Category Archives: Writing classes
Margaret Atwood Teaches Me to Write
After a month of life chaos, I just opened the best Christmas present ever. I was finally able to start an online master class in writing taught by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of the very few authors whose books I do not keep on my fiction bookshelves in alphabetical order. She lives on the special shelves where I keep the books I would like to be buried with.
Each lesson is a video of Atwood, introduced by screen shots of what I take to be her working journals. They don’t show text. Primitive doodles express her wonderfully strange mind. The bottom half of a large bird dangles a small child from its talons. A woman, shaped like a Moomin without the nose, hugs an armless man. Three figures are shown from the waist down: left: a skirt with stick legs; right, trousered legs; center, a naked female. A scrap of writing reads, “the day her mother said to her – etc.”
Atwood lectures from her own working space. “Space” may be the wrong word. There is hardly an open inch. Bookshelves line the walls, of course, with bags and boxes of books piled in front of them. The desk is a rolltop with full pigeonholes and clutter all over its surface, including several journals. The walls are solid with pictures. Best of all, every flat space is covered with objects. There are dolls, some of which seem to cry out for a voodoo hat pin. A large silver crab is in mid-scuttle across a table. The lamp is skirted in long crystal beads. Little boxes, toys, sculpture abound.
Atwood grew up deep in the Canadian wilderness in a cabin without electricity or running water, but with plenty of books. She saw town only in the winter when the family retreated there to wait for spring. “Other children might be afraid of being lost in the woods,” she says. “I was afraid of flush toilets. What was going on there? Why did things just – vanish?”
In high school, she set up a business doing puppet shows at birthday parties for five-year-olds. The plots were taken from fairy tales: The Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel. Atwood’s take on her business success: the stories were “about those things that are dear to the hearts of five-year-olds, namely, cannibalism.”
Atwood’s method is to write by hand, then transcribe while she continues writing. She calls herself a “downhill skier,” trying to write quickly and then go back and “re-vision.” She complains that literature classes imply “a container, the work of art, and inside it are these ‘ideas,’ like prizes in a Cracker Jack box.” This is not, she says, how writers write. Some of her books have begun not even from an imagined character or scene, but simply from an object.
I’ve viewed only three of the 23 lessons so far, but I knew Atwood and I were on the same page when she advised reading all the myths, folktales and fairy tales you can lay hands on – then subvert them all. She cites the Disney movie Maleficent, where Sleeping Beauty’s prince proves a “dud,” and the villain is redeemed, and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, where Chekov’s gun meets existential frustration.
The course workbook is chock full of exercises, web sites and sources of writing prompts. I’ve barely started on them, but the exercise that Atwood explains in the first video is worth the price of admission. If you are having trouble getting started, she says, you are afraid of something. Pick up a pen and write down your fears. Her examples of possible fears and their solutions:
You’re afraid your work will be lousy? The wastepaper basket is your friend. Write till it’s better.
You’re afraid your mother will find out? That’s what pen names are for.
You’re afraid people will laugh at you? You don’t have to show anyone anything until you want to.
To fight one’s fears, Atwood suggests coming up with an imaginary mentor, 100% on your side, to stand by you with help and encouragement. A writer you admire, perhaps. Who would you like for your imaginary mentor?
Duh! How about Margaret Atwood?
You know how the writing mavens warn you against letting yourself get carried away by your research? Against noodling around in depth upon depth of interesting stuff instead of turning out text? Today we consider how much fun you can have if you ignore them.
At present, I’m plotting a mystery that will involve a rare books library and its collection of illuminated manuscripts. My first and most valuable co-conspirator is that deeply respectable institution, the British Library. Their daily Medieval Manuscripts blog greets my every morning with some new twist on their very old theme. The BL is digitizing its collection, so you can burrow down to find what interests you or browse just for fun.
This phoenix was on display at the BL’s recent exhibition “Harry Potter: A History of Magic,” which brought together texts and museum objects that Harry himself might have used to pursue a wizardly education. It comes from a bestiary that might have been the text for Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class. (The exhibition sold out long in advance for every single day, a first for the Library.)
For facts and figures, and above all to avoid howlers, I’m studying Christopher de Hamel’s 2017 blockbuster, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts. (Okay, it may not have been on the bestseller lists. But it’s 632 pages long and weighs three pounds.) De Hamel is the former librarian of the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College at Cambridge, a treasure house of manuscripts.
De Hamel travelled the world to research this book, visiting twelve of the most important and most beautiful manuscripts in existence. The earliest dates to the late 500s, the latest to about 1515. Each essay combines his travels, accounts of each rare book library and its denizens, his musings on the manuscripts – including some new observations and deductions on the making and history of each – with multiple images of the illuminations, of their present homes and of the men and women who bought, sold and preserved them.
Chapter One concerns the Gospels of St. Augustine, owned by Corpus Christi itself. It is the oldest surviving Latin gospel book anywhere in the world. The saint in question is not the fourth-century Bishop of Hippo but the missionary who brought Roman Catholicism to England. The book’s readings of the text and its imagery served as exemplars for later and more elaborate gospel books down the centuries.
Its predecessors may be even more interesting: scholars suggest links between the style of its art and Ethiopia, a home of early Christian monasticism. That style of Ethiopian religious painting persists today.
De Hamel’s anecdotes are even more enticing than his scholarship. Here we see him in his librarian persona, dressed in full academic regalia, presenting the Gospels of St. Augustine for Pope Benedict’s veneration when he visited England. That’s Rowan Williams, the late Archbishop of Canterbury, on the left.
The Gospels of St. Augustine are also used during the enthronements of Archbishops of Canterbury, and at the last two such ceremonies, de Hamel again presented the book. He reports that in 2003, at the enthronement of Rowan Williams, at the first vibrating notes of the opening hymn, the parchment pages of the book rose and fluttered. He adds that the same did not occur for the current incumbent.
In the succeeding chapters, we meet, among others, the Book of Kells, the Copenhagen Psalter and the Visconti Semideus. Here are a few tidbits that may find their way, suitably transmuted, into my mystery:
De Hamel says he is often asked if the Book of Kells is like a Book of Hours. And if so, his questioners want to know, what is a kell? Such innocent ignorance pales beside the vandalism of one George Mullen, who “restored” the Book of Kells in the 1820s and saw fit to touch up the decorations with white paint, to “improve the definition.”
The Copenhagen Psalter, we learn, was probably created as a first reading book for a young prince. This purpose is demonstrated by a large, carefully drawn alphabet and a table of punctuation and abbreviations. Its illuminations are certainly royal. If manuscripts, de Hamel says, were accompanied by music, the Copenhagen Psalter would require trumpets and a church organ.
More endearing, though, are the marginalia, calculated to appeal to a child. One of them shows a cat playing a rebec, a sort of early fiddle. This image occurs in many illuminated manuscripts and harks back, de Hamel believes, to whatever tale or folk belief gave us “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle.” He adds that when a dinner guest of his own, a master of medieval music, arrived with a rebec, an experiment became possible. The musician played, and de Hamel’s cat “rushed in as if drawn by a magnet, rolling on the floor in ecstasy, as punch drunk as a dervish.”
The Semideus is a manual on warfare, presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, duke of Milan, in 1438. The violent subject matter was appropriate to the recipient, a warlord whose emblem was a blue viper devouring a child. Yet the pictures of tactical devastation are charming, washed with soft pastel colors and full of tiny, perfect detail. This battle scene is viewed from the opposing page by the Madonna and Child, beaming down on the carnage from the center of a sunburst (another Visconti emblem.)
The St. Petersburg National Library is the current home of the Semideus. When de Hamel arrived, he went through a near-Soviet experience of rigid and inexplicable bureaucracy interspersed with casual Russian friendliness. At last he settled down to inspect the precious manuscript. He was so immersed in his work that it was well past lunch time when he looked up. The Russian invigilator keeping watch over the reading room realized he had missed the meal – so she brought him a handful of whiskey-flavored chocolates to eat while he continued to handle the manuscript.
Could I put together my mystery plot with less information than this? Logic says yes. I say no. These winding little back alleys of fact are putting flesh on the bones of my story and slowly filling the memories (and the unconscious) of several of my characters. At any rate, the mavens can’t prove that I don’t need to do this. Until they can, I plan to enjoy myself.
Portrait of a Villain
Heidi here, reporting progress for once.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, in just a couple of hours, one highly structured writing exercise adorned my bare plot with complex characters, details of setting and multiple red herrings. Truly, it happened.
After pantsing my first novel, I swore I’d never go through that again. I was already using Scrivener, though not handily, so I bought Stephanie Draven’s Plot Your Book in a Month with Scrivener. Then came the miracle.
Draven starts you off on characters, and you have to do it her way. The exercise requires you to set up eight, count them, eight, separate folders under each character’s template. These are Vocation, Vulnerabilities, Strengths & talents, Flaws, Ideals, Beliefs that must change, Goals and Problems. For each, she demands of you five examples in your character’s make-up.
I started with my villain. He was due to commit a crime (art forgery) for money. Ho, hum! But pondering his vulnerabilities (by which Draven means innocent weak points, not the character’s fault), I discovered the motive behind the motive. His desire for money has its roots not in greed, but in resentment. The origins of this are familial, but over a lifetime it has added malice to his purely personal flaw of greed.
As this dynamic developed in my head, suddenly, from nowhere at all, a countervailing vulnerability popped up. My forger works in a precise and detailed genre – but he suffers from a longing to paint in the Impressionist style. He is not at all good at it. For reasons I won’t go into, this innocent commitment will betray him.
From his resentment and malice flowed a conviction that “Hell is other people.” To him, they are either obstacles or nuisances, though he is usually careful to conceal this. It hampers him in dealing with new people in new situations. At the same time, it causes him to be a loner and to be perceived by those he encounters as lonely, a sympathetic trait.
Spending time in the character’s mind brought me into his physical world as well. I felt rather than deduced that his natural pace is slow and his focus on details. As he is well up in years, this lifelong trait can come across to new acquaintances, incorrectly, as the slowing of physical and mental faculties with age, another sympathetic trait.
This perception of his physical traits, in turn, spilled over into the creation of another character, with whom he will be in conflict. She was always going to be more than a generation younger than he, but now she is also taller, robust where he is lanky, obtrusively energetic. He, in contrast, seems hardly fit for the pace of the 21st century.
And while I was thinking physically, another connection occurred: I want the setting of my books, northern New Hampshire, to be vivid to my readers, almost a character in the story. So my villain, thin and not robust, is always cold no matter where the thermostat is set.
Draven knew what she was doing when she put the vulnerabilities before the strengths. Once I had watched my villain develop layers of motivation, it became clear that his strengths would not all appear, or in fact be, villainous. His desire for distance from other people, along with the demands his professional associations, require him to have excellent manners. His extensive knowledge of his academic specialty is necessary for his crime – but it also garners deserved respect from his colleagues and gratitude from the few outstanding students whose careers he promotes. (They, in turn, can be put to good use in his nefarious schemes.) It will also, I hope, form an additional thread of interest to readers.)
The whole exercise was so inspiring that it was hard to keep the categories separate even on the first run-through. Vulnerabilities suffered through no fault of one’s own blossomed into flaws via unfortunate methods of coping. Strengths quickly became ideals – because our own good points are always the really important virtues, aren’t they? Initial problems bred solutions that became complications of a straightforward criminal enterprise.
So thank you, Ms. Draven. If this thing ever sees print, a fulsomely autographed copy will be yours.
P.S. I have to say, the “one month” thing isn’t working out. Each new exercise takes me days to think through and tinker with. However, if you’re a wo/man of steel, and don’t eat or sleep much, maybe you could manage it.
How To Do Thumbsucking Properly
I was doubtful when my TNW colleague Mike Horton recommended that I take an online writing class with Onestory.com. This online literary magazine publishes just one short story per issue, but it also runs writing seminars. In the end, I decided to sign up, on the grounds that any outfit that could help Mike Horton to write better would have no trouble at all moving me up a step or twenty.
I’m an old fart, I admit it, and I hate computers. Participating in the course meant using something called PowerSchool Learning, a program like the online Blackboard now used in colleges. I don’t understand that either. In fact, I was given my own personal assistant at the Blackboard training session when my curses began to be audible to the group. The geek kept piously telling me that I didn’t need to have anything explained in advance; “it’s intuitive.” Yeah? Well, the PowerSchool Learning Welcome page ends with, “Good luck!”
But lo and behold! I could do it. What’s more, I figured out what it is about living in cyberspace that makes me nervous. It turned out to be exactly the problem I need to surmount in order to write the book I’m stuck on.
The first web page that came up was an essay by the teacher (Hannah Tinti, whose novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was the text for the course.) Within it were links to books and articles elsewhere online. Those pages sent you to other pages, with more links, to pages with more links.
To use again a quotation I overuse: Ceci ne pas un manuel scolaire. The “textbook” for this course is not one you can finish, because it’s a meta-text. The internet is like the universe: finite but unbounded. If a particular chain of links peters out, another will ultimately be found to circle around behind the dead end and bring you to every- and anything else. It’s all experimentation and openness. That’s why the internet makes me so uncomfortable. How do you know if you got the right answer?
There isn’t one, of course, if what you are doing is writing a novel.
That’s why I found the first of the three sessions, “Beginnings” so inspiring. Tinti sent us to an account of Lynda Barry’s book on how to stimulate creativity, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Barry is a visual artist. Her book is based on a class she taught, “The Unthinkable Mind — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing.”
I thought, “I don’t have time for this. Too much.” Wrong. Barry wants us to journal, but not to write reams of deep reflection. Her template journal page looks like this:
Just be there, so that you actually notice what you are doing, seeing and hearing. Then, no matter how crude your doodles, let your own interpretation of some part thereof appear on the page.
Tinti insists that just this kind of focus on individual things, events, and memories, along with a determination to bring just one such item to vivid life in a single scene, can bring a book into being. With examples from her novel, she convinced me she was right. For once, an author answered, clearly and in detail, that tired old panel question, Tell us about your process.
But best of all, Tinti doesn’t claim that it’s easy if you just use some technique. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley took Tinti seven years to write – hooray! Answering a student’s question on her experience of writing the book, she began, “A few years in,…” Also, she had a proposal I really liked:
I feel like there should be a secret signal for any writer who has worked on a book for more than five years. Then, whenever someone corners us at a party and asks how the writing is going, we can salute each other silently from across the room.
Suggestions for the signal, readers? I vote for thumbsucking.
Now I’m ready to move on to Lesson Two on dogging one’s way through the middle, with “research” thrown in. I’ll get back to you on how that goes.