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Dispatch from Lit Fest: Scenes and Time

In our ongoing effort to keep the wider community involved in Lit Fest, we’ve got another writeup, this time on the workshops Creating a Scene and Time Management and the Writer. Thanks to the lovely and talented workshopper (and board member!) Emily Sinclair for her notes!

I love the Lighthouse Litfest. It’s my chance to take classes from new instructors, focus on very specific issues of craft in classes, and see people I admire and enjoy at play with words. But this year’s LitFest comes at a time when my family has been busier than usual with an out-of-town graduation, a child swimming competitively, a wedding, work, and the myriad stuff of life with people I love. So when I blew into my first class 10 minutes late–Paula Younger’s Creating A Scene–I had, in the back of my mind, a tiny little voice of regret about all the classes I’d signed up for. After all, the dogs aren’t getting walked, half my meals are protein bars, and the laundry piles are so tall, they look like an installation at an expensive New York art gallery. Now showing at the Sinclair Gallery.

Paula, who won last year’s Beacon Award at Lighthouse, has an incredible gift as a teacher for seeing the ways that writers’ personalities get in the way of writing. She understands and teaches to the fact that, for many of us, the issue isn’t only craft: it’s us. In Creating A Scene, Paula addressed a writing problem that everyone in class copped to: we are, mostly, the peacemakers and observers in our families. We have a hard time creating conflict on the page, and when we do, it sometimes comes across as cringe-worthy melodrama. What, then, are we gentle people to do? How do we find the teeth-gnashing within ourselves?

Before class, Paula had us read a Charles Baxter essay. In class, we read an excerpt of Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel.” What we saw, between the essay and the story, is that melodrama arises from what I’d call exclamation point writing–language that moves at a kind of fevered pace, filled with adverbs, high drama word choices, e.g. She shrieked as the blood spurted from his jagged artery. What Paula urged instead was to pay attention to pacing, to slow scenes down at critical dramatic points and simply let the reader inhabit the moment. The drama is born not of gore or Big Events or Surprise Endings, but of the essential truth of the moment for the character.

To help us understand what that truth would be like for our characater, Paula asked us to draft our most shameful moment. It was one of the most helpful things I’ve done. For one thing, as a (mostly) fiction writer, writing about my real life takes away all the twaddle and procrastination around making something up. Second, I could see how when I represent an event to myself (the shameful thing), I don’t do it with Big Events, Surprise Endings, or exclamation points. I just say it, with all the detail that I recall, and it comes out true and real, and without the manipulative cast of melodrama.

So on Thursday, I went back for a little more Paula, this time for Time Management. In all my work, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I find I look for structural devices very early on. Time is one of my favorite things to play with–and one of devices I understand least. In Time Management, we talked about the differences between story and plot and again, Paula returned to the idea of the scene as a building block. As an exercise, Paula had us write a scene from our childhoods, using a 4 part structure that required us to explore different perspectives–the immediate moment of a scene, the moments weeks after a scene, the far future from the moment, and a final sort of summation of the scene so that the reader sees both the critical moment–and the meaning the character lends the moment at different points in her life.

In class we read a T.C. Boyle story, ‘Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail,’ in which sharply constructed time shifts allow Boyle to weave the life and death of blues musician Robert Johnson in and out of the last night of his life–in 5 pages.

Where to slow down, where to hustle the reader through. Where to shift the pace of the story to cue the reader and alter her sense of what is happening. At a busy time in my life, I’m so very glad I made the time for these classes. Slowing down, speeding up–it’s not only how we craft our stories, it’s how we craft our lives, and in writing and in life, the joys of the unexpected often reveal themselves in pacing. It was a good week for me to be reminded of that.

–Emily Sinclair

If you’ve attended a Lit Fest event or workshop and would like to share a thought or two, please e-mail me ( and we’ll chat. Thanks, Emily, and see everyone around Lit Fest!

One comment on “Dispatch from Lit Fest: Scenes and Time

    March 18, 2012

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This entry was posted on June 10, 2011 by in Cool Events, Member dispatches, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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