I’m finishing up a week-long class with Steve Almond at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Steve is a tremendous teacher, remarkable for his passion, attention to detail, and emotional generosity toward a story’s characters–which I say partly because I’ve encouraged him to check out my blog, mostly because it’s true.
Here are the two core lessons I’ve taken from him (followed by a third bullet I’ll explain when I get there):
- At the heart of any good story must beat a certain love for your characters, which he defines as sustained attention. It is the willingness to stick with them–moment by moment, observing, wondering, hoping–through the most difficult times. It is the refusal to adopt a safe distance from them–the safe distance afforded by amusement, irony, disdain, easy judgment. It is learning to love your characters enough to get them into trouble, and to see them through it. Loving them even, especially, when they behave badly.
- As we set out on a story, the writer is in the grip of two powerful, opposite, twined impulses. One is the urge to tell the story: something fascinates, troubles, entices, repels the writer. The other is the urge, once the story enters terrain that is difficult or uncomfortable–which is to say, when the story becomes interesting and worth telling–to avoid telling precisely that story: to skirt the difficult with evasion, vagueness, easy answers. Thus a writer’s early drafts, the language itself, will often run hot & cold: hot when the initial impulse flows freely and without self-consciousness; cold when calculation, evasion and self-awareness creep in.
- This third point is something Steve touches on, but is more uniquely the territory of Charles D’Ambrosio, who also teaches at Tin House. D’Ambrosio says, in so many words, that the hot & cold nature of a writer’s early drafts is not only unavoidable, but necessary and good. It is the writer’s conflicted relationship with his or her own material–and then her willingness to engage that inner conflict, to wade deeply and messily into the muck of it–that in large part lends the story its urgency. The friction of the writer pushing against his own resistance, like a saw cutting through wood, is what generates the story’s heat.
Steve Almond is the author of the story collections The Evil B.B. Chow and My Life in Heavy Metal; the memoir Candyfreak; with Julianna Baggott, the novel And This Brings Me to You; and his most recent, Not That You Asked, a collection of essays. Get them at your local independent bookstore or online at Powell’s.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of the story collections The Dead Fish Museum and The Point; and of Orphans, a collection of essays. Ditto: bookstore, or Powell’s.