By Darlene Cah
I’ve been going to The Hub City Writing in Place workshop, held at Wofford College every July, for a good ten years. Honestly, I lost count after year five! But every year, I can guarantee, whether the instructor is well-known, like Wiley Cash, George Singleton or Tommy Hays, is a rising star, or is well-respected and lives life outside of the spotlight, I come away with some insight or something I can apply to my own writing. If nothing else (and there’s always plenty) I’ve spent a full weekend writing and hanging out with fellow literary types. You can read about my Hub City Workshop with Wiley Cash, here.
This year, I signed up for Marlin Barton’s workshop because his focus is on the short story.
After dinner, workshop instructors, Ray McManus (poetry), Kate Sweeney (non-fiction), and Marlin Barton (fiction) read from their works. And the inevitable happened. I bought books. Then, no time to waste! The first workshop started from 8 to 9. I love photo and art prompts, so this first exercise had my mind swirling. Marlin talked about writing using all the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, and passed around photocopies of two pictures taken in the 1960s.
One showed an African American woman sitting at a lunch counter next to a white woman. The tension in the photo was palpable. The second picture showed a white woman sitting on a kitchen chair, rocked back on a porch with her two children clinging to her. It was obvious that she was poor. The looks on their faces could launch dozens of stories from any one of the characters’ points of view. For that reason, I chose that photo to write about.
Marlin asked us to simply describe the scene using all the senses. We started writing in class and an expanded version was due the next morning. Now, we’re all story tellers, so there was no “simply describe” anything! We all moved quickly into character development, and implied story.
I couldn’t find that particular picture online, but here are a few others from that era. See what stories they evoke for you, and write a short scene or flash story. Remember to engage all the senses in an organic way. Keep in mind a sense of place and tension between the characters.
Write a scene or a story inspired by one of these pictures
The sensible student, especially one of a certain age like myself, might have gone back to the dorm room, but no. My friends and I went to hang out with the faculty, chatting into the night, which meant I was up until 2 a.m. completing my assignment. No. I will never learn.
Saturday is a packed day at the conference. After breakfast, we headed into our morning workshop. We read our photo scenes then Marlin read “How Far She Went” by Mary Hood. We broke the story down and analyzed it in terms of the five elements of fiction, as Marlin described them:
Then he talked about how every story has two stories evolving simultaneously. The external story has to do with plot, what happens. Like me, he is writes “traditional” stories, and he emphasizes that something has to happen in stories.
The internal story is more to do with character, human nature, why things happen, the choices characters make, and their inner conflicts.
The central character has to want something, to long for something, and, we writers must always put something in the way of the main character’s desire. Oh, the power!
How do we depict fully fleshed-out characters? The same way we do in real life. We might describe the new mail carrier to our neighbor. What color is his hair? How does he walk with his mailbag? How does he talk? What is Sheila down the block saying about him?
Unlike in real life, in fiction, we can know what the character is thinking. Usually, by the end of the story the character is changed in some way, he or she has learned something, grown in some way. Usually, but not always. If the character has not changed what the reader comes away with is illumination. The reader can see what the character cannot. The reader understands the character better than the character understands him or herself.
Marlin discussed setting, point of view and theme, as well.
As we approached lunch hour, we got our afternoon assignment:
Write two scenes, putting two characters in a situation, keeping in mind the elements of fiction and the story arc. What is their relationship? What do they want? One must want something from the other, who will not give in. The want can be anything: love, money, respect, jewelry, trust, a gun. It can be abstract or concrete. Even if the object is concrete, you can still explore the internal, deeper level of the character’s desire. She may want mama’s pearl necklace, but deep down, she may really desire love or respect.
Tip: The story has to get up and running before you start revealing the past.
On Saturday night, after a near disaster involving a water bottle and my laptop, we headed to the Hub City Bookstore for social hour, followed by dinner, and then to Hub-Bub, a terrific performance space, where Lydia Netzer, the other fiction instructor, gave a passionate and hilarious keynote speech. I couldn’t possibly re-create her talk here, as it was as much performance as it was information. What it boiled down to is truth, putting everything you’ve got into your writing, your deepest, darkest secrets. It’s your responsibility, she said, to make your writing personal, that if you expect people to read your book, you must reach into the darkest part of yourself and “bleed” into your characters. She recommended writing down everything that occurs to you, even if your musings never make it into your story or book, and as you’re writing live in a place of uncertainty. You don’t have to know where the story is going.
After the hyperactivity of the previous day, Sunday morning is always crash time for me. I want to stay and write more, and at the same time, I want to get home and process all I learned. “Write more” won out. I attended one of the short Sunday seminars in playwriting given by former Hub City Artist-in-Residence, Anna Abhau Elliot. Anna, a fellow improviser, handed out copies of historical postcards complete with notes from the senders. From these prompts we wrote scenes in dialogue only, with no stage direction at all. The assignment: Put two characters in a well-grounded location. They must have an established relationship, and the scene must have a beginning, middle and end. Convey the location, action and emotion through dialogue only. There were only five of us in the class and, after writing, some of us played parts in each other’s scenes, proving, once again that I’m a total ham.
So challenge yourself! Try some of these exercises, and maybe make the trip to Spartanburg for next summer’s Hub City Writing in Place Conference.