Workshop Reflections

Been meaning to write this reflection for a while now but just hadn’t gotten around to it. A few weekends ago at Hawaii Pacific University’s Ko?olau Writers Workshop, I facilitated two fiction workshops. One on the elements of story, the other on creating character. As discussed in my last post, I am always curious about the reasons why we choose to write what we do, write at all even, and I think that often times it has to do with a need for story. Story is necessary to society. We build our gods through story, document our cultures, and insure that they live on. How many moments make up a poem? How many of our interactions find our ways into our characters, into our scenes? Do we as peoples, sculpt, scavenge, and salvage what we can from our day to day to create the narrative of our lives, and share that narrative through story, breathing life, and our lives, into words?

One of my exercises dealt with using colloquial language to develop character. Out of the seven or eight folks in attendance, I was surprised that only one chose to experiment with Pidgin. The most common was a Southern drawl that I can’t specifically identify because I have no experience with living in the south. It made me wonder if participants were familiar with the style of speech or if they were working off popular exposure. It also reminded me of the importance of being familiar with a language, the intricacies and minute details that will ring true in the ears of a true speaker of that tongue, or those who have spent their whole lives around it.

Another exercise involved experimenting with stream-of-consciousness, and I was once again impressed by the enthusiasm of everyone in the workshop, digging deep into their character. It made me think of how the mind works, without structure, forever moving in every direction. This also made me think of orality and literacy, and how grammar seeks to confine language within a certain set of rules, and how, when dealing with colloquial narrative, it is difficult to translate speech into text without breaking or bending those barriers in some way.

Creating character really is occupying a consciousness. You have to know where they like to eat, who they eat with, what times of day do they dine. What do they do on Sundays at 3 p.m. Do they pick up their prescriptions at Longs or Walgreens? Especially in local story, what neighborhood are they from, what part of the island, what school they went, for how long? Even if the details aren’t used, they are still important because they make up who that character is. Think of all the ways we are people, all the small and big things that define us, and then think about what defines who your character is.

After the workshops were pau, one of the participants approached me and asked if I wouldn’t mind reading some of his work. I gladly agreed and have been corresponding a bit with him over the past few weeks. I would like to end this post by sharing some of what came up during these correspondences:

A personal rule of mine is that every sentence, every detail should be functioning in more than one way: building character and moving the plot forward for example, or creating suspense and foreshadowing a future event is another.

The most important thing is to get the whole thing out. Barf it up, bleed it out, whatever it is take it to the page and then clean it up. Writing is a craft of continuous revision, especially with a novel because as you write more your style will develop and strengthen. So just get the story out and then begin to shape it.

As a reader, we focus where the writer tells us to, the more time spent describing or going over something the more significant we'll think it is. With that in mind, you may end up cutting or compounding large sections of your work. That's good, often times as writers we hold onto to scenes because we enjoy them or think they really work. You have to ask yourself when editing, is this really important? What is it doing?



Talk story

  1. Darrell Lum says:

    Sounds like you had a good group. I especially like the barf up the writing…although the problem with that is when you barf, you think that you're all done and everything else comes in dribbles (sorry for that image). Of course this is crucial, getting the ideas down on paper. But I'd like to think of it as making sure you have enough to get you going the next time. So set a goal: a page, 20 minutes, two computer screens, whatever. and end mid-sentence. The next time you come back to this particular piece of writing, invariably you will be able to finish the sentence…and keep on going. In other words, try to go for sustained writing over time.

  2. BetweenWatersUnseen says:

    It's definitely been a struggle to get back into a writing routine, but I'm slowly finding stable ground and a more stable schedule. I like the idea of ending mid-sentence, keeps things flowing in the moment and when you return. Often times I try and finish the section or scene and, to get back into it when I return to the page, I read it over again and then go from there. What I like about your suggestion is that you're immediately getting back into the action.

    I also forgot to mention the importance of writing thoughts down on notepads/scraps of papers/cellphone/whatever. Creating a system for the piece and something you can jot anything down in. Also saving past drafts and revisions, having an archive of the same story. I don't know if anyone else does this, but I find it helpful in process. There's so much that we forget or think we're going to remember/get back to or is lost as we write on, it's always nice to have something to return to, maybe even finding inspiration for another story or chapter there.

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