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Posts Tagged ‘structure’

I am a bad blogger.

Granted, I can use the but-I’m-teaching-a-summer-course excuse, and that is a good reason to have huge gaps on your blog. But I am also a horrible procrastinator, so when I’m online I spend my time reading design*sponge and watching “Lost in Austen” on Netflix. (I thought the concept for this miniseries had the potential to be fun: a modern day Jane Austen fan switches places with Elizabeth Bennet, thus causing havoc in the world of Pride and Prejudice. But I stopped watching it about an hour in because I didn’t like it.)

Perhaps the habit of blogging isn’t so important, but I believe I need to cultivate more habits of discipline in my life. I’ve heard and read many times–mostly in spiritual contexts–that discipline is liberating. The more I live with myself as an adult, the more this makes sense. Like how I tell my students, now and again, that rules are what allow creativity and originality to blossom.

I tell them things like that, usually because something I’ve said (or they’ve said) sets me off on a ramble on one of my pet subjects. I used to worry about these diversions, but not any more. I think one of the most basic truths about teaching is that you have to be yourself; and this is doubly true of teaching writing. Even if that means going off on the occasional tangent or simply being a little weird. (I have also reached the point where I simply don’t get embarrassed in class. Ever. I need to learn how to do that as a student.)

Today was my fourth 3-hour-long class (of twelve). I am surprised, every day, at how quickly these three hours pass. At the fact that they are full, and that hardly anyone ever looks like they’re about to fall asleep. To a large extent this is because I’ve been blessed with good students; they have a lot to say, they are perceptive readers, and they are serious about writing. Thank goodness.

I told them on the first day that while I would try for variety, I was only going to teach from stories that I loved. That is all I can do, really: share with them from my store of treasures that nourish me as a writer, and hope it also speaks to them. I can usually judge who connects with what by their faces, by their level of participation–and no, not everyone loves what I do. That is okay.

We have talked about dialogue, characterization, point of view. Today the topic was Plot, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that eyes wandered to windows and empty corners of the classroom. Now and then I would catch one of those deep, involuntary sighs coming from a desk outside my range of vision. Time still passed quickly enough; but I set all of us free early. Plot is not my favorite subject. I don’t know how to talk about it. So I borrowed words that didn’t move me, words that I didn’t care too much about when I was an undergrad. Maybe I could have found some excitement in Plot; maybe I would have tried harder if I knew my own lack of enthusiasm would affect the classroom so much. But part of the problem was that it was reciprocal:

I say words that aren’t mine because I don’t have many of my own to say;

I am faced with eyes that are glazed over or squinting skeptically;

I catch the same itch to get things over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, so I barrel on through.

Perhaps this situation falls under the first soundbite I stole for this class: 1 character (complete with personality, desire, etc etc) + situation (say, a classroom) = plot (things happen, which causes the character to act, which causes more things to happen).

The latter half of the class was devoted to structure, which does interest me; the way relationships other than strict cause-and-effect can be implied, the way a story changes when you fiddle with how it’s put together. But by then we’d been in class an hour and a half already and lost steam.

But I feel pretty good about the other three classes, and hopeful about the next (Setting and Detail).

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As I read a chapter from David Jauss’s Alone With All That Could Happen, I found myself also thinking about this Story that has no name yet, and that I’ve been trying to write for at least half the semester. I have wondered off and on if I’m not trying to write two stories as one, and what it would look like as two. Today I wondered if, in fact, I was trying to write about two characters as one, two personalities shoved into one body, and the story’s various transformations can be explained by the character switching between one and the other. I also wondered (as I have before) if perhaps this simply needs more space–a book or a couple chapters rather than a short story. And also, I wondered about the nature of the protagonist’s relationship to the (sadly rather undeveloped) secondary character–whether she was just a body in his life, a part of his routine, or whether there was something more there, a relationship.

The latter I may have the answer to–although this thing keeps changing, and probably will continue to do so. But I think that the answer lies in a balance between the two–a tension, a transition.

I’m wondering if that’s the answer to the other problems, too.

Which comes first, the story or the structure? They are inseparable of course, but I’ve been trying to figure out each one by playing with the other, and sitting and thinking isn’t getting much done.

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