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Tin House Writer’s Workshop: Day Six

Another day of missing breakfast turned out pretty well for me this day. For the last couple of days of the workshop, the schedule called for the workshops to be held directly after breakfast, so I woke up around 9:00 in the morning, which gave me about a half hour to get ready and get to the classroom for the workshop.

9:30 AM: Workshop

Today Ben’s pet subject for his pre-workshop talk was the idea of action. According to Ben, lots of what kills beginning stories is the lack of action. Lots of places in beginner stories, what happens is that two people sit in a bar and talk. Lots of talking heads are sitting around, doing nothing. Even if the dialogue is working very well, there is very little that can be done when the two characters are sitting still. As he was talking, Ben passed around a hand out with two quotes on it relating to the subject of action:

“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action. Without action there cannot be tragedy; there may be without character.” -Aristotle

“Character gives us qualities, but it is in action–what we do–that we are happy or the reverse. All human happiness and misery take the form of action.”

After we had time to read these quotes, Ben then went on to state that action isn’t just what happens, not only plot. What action does is deepen and increase the complexity of the story and the people in it. Ben then went on to say that there are three types of action: Fixed, Received, and Moving. Fixed action is exposition, explanation of who or what type of person the character is. What type of setting it is, etc. Received action is basically the inciting incident of the plot. What begins that ascent to the climax? Moving action is how the character reacts to the inciting incident.

Taking off from where the moving action explanation left off, Ben then gave us some more awesome explanation regarding the action of character. A couple of Golden Lines from Ben on this issue are here:

  • Take your characters out of their comfort zones and see how they react. The action doesn’t begin until the inciting incident places a character in a place that he has to navigate.
  • Response of the character to the received action is most important.
  • Action is important and intertwined with character.
  • Every story is a transformation story.
  • Dialogue is not a break from action. It intensifies action.

Ben then gave us a run-down on six elements of craft that inherently contain some form of action when presented.

1. Action (plot)
2. Dialogue
3. Discovery/Recognition
4. Setting/Landscape
5. Tension
6. POV

The final awesome piece of advice Ben gave us for this day was to try and shrink your story down into flash fiction to see the true beats that need to be expanded. Lots of peopel have trouble finding a balance between scene and summary and they don’t know where they need to extend the action or simply just gloss over it. Each important piece should be put down in that flash fiction piece so that it becomes clear which pieces are integral to the story and as such should be extended instead of summarized.

1 PM: “I Know Myself Real Well. And That Is The Problem” w/ Jim Shepard

So, I thought this talk was going to be about how to write a story when your story is quite autobiographical. I was wrong. It was actually a talk on how to write stories where your characters are very self-aware. Using Robert Stone’s story, “Helping” as an example, the illustrious Jim Shepard gave us a blow-by-blow account of how Robert Stone, using a 3rd person limited POV shows the reader that the character is self-aware and is an instrument of his own self-destruction. Other awesome things Jim said are below:

  • It is not our task to save our characters. We need to interrogate them.
  • Do not be afraid to withhold consolation.
  • Without possibility, we can’t fail ourselves.
  • Severity of narrative concision heightens bleakness.
  • Tormenting persistence of hope should be evoked. Hope, possibility, promise.
  • How can we help or be helped by others when we can’t help ourselves?
  • People have deluded sensibilities that they are quite aware of. Read “Helping” to see how this is done. The usage of words like “seemed” and others like that.
  • There are ways to show self-awareness. Characters who are like this normally watch others watch them.
  • A result of their own weaknesses and the world’s ability to root these out causes conflict with these characters. Example: in “Helping” the main character is a recovering alcoholic, whose place in life causes him to fall off the wagon.
  • Sentimental language, if used, needs to be used to undermine something in the character or in the mood. It should not be used to try and reach an emotion. It will be inherently false because the language used is false.
  • The reason seekers upset the character in “Helping” is because of his seeing the appeal in seeking for meaning.
  • Writing is a response to the silence.

2 PM: Fairy Tales w/ Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender began her talk with two almost identical pictures drawn on the blackboard at the front of the auditorium. The first picture showed a man walking along about to be crushed by a boulder that was being pushed by a second figure up on a ledge. The second picture showed the exact same thing, but without the second figure on the ledge. Aimee Bender then tried to relate this to fairy tales. In fairy tales, the situation doesn’t require the presence of a second figure, an antagonist. Instead, the environment is all evocative of the character. Bender uses this to draw distinctions between how fairy tales work and how “normal” fiction works. Bender then went on to give these bullet points:

  • Each writer brings his idea of what stories should do.
  • Use whatever you can to capture the roar and then release it into the air.
  • It is how the character manages the rocks falling on him that defines him (refer to the pictures at the beginning of the talk).
  • The story only requires the “what” in fairy tales.
  • Plot takes into it the questions and motivations of the character and story in fairy tales.
  • In fairy tales, it only requires economy of expression. Unadorned prose.
  • The landscape becomes representative of the psyche in fairy tales.
  • The internal life plays out in what happens to the character in fairy tales.
  • Fairy tales work well for a passive character or narrator.
  • We must acknowledge that we process things in many different ways.
  • Allow yourself access to as much as you can.

This was a pretty interesting talk overall. I really don’t know much about fairy tales in general. Probably because I’m not really interested. But the idea that fairy tales can do things that normal fiction can’t is an interesting one and I felt really happy to hear Aimee’s talk on how fairy tales can work.

After the talk, there was a panel called “Everything is Personal: Nonfiction From All Angles” planned. However, I didn’t feel in the mood to sit for a third hour in a row. Plus, it was a beautiful day outside. Unfortunately, I heard from one of my friends at the workshop that the panel was awesome. Well, I guess it was fortunate for everyone else, but my slacker instincts caught up with me and bit me in the ass. Oh well, I had a good time just hanging out and talking with some others who didn’t feel like going to the talk.

Next was dinner and the cocktail hours. By the end of these events, I was a bit buzzed and feeling the end of the week coming. It was a really sad feeling, I have to admit. I recently talked to my friend, Aaron about our experiences at places like this. The consensus was that in places like that, we feel like we are with our people. Belonging is something that I don’t normally recognize as being important for some reason. You can give me your opinion, but either way, I really felt like I belonged there with all those people whose central core is the same as mine. Anyway, the time for the nightly reading came around and I was really excited.

8 PM: Reading w/ Charles D’Ambrosio, Kevin Young, Joy Williams

That night the reading was kicked off by Lance Cleland, the Tin House Workshop director giving an anecdote about the first reader of the night, Kevin Young, the poet. Apparently at a party, Lance asked Young how his novel was going. One problem, Kevin Young is a poet. And throughout the rest of the night, Lance kept asking how the novel was coming. A couple days later, Lance had a dream where Kevin Young broke down his wall and screamed, “I WRITE POETRY!” This story got a lot of laughs. After that, Kevin Young was introduced. He read some poems from his latest book of poetry. His reading was really good, but a bit far removed from my poetic tastes. The next reader was Charles D’Ambrosio, who is a certified bad ass. He read from his latest book bout a priest who, it seems, has lost a bit of faith in where his life is going. It’s set in Seattle, so I was able to engage with the setting and it was awesome. D’Ambrosio’s prose is so dense and well-crafted, I can’t believe he hasn’t won more awards. He also gave a great interview that can be found in The World Within, a book of interviews with famous authors. His story, “Drummond & Son” is amazing, about a father and son who own a typewriter repair shop. The last reading of the night was with Joy Williams, who read a selection from her work-in-progress. What I can best characterize the stories as are short-shorts or something like that. Anyway, her reading was hilarious and really entertaining. All in all, the reading was really good.

9 PM: Reception

After the reading was the reception, where I talked a lot, drank a lot, and smoked a lot. Having lots of craft-talks day after day made me feel–more than anything–that I am definitely supposed to be a writer.



About rydowney

What’s up party poetry people?! Welcome to my poetry blog. This is my rambling intro to you. My name is Ry. Ry Downey if you’re interested in googling me (giggity) but I’m not sure it will turn up anything interesting. I’m a citizen of Planet Earth and I might be from Mars. Or Venus, because I believe in love more than I do war. Yes, Venus. Definitely Venus. I love the thought of aliens and space–I’m a lover of nature and sunshine and laughing so hard I cry. I love my friends and my family and anything that makes me feel love and appreciation and gratitude for having lived this long on this beautiful rock floating through the stars. And then comes poetry.

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