Blame my lateness this morning on the Superbowl -- and I didn’t even watch it. But after writing late at night while keeping an ear open for the grandkids I was babysitting, the computer ate my post. Really. Stay tuned anyway, for the conclusion to last Monday’s discussion of a recent Dallas Writer’s Garret workshop with University of Alabama professor Michael Martone.
His portion of the two-part workshop introduced us participants to a method of critiquing writing new to most of us -- the cross-section approach. While the classic American (actually University of Iowa) writing critique looks at writing samples, one after another. The cross-section looks at a small portion of the whole array of writing brought to the group, for instance, all the titles, then all first lines, all first paragraphs, and so on.
Because this method was so unfamiliar to what we’d used previously, Writer’s Garret co-founder Thea Temple held a followup session last Saturday to explore its implications further. I’ll insert comments from that session as I finish this post about Martone’s method.
After looking at the layout of our pages, Martone launched a discussion of titles and their importance, urging us prose writers to think of titles as short poems rather than prose in themselves. The prose, whether essay, memoir or fiction, then becomes, he said, “a commentary on the piece of poetry that is the title.”
In Temple’s session, we looked at our array of titles, searching for those that invited further reading. The hardest part, as at each step of the cross-section critique, was to prevent ourselves from launching into discussion of the rest of the piece. What intrigued us most? Titles that worked against our expectations, that implied a reversal of expectations, as in the title of memoir, “Raising My Father.” We found ourselves wanting titles capable of tying a story together, without being heavy handed. Perhaps Martone would have said, we wanted poetic titles.
Martone next discussed first sentences. “Another thing that the title does is pivot to the first line,“ he said. “It’s almost like a virus. You want it to infect the readers.”
But how fast should the infection spread? In Temple’s session, we found ourselves facing the difference in pace between first sentences of short stories and those of book length works, whether novels or narrative nonfiction such as memoirs. The opening sentence of a long work may need to develop enough sympathy for a character to propel readers through the level of conflict involved in a novel-length plot. The first sentence of a short story, in contrast, often must be an immediate conflict.
Because several of the participants were writing memoirs, Martone concluded his
workshop with a discussion of plot structure, particularly its effect on nonfiction works. To be a story in most senses, the main character’s initial state of being -- her ground state -- must change through the course of the work, ending on a significantly different ground.
A fiction writer can isolate a train of events that will produce this change. But how can a memoir writer, still immersed in her own evolving life, determine when she has achieved a different state of being?
“In memoir, one of the strategies is to draw a kind of ‘fake’ parentheses around the life,” Martone said. This is often done by limiting the memoir to a particular period or event in the writer’s life, such as a memoir of childhood. His parting caution -- “You start a story with a coincidence, but you can’t end a story with a coincidence.” Memoirists beware -- the conclusion you draw must be your own.
(Robin Hemley asked us to bring a family photograph and a series of small objects to his half of the workshop. Next Monday, I’ll tell you what we did with them.)