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Form follows function-that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.
A thread or two pulled taut and linked both of Lauren Groff’s two craft workshops, Saturday’s “The Art of Structure” and Sunday’s “The Art of Narrative Time.” The thread of trusting oneself, protecting our writerly selves, and caring for one’s art.
In my brief stint as Lighthouse contributor, maybe it’s already obvious that I seek this message wherever I go–I claimed, some close blog reader might note, that Chris Castellani also emphasized self-trust, or intuition in his close reading class last month. Well, to paraphrase Groff, once someone’s craft is out in the world, it belongs to the readers, not the creator, to dictate meaning. And so this reader culled the importance of intuition, among razor sharp craft tips and expansive reading recommendations.
“Be generous to your work–it deserves it,” Groff said during Saturday’s workshop. And later: “You are the single shaping force of your work.”
She was talking about the pressure she felt (along with countless others) as an MFA student when she wrote the first incarnation of Monsters of Templeton, and wouldn’t let herself add the supernatural elements she craved, because she knew she’d be scrutinized for it in an academic setting, one that was peopled with writers very concerned about being Real Writers.
Andrea Dupree outlined in her interview with Groff that the novelist and short story writer has a three year long drafting process in longhand before she starts over, and begins the “real” draft. On Saturday, Groff explained that the question fo structure is one she loves to explore, but it’s not something she pressures herself to figure out in those first few years of drafting a novel.
Groff led a writing-intensive workshop to explore how very different stories about the same topic (our first loves) emerge when we press them into various structures.
Again and again (again! According to Ms. Barker, who finds a reason to rely on intuition in every workshop), Groff asserted that the wisdom of how to tell your story will appear through patience and sitting down every day in a routine way, not in showing everyone a new draft, and submitting this new draft to others’ ideas of the structure it should marry. (She used the example of dressing up your toddler (draft) in a prostitute’s costume and pushing her on a brightly lit stage. You get the idea.)
She drew from a wide range of poetic and musical forms to explore structure and how it must hold hands with its content for the marriage that is a literary message. We scribbled free writes to play with Freytag’s Pyramid, Chiastic Structure (Huck Finn! Who knew?!) Rotational Structure (Lydia Davis and her meditational hovering around a word or a concept), Counterpoint, Fugue….and most of us became very acquainted (if we weren’t already) with our personal first-love story, and its potential for elasticity.
A few tips I gathered for hard writing days from Groff’s Structure workshop:
-That ‘sickly little story that isn’t succeeding’–print it, cut it in paragraph-sized strips, and rearrange. How does fragmentation amplify (or squash) the energy that made you want to tell that story? Stories that aren’t done yet, Groff emphasized, probably just haven’t found their appropriate structure yet.
-Be aware. After the birth of her son, Groff noticed four children playing on a double seesaw in a playground. A story that had frustrated her for a while suddenly had its shape: up, across, down, while another two elements rise up, and across, down. When one character rose in certain respects, she fell in others; the other character echoed the same movement.
-Where is your image in one of these unfinished sickly stories? Is it an image that can provide a larger shape? “The Center of The Story” by Lydia Davis hovers around an impending hurricane–the narrator can’t find the center of the story she wants to tell. Bam! She’s it. The eye.
-Doodle an image that generates shape–seesaw, hurricane, hammer, mountain–and re-tell a stunted story along the slopes of this new shape.
Fun with structure: See Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, L. Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper.