What did I learn at Clarion West [6]: The lifelong workshop

Part of the Clarion West 2014 Write-a-thon series.
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My final essay is about the most important and career-changing thing that I learned at Clarion West: how to approach my own work from the meta direction. This lesson is still working for me today. It’s what allowed me to read a book like Save the Cat! and use it to improve the structure of my novel in progress, or how to get a series of really excellent editorial critiques from Anne Mini and improve every sentence I’ve written since then. (Not to mention that I finally figured out how to write a novel synopsis.)

I learned how to learn.

During the workshop, you write five stories, but you critique nearly a hundred. Most of your time is taken up reading and critiquing the stories of others, and listening to other people critique the stories of others. Even if you’ve been in a critique group, and even if it was a group that followed the Clarion method, you have — prior to Clarion West — probably never been in a critique group that met every weekday for six weeks, critiqued 4 or 5 stories every single time, and was led by an instructor.

What are you doing, with all that critiquing? Obviously, each person will have a a unique individual approach to the process of reading a story and then providing a critique for it. But by engaging in that approach over and over, and expanding and refining it based on cues from your instructors and classmates, you are learning what that process can be for you. You’re learning how to critique your own stories — to take a more removed, abstract, analytical view — step back a bit, squint, and look at your work how other people will see it.

This helps you in all future critique groups, obviously. You will give better input yourself, and will have a much better idea about how to respond to the input of others. But it also helps you respond to editors. You’re less likely to get editorial feedback (Make it starker. More like Kafka) and throw up your hands in despair, wondering “what the heck does THAT mean?”

Prior to Clarion West I had been to a number of workshops and critique groups, but nothing had really clicked yet. I could get feedback and maybe improve a story, but most of my writing remained in that “trick I had done without really understanding how I did it” category. I had been reading stories for pretty much my entire living memory, so I had an intuitive sense for how they went together. I had analyzed hundreds from an English Lit perspective, which both helped and hurt my cause. I had attempted many stories and even succeeded a few times. But there was something I still wasn’t getting — the full sense of how to create a story as a deliberately crafted item.

Humans engage in art instinctively. We want to make a pot to hold water, because we think that would be a handy thing to have, but we also make the pot beautiful because, hey, once you’re going to the trouble of making a pot, you might as well paint a bunch of abstract designs or people dancing or flowers on the outside of it, right? We make clothes for our physical comfort and protection, but then we invent fashion, which frequently works against our comfort and protection. We cook and prepare food to make it easier to eat and store, and invent cuisine. We sing and dance — uh, because we want to, I guess. And we tell stories because that’s how we think. Narrative is how we form a sense of ourselves as a coherent self existing in a coherent environment.

Storytelling is so basic to our thought process that figuring out how it’s done can be as obscure as trying to figure out which muscles we use to walk upright. Fictional storytelling — you know, making stuff up as opposed to spinning a nice little yarn about how you totally did not deserve that parking ticket and the cop was just being mean — has always had an element of the mysterious to it. Even the people who do the imagining, the storytellers, are frequently baffled about how the whole thing works and why we do it, anyway. We blame the gods and the spirits, imbue it with magic, get wildly philosophical. Neil Gaiman has a particularly strong recurring theme of gods, magic, and stories being basically the same thing. I just watched The Book of Mormon, which gleefully mocks all religion, Mormonism in particular, for being a bunch of objectively ridiculous bizarre random made-up stuff — and yet, in the end, is a celebration of the power of belief on the human heart.

There is something ineffable about storytelling. I can’t fully explain what makes a particular story seem worth telling. I can’t pinpoint how suspension of disbelief works. I can’t tell you exactly what makes some characters become powerful icons who live beyond whatever story originally spawned them.

But I can tell you that if you’re reading a book — or watching a movie — that started out well, but now you’re feeling kinda bogged down, it’s often because the midpoint story turn is late in coming, or didn’t have much impact, or didn’t happen at all. (Save the Cat!) I can tell you that any time you’re writing a scene, and a character’s line is something like “yeah, let’s do that,” or “good, thanks,” then you really have to go back and figure out what the conflict is, and rewrite the scene, because there is never any reason to have dialog like that in your story. Ever. (Writing the Breakout Novel, The Fire in Fiction, Anne Mini) I can tell you about the Chekhov’s Gun Rule. Do you know that one?

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Essentially what that means, is that if either the story or the characters make a big deal about something early on, it had better be relevant later. I also believe in a reverse Chekhov’s Gun Rule, which holds that if something is essential to the climax of the story, you had better set it up prior to that. You don’t want people pulling out a gun we’ve never seen before to shoot the antagonist, because that is not at all a satisfying story resolution.

(For entertaining examples of how to set up, and effectively fire, many Chekhovian guns, see the Cornetto Trilogy: Shaun of the Dead; Hot Fuzz; The World’s End.)

I learned how to see through a story — how to see new layers in it. English Lit classes had already taught me to see layers of meaning, but Clarion West taught me to see layers of construction, to see the skeleton through the skin. What do people really mean when they say they can’t relate to a character? When they tell you they find a scene confusing? When they can’t get into a story at all? When they want “more” but don’t actually want the story to be any longer? When they think the “tone” is wrong? And what can you do about any of that?

I sometimes talk to people who are wary of going through something like Clarion West, because they are afraid that learning to grind stories down and reduce them to their component parts and study how they’re put together will destroy the magic. They’re worried they’ll stop enjoying the art form because they’ll become to analytical about it. But I don’t see it that way. Do great chefs still like to eat? Of course they do. And a lot of the time they still like to eat a grilled cheese sandwich.