Monday, March 29, 2010

Tennessee Williams Festival: Master Classes

One of the neat things about the Tennessee Williams Festival is that the events were held in different locations around the French Quarter. The Master Classes were held in the Historic New Orleans Collection in the 500 block of Royal Street. The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, a research center, and a publisher. One of its publications is the Tennessee Williams Annual Review, devoted to scholarship on Tennessee and his works. The Historic New Orleans Collection also has an extensive collection of portraits - we were in one of the portrait rooms for the Master Classes. The work and holdings of the Historic New Orleans Collection are extensive, and it is worth a visit, as is its website:

I attended five Master Classes at the Tennessee Williams Festival. Below I give a summary of and highlights from each.

ERIC OVERMYER: ON STAGE, ON SCREEN. Eric Overmyer is both a playwright (On the Verge, In a Pig's Valise, Native Speech) and a television writer (Homicide: Life on the Street, Law and Order, The Wire). He is currently writing for the new HBO series Treme, about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Overmyer spoke mostly about writing for television. He said that most bad television writing comes from the tendency to over-explain with dialogue rather than to trust the acting.

JOHN DUFRESNE: WRITE A FIRST DRAFT OF YOUR NOVEL IN SIX MONTHS. John Dufresne is a novelist and short story writer. He teaches writing at Florida International University in Miami. He has also written Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months. Dufresne's Master Class drew upon this book.

Dufresne said that, by following his plan, you will have a first draft of a novel in six months - not a finished product. He said that everything important happens in revision, but you can't revise until you have something in black on white to revise. The first draft brings into the world people and their lives that weren't here before.

Ideally, Dufresne's plan calls for dedicating three hours a day to writing, seven days a week, for twenty-six weeks. By keeping a notebook in which you write every day, Dufresne said, you confirm to yourself that you are a writer. You also raise your antennae because everything around you will be attracted to your novel and you want to pick up those signals.

Dufresne stressed the importance of solitude. He warned us not to answer the telephone or the doorbell while writing. "Remember," he said, "how Coleridge answered a knock on his door - and there went 'Kubla Khan.'"

Dufresne's plan for writing a first draft of a novel in six months is very detailed. You spend the first two weeks on writing about yourself. Dufresne's list of what to write is extensive: pre-school years, earliest memory, first grade (including a seating chart of the classroom), smells and the memories they evoke, all your toys, all your childhood meals, everything you ever lost, all your jobs, your regrets, your first love, your death scene, your obituary, and ever so much more.

You then spend the next two weeks writing in equal detail about your characters. You also need to know the items in your characters' refrigerator, the contents of their medicine cabinet, the appointments on their calendar, the mail on their side table, the stuff in their junk drawer, the clothes in their closet. And you need to know ever so much more about them.

Dufresne's plan continues with place, theme, point of view, plot. The time allotted to the Master Class was up long before Dufresne had finished taking us through his plan.

It strikes me that it would be worthwhile to work through Dufresne's book even if you never intend to write a novel. You would certainly get to know yourself very, very well.

JOSEPH BOYDEN: THE ART OF REVISING. Joseph Boyden is a Canadian of mixed European and Native Canadian Indian descent. His novel Three Day Road is about the experience of three Native Canadian Indians fighting in World War I. Boyden teaches writing in the MFA program of the University of New Orleans.

Boyden said that a fiction writer's goal is to get the reader to suspend disbelief. I like the way Boyden expressed this in his handout titled "Notes on Some of Our Communal Tools": "We need to slip the reader into a world that we've created that is so believable, she forgets not only that she's reading fiction, but that she's reading at all."

Boyden presented many ideas for revising a work of fiction so that it produces this complete suspension of disbelief. He stressed the importance of one's choice of narrator and of the point of view from which the story is told. He also stressed the importance of hearing your work read aloud - either by someone else or by yourself. He said that it is vital to have trusted friends who will read your writing and tell you honestly what is not working.

JILL McCORKLE: SHORT FICTION WRITING. Jill McCorkle is a short story writer and novelist. She teaches writing at North Carolina State University. She spoke about writing short stories. Four points especially impressed me in McCorkle's Master Class.

First, McCorkle stressed the importance of emotional truth. She said that a good short story has the same emotional truth as a child's drawing. Whoever is figuratively looking over your shoulder and censoring your work has got to go. As you are writing your first draft, McCorkle said, you want to let the truth spill onto the page. There is great freedom in not editing yourself before the story is even there. This allows the subconscious to speak through the writing. None of us knows as much as our subconscious does, McCorkle said.

Second, McCorkle stressed the importance of putting a draft away for a time to let it sit. During this time, she said, your brain is at work making connections and preparing for the next steps.

Third, McCorkle advised a constant listening for the story in the midst of the goings on of life. It is important, she said, to keep a drawerful of anecdotes. For example, McCorkle said that she once overheard a woman say, "The humility has been just awful lately." Things that you overhear or see can become part of your writing.

Fourth, McCorkle said that her short stories take shape when she begins with a concrete image, never with an idea.

BEV MARSHALL: LIVING AS A WRITER. Marshall has written three novels: Walking Through Shadows, Right as Rain, and Hot Fudge Sundae Blues. She teaches writing at Southeastern Louisiana University. Her presentation dealt with all aspects of a writer's life.

Marshall said that a writer must possess or develop these skills:

  • Be technologically savvy and have a Web presence.
  • Act as one's own salesperson.
  • Maintain a good-looking appearance for public events.
  • Keep up a high energy level for heavy-duty book tours.
  • Know math and accounting.
  • Work with a legal assistant to understand contracts.

Marshall then gave many practical suggestions about what a writer needs.

Curiosity. A writer is curious about the world and the people in it. She wants to know what, when, where, how, why.

Empathy. A writer has empathy for her characters. She loves them. If she doesn't, then the reader certainly won't care about them. Marshall advocates getting to know one's characters thoroughly. Marshall's own notebooks are filled with columns and columns of information about each character. Sometimes, if Marshall is having trouble hearing a character, she has that character write a letter to her beginning "Here is what you don't know about me and what I want to tell you . . ." Marshall also sees herself in every character. She sees herself in each character's best and worst and the whole range between.

Newness. Marshall said that editors reject books that are too familiar. A writer needs to find something fresh and different.

Time. A book needs time to rest, to stay home, to simmer. The longer a book rests, Marshall said, the better you can revise, and writing is really revising. Editors will reject a book sent to them before the book is ready.

Journals. Marshall has four journals or notebooks.

  • Emotional dumpster journal, to spill her feelings out onto the page and let them pass through and out of her
  • Notebook of random notes and quotes about writing itself
  • Working journal for writing projects
  • Pocket journal to capture thoughts and things noticed in the moment

Special place. Marshall advocates dedicating a special place for writing, a place that is not shared with others.

Proofreading critics. There is no substitute for a pair of fresh eyes to pick up errors, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing.

Playfulness. Marshall reminded us that Joseph Campbell said that work should be play.

Inspiration. A writer should know what inspires her and bring more of it into her life, whether it be poetry, music, the outdoors, exercise, a luxurious bath, or any of the many other possibilities.

Reward. A writer should always reward herself after a period of work. Marshall said that an alcoholic drink can be a reward but should never be used to jump-start one's work.

Patience. A writer would do best to avoid becoming angry with her work or her characters. This doesn't help the writing process. Instead, when the writing seems not to be working, it is best to trust that tomorrow will come and things will turn around. I also think that it is well to see the very condition of being stuck as part of the process, as something that the writer needs to go through to get to the finished product.

Reading. A writer is a bibliophile, constantly reading.

Perseverance. Marshall advocates seeing rejection as an opportunity to try again.

Priority. A writer makes her writing time sacred. Writing is writing - it is not thinking about writing or planning to write but actually writing. There will never be a "good" time to write. The time must be set aside and dedicated to writing. The writer then needs to say no to everything else regarding that time.

Courage. A writer faces fears. What the characters say may frighten the writer, but this is exactly what the writer most needs to write. When we write through our fears, we do something valuable for ourselves and our readers.

Bridge. Marshall said, "We bring light to each other through the sharing of our stories. Books become a bridge between the banks of our differences."

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