The San Francisco Writing Workshop

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The rooms at the art centre were somewhat austere, although the atmosphere created by the facilitator Tom Jenks, was anything but. He was, I learned soon enough, passionate about literature, and the nature of writing, but more of that to come.

As outlined in the programme, mornings began with two participants being critiqued. Extracts were read in turn. Next, would be the feedback from the group, as these were the works we had close-read previously. Tom would also encourage us to speak about certain aspects of the work and later, bring his ideas into the discussion, which sometimes became heated; especially I remember, when it came to my work.

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I sat back, and listened, wondering if this outpouring was because my work was really bad. I’d chosen a short story with New York as its setting, (with the spelling changed to American English), as I thought that my slang-filled New Zealand language might have them stumped. “But what happens next?” Tom went on, actually thumping the desk, and I wondered what he was trying to unearth from the reading, and the readers. Just more attention to the script, it turned out. Tom was adamant that to be a good writer you must be a good reader. But I still worried that it might be more than that.

Afternoons were different, and more enjoyable I thought, though I learned much from both. In these sessions Tom read from authors he had selected for the workshop. These included: Eudora Welty, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion and Alice Munro, using each script to highlight a specific element of writing. This to me, was close-reading at its best. Boy, could Tom read well. His voice had cadence, expression, was moderately toned. He read clearly, with appropriate pace. I could have listened to him read all day. However, I digress …

We dealt with the usual topics; such as POV, place and time, scene-setting, scene-building, rhythm, dramatic purpose, front story/back-story, essence vs incidence (in other words, does it build the story?), imagery, emotion, transitions, and more.

20180208_145205.jpgTo use Red Dress, by Alice Munro, as an example: Tom went through the writing, scene by scene, highlighting many of the facets I have outlined above. It was illuminating. For although I thought I had understood and applied most of this knowledge to my own writing; as he worked down the pages, I learned in detail, just how the story was put together – brilliantly in Munro’s case. Everything is captured in her work, from place, characterisation, conflict and emotion. Red Dress is a colourful and poignant tale well worth reading. If you haven’t read her work, I suggest you do.

I admit, that at times I have become fascinated by some aspects of writing, that others probably wouldn’t be so obsessed by.  Semi-colons and colons was one – because I needed to clarify their correct usage in order to write well and compose the best sentences I could.

I felt similarly about some of the material Tom was conveying to us throughout the workshop. Transitions was one aspect that I honed in on. I did know of transitions of course; as my teacher-mother had often stressed, that they are to be used when moving from one idea to another, or between paragraphs etc., After hearing Tom read from several of the authors’ stories however, and illustrating the many different transitions throughout, I realised that my knowledge on the subject was deficient. I hadn’t thought about POV transitions ocurring within a paragraph for instance. Fortunately for me (I can’t speak for the others), Tom gave us a ten-page printout on Transitions taken from his book, A Poetics of Fiction: Six Chapters on the Art of Imaginative Prose. I have to say I gulped at the sheer volume of information. But read it I did. I learned that seamless writing comes from seamless use of transitions, so that the reader is never confused. A confused writer will not want to read your story; it’s a simple as that.

I can’t tell you everything I found within those pages here, but I shall quote a paragraph from Tom’s book, which I feel encapsulates the essence of what a transition is meant to do.

‘At any shift, a transition should keep a reader oriented in time and place, centered in point of view and directly occupied with who and what the story is about. The transition must continue and renew the narrative drive and necessity of the story so that the reader is compelled to keep reading. Strong, clear transitions encourage the reader’s desire for the story by taking the reader at each new stage deeper into the knowledge and heart of the story’. []

Thank you Tom, for offering such insight into the way writing works. I recognised that my workshopped story confused some readers. I have tried for seamless transitions ever since.

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