A Changing Port Townsend (for the WITS Blog)

Port Townsend.jpg

(Note: this was originally written for the WITS Blog for Seattle Arts and Lectures in January 24, 2019.)

For the seventh year in a row, I’ve been fortunate to be part of a group of WITS writers who’ve gone to Port Townsend for two weeks in December. While Seattle has gone through some dramatic changes in these last seven years—to the extent that I sometimes get lost in my own neighborhood—Port Townsend’s changes come far more slowly, and subtly, which is a big part of its charm.

This year, there was one significant change in the school district, which was that our host school, Blue Heron, transitioned from serving elementary and middle schoolers to being purely a middle school (the new Salish Coast Elementary School opened). A couple of the WITS writers were off in the new school, but since I work with eighth graders, I still didn’t see a dramatic change: I was in the same building, same classroom, with the same wonderful teacher, Ms. Schroeder. But the school lost all of its littler inhabitants, and it was interesting to note the subtle shift in the atmosphere as a result.

It was, in a sense, a classic Port Townsend alteration: so subtle that you might miss it if you don’t pay close attention.

In Port Townsend, you’ll rarely see a building getting knocked down to make room for a large multi-use building. The one Starbucks in town is still in the Safeway. Several years ago, we arrived to find a new bistro and bar on Fort Worden—but, of course, it was housed in a century-old building that used to be the fort’s brig.

Still, things at year Blue Heron felt slightly smoother and clearer. Maybe it was because there were no kindergarteners—adorable as they are—turtling down the hallways with those giant backpacks. The eighth graders might have felt more distinctly aware of themselves as adolescents, not little kids, because they worked hard and wrote so many wonderful stories. This year, I also had five classes, two more than usual, for a total of 120 students, and all of them were enthusiastic about their writing.

The profusion of extraordinary ideas was remarkable: historical fiction, science fiction, experimental fiction, monsters, psychological torment, side-splitting comedies, and one very memorable story about a teenage girl with loving parents who desperately want her to succeed in school, but in their zeal for her to do well, are unable to see the struggles she’s working through. Until, that is, she finally sits them down and asks them to hear to her, until she tells them about what she wants and what she’s concerned about—then, they finally do listen, and it’s as if they’ve woken up and finally understood the person they’re trying to raise.

It’s a Port Townsend kind of end: not flashy or dramatic, but it is powerful and meaningful, everything is a little different in a subtle, but important, way.

Upcoming Classes: Never Be Boring, Advanced Personal Essay, Fiction III

Rule #1: Never Be Boring (There are No other rules) — at Hugo House (feb 2019)

There is no rule to writing great fiction and creative nonfiction except to “never be boring.” Also, please try not to be confusing or vague about important information. We’ll focus on compelling openings of stories, essays, memoirs, and novels through a combination of discussion, reading, and workshop.

More info HERE.

Advanced Personal Essay: Finding a Way Through — online class through Creative Nonfiction (April-June 2019)

“If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene.” - Hilary Mantel

Transforming actual people and events into characters and plot elements in an essay can be disorienting, but this is how we turn what would otherwise be journal entries—written for the author’s benefit—into literature, which exists for the benefit of readers.

This class is designed for those who have already explored the basics of personal writing and wish to explore specific techniques for turning a personal anecdote into a publishable essay.

Specifically, you will look at some typical structures of the personal essay, and how those formats help authors avoid common pitfalls of the form, such as getting lost in a giant pile of information and/or coming off as solipsistic/maudlin.

More info HERE.

Fiction III at Hugo House — online class through Hugo House (May-June 2019)

This class will build upon craft learned in Fiction I and II. Students can expect advanced readings, regular workshops, and feedback from their classmates and instructor. This course takes place online through our partners at Wet Ink, and classes can be done at your own pace throughout the week.

Register HERE

Is Your Book Doing Improv?

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader."

-Robert Frost

There is, generally speaking, no "correct" way to outline, and no correct amount to outline. But it's a question we all wrestle with, and you’d be wise to formulate a plan, one way or another.

Some authors, like Lee Child, generally have no outline whatsoever. They sit down to write a book without knowing what’s going to happen. At the other end of the spectrum is someone like the mystery writer Elizabeth George, who prepares meticulously with hundreds of pages of notes on characters and the crimes at the story’s center, and the approximate shape of the book.

Hollywood films, likewise, are remarkably tightly structured narratives. This is why biopics are so often rife with exaggerations and distortions, elided details, combined characters, and so on: reality never really conforms neatly to the very precise structure that a Hollywood narrative requires. The first plot point at page 27, the mid-act turning point, etc. Life isn't like that. So the "true" story in Hollywood’s hands is always, it turns, only vaguely true.

As writers of books we, fortunately or not, don't have to obey such strict narrative laws. We get to play and improvise, to follow our story blindly … to some extent. 

Like many writers, the thing I love about writing is the joy of writing something unexpected and shockingly alive (shocking to myself, first and foremost). As Lorrie Moore said in her second-person short story "How To Become A Writer": "The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen." That’s what keeps me writing, basically.

Or, as Joan Didion put it: “I don't know what I think until I write it down.” The process of writing is a process of discovery. 

Often, when writing dialogue, I’m delighted and totally surprised by what the characters are saying. They’re more witty and interesting than I am. This is the only magic I really know in the world — that what happens on the page is almost literally beyond my capacity. 

The heat in the story comes from the heat within you, the excitement and the unknown. 

When I follow a strict outline, that heat can be impaired. Because I’m filling in blanks, not improvising. And while the structure I imagine in the abstract might be interesting and a good story, somehow it fails to achieve the excitement and energy of that improvisation. 

But if I ONLY improvise, and have no plan—then I'm in really big trouble. It’s fine for a short story, perhaps, but if a piece becomes longer than 30 pages I can no longer “see” both sides of the piece at once. I can’t remember the text outside of what I have recently been working on, to be precise.

Writing a book is like creating an enormous painting, 50 feet tall, and equally wide, and you can’t ever get more than two feet away from the canvas. And you have a small paint brush. How are you supposed to work on the overall composition? It’s almost impossible without some kind of map to guide you, and the outline is that map.

There are many templates to choose from. You can imitate the structure of a book you like, or you can go with a more archetypal structure (a Faust story, or a “man comes to town” story, or a “rags to riches” story — more on these structures later). Some people call this approach “scaffolding” (e.g. Zadie Smith), and others call it “structure,” there are a million ways to talk about what we’re talking about, but it’s really the big plan that you’re following.

In any case, all of these templates or scaffoldings or structures are helpful with longer texts like novels, but they don’t guarantee that the book will be good. As a consultant I help authors develop a sensible plan and also accept the limitations of that plan. We’re trying to find a way to be both forward thinking, and alive to the moment, and present with the story in front of us today.