocks in Julius Caesar) and good old-fashioned storytelling.  How do you achieve the two?  I can’t wait for the third week in September, when we’ll try to answer that question.

Ed Southern will be teaching “Making Up the Past (And Getting It Published)” at the Table Rock Writers Workshop, September 19-23, 2011.  For details, see http://tablerockwriters.com/instructors/instructors-southern.html

The Miraculous Gift of a Writing Community by Abigail DeWitt

The first time I wrote something I liked I was in college. I had a story due for a class and no story ideas. Normally, I had lots of ideas, a vivid fantasy of myself as a Great Solitary Writer, and endless energy to devote to the fine-tuning of my sentences. I was always disappointed with the results, but I refused to give up. This time, my mind was blank. I went to the library to keep from procrastinating and, with people all around me writing research papers and solving problem sets, I tried to come up with a story. Nothing.  I had no creative juices, just a deadline.

That’s all I remember until much later in the evening. Somehow—and this is the key thing: I had no idea how—I had written a story and I liked it. Thirty years later, I still like it. I can vaguely remember sitting at a desk, finishing it, but how I started, where the idea came from, is still a blank.

The next time I wrote something  I liked, I was in graduate school. Once again, the good writing came when I was frustrated and had nothing to say.  Two stories hardly make a pattern, but I was convinced: I could only write when I was so sick of the whole business that I was ready to give up. When my approach to the blank page was, “what the hell.”

Months later, a fellow student whose writing I loved told me she had finally figured out how to write a story. I had the feeling that she’d figured out a formula—not something that would result in formulaic stories, but some steps or rules to follow that would lead to truly good fiction every time. What’s odd is that I didn’t ask her what those steps were. I can hardly believe it—there I was, in striking distance (I thought) of the answer I’d been looking for for so long and all I said was, “Wow. That’s great.”

I understand now what was really going on when I thought, “What the hell.”  I know how to re-create those conditions whenever I want. In other words, I’ve learned how to write fiction. I can even teach it to other people.

But here’s another key thing: I know how to write in general, but I don’t know how to write my next novel. Every book has to be written in its own particular way, and the techniques I mastered when I was writing Lili were little help to me when I was writing Dogs. The only way to learn to write a novel is to write it, and then what you’ll know is how to write that novel. Which sounds exhausting and daunting—and would be, were it not for the great, miraculous gift of a writing community.

When I was in graduate school and I didn’t ask that woman what she’d learned, I still believed writing was a solitary art. Now I know that trusted readers are a writer’s greatest treasure. Judy Goldman and I regularly exchange manuscripts—she knows what my intention is with any given piece and she can tell me when I’m on the wrong track and when I’ve struck gold without realizing it.

What I finally learned about those “what the hell” moments was how to get out of my own way and write from the unconscious. What I’ve learned from having trusted readers is another kind of ego-dismissal. There are no Great Solitary Artists—we all write together, learning from the writers who went before us, from our friends, from our students.

Spring tonic: writing with accountability

A pasture in Ashe County, site of Table Rock Spring StudioWe had a fabulous gathering of dedicated writers this September at the Table Rock Writers Workshop. I have heard from so many Table Rockers that the week was life shifting, changing, transforming. Pick your present participle. Everyone contributed to the community and the experience.

Now it’s November, one of those milky, damp days brightened only by the lemon-colored leaves that are left on the trees here in the Piedmont. Our fall workshop seems far away. I have been traveling around the state, promoting the second volume in the Literary Trails Guidebook series, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont. Every time I pick up a copy, I am struck by how heavy the book is–all 455 pages.

Now, facing the task of finishing the third book in the series, this time on eastern North Carolina, I can’t quite imagine how I wrote either the first or the second volume of Literary Trails.  That’s how it is with writing. You are always starting over. Square one. The blank page.  The long hours. If it seems to be getting easier, then you’re probably repeating yourself, or at least that’s my fear.

Writing is hard work. Period.

So what’s the tonic?  How about a Spring Studio for writers?  What’s a spring studio, you may ask.

Here’s the idea: We’re going to gather on the campus of an art school on the Blue Ridge Parkway in a village  called Glendale Springs, almost at the Virginia line.  It’s a pristine location where many painters have found their Muse, including the world renowned fresco painter Ben Long, who once thought he might become a writer when he came under the influence of Duke’s Reynolds Price.  But Long instead took up an ancient form of painting and became an apprentice in Italy, learning the art and craft of fresco painting. One of his first works in North Carolina, painted in 1980, is in the Holy Trinity chapel in Glendale Springs. The work initially caused  a stir, because Long invited the folks who lived near the church to serve as his models for the disciples in The Last Supper.  Then, when the local rector forbade Long’s dog from being with his master in the chapel during the long weeks of painting, Ben simply painted his dog below the supper table so that he would be in that church for eternity.  I love that story.

But I digress.  We are going to the mountains this May to write every morning with religious fervor.  Then we’ll have some lunch and each person can continue writing into the afternoon or opt to take a little guided excursion in the mountains for inspiration.  Then we’ll reconvene for THE HOUR OF REVISION, in which folks can look over their morning’s work with a fresh eye.

After supper, we’ll gather to discuss the craft of writing, the discipline, tricks to keep you writing, and how revision is an entirely different practice from drafting. Among those who will be speaking to us will be Darnell Arnoult, Joseph Bathanti, and Jim Minick.  Our  closing speaker is Lee Smith.

This schedule is not like our fall workshop when you give most of your day to classwork.  This event is about quiet writing time.  A chance to practice the practice, so to speak, in the company of others who are doing the same.

I once got a writing fellowship and took off alone  for six weeks to New Mexico to write. I felt such pressure to perform in those six weeks–spending the precious fellowship dollars, taking the time away from my job, all in solitude–that I choked.  I didn’t get anything of consequence written.  What I did instead was begin a lifelong love affair with New Mexico. That’s why I think this retreat idea in the company of other writers is a much better idea than the solo escape. We offer accountability to each other.  We’ll have our meals made for us. We’ll have a space to write and we’ll know when to quit and do something else. We’ll have veteran writers to talk about getting in the groove and staying in it. We’ll have inspiration and that glorious golden green of spring to watch as it climbs the hills around us.

Doesn’t this sound good? May 16-20, 2011. See http://tablerockwriters.com/studio/index.html Please consider joining us!