Things I learned from the Iowa Writing Project: Power of the Pen (Part 1)

This past summer I participated in a MOOC with the The Iowa Writing Project.

The experience was truly wonderful. Picture yourself: writing everyday, giving and receiving thoughtful feedback, reading examples of outstanding writing, watching videos of world class writers who are also guest instructors, and interacting with people from all over the world who are as intrigued as you are about understanding writing techniques and how they make the writing you love, lovely.

The full title of the class was: The Power of The Pen,Writing Identities and Social Issues in Fiction and Nonfiction. This means that the craft of writing was woven into a context of hyper awareness of who we are as writers and as human beings. But also who we seem to be, or think we are, and how others see us and how we see others. We extended these ideas to our characters as well — who are the characters in our stories? How did they get that way and how do we see who they are as they interact within the settings we create for them and the other characters we make up (for us fiction writers) and the situations we place them in?

We also pondered this big question: Who gets to write about what? And if you write about someone who is not like you, what right do you have to presume you know what it is like for them? How do you write about others well? How do you have your characters walk around in worlds you create and bump up against social issues and be changed by them? How do you do all of this without preaching or becoming maudlin, or creating stereotypes and cliches?

As an emerging writer, my mind was blown. And, as an emerging writer, I learned so much, primarily because I have so much to learn. Here are five things I’ll share now. I’ll share more in subsequent articles:

Five Things:

  1. Emblematic moments in life, those small and personal moments, that also encompass the human condition in some way, lead to both character and plot transformation (for an example, read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story, “Nobody’s Business”). In other words character transformation and plot turn together.
  2. Changes in your character will always involve other characters — the people and animals and other beings and things you place in their path.
  3. Changes in your characters will come out of stuff happening to them and to the other characters around them.
  4. Emblematic moments in your character’s world create disorienting dilemmas and put other things into motion. An example I can think of is Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge, when a white woman wearing a hat she thinks is special, sees a black woman on the bus wearing the same hat. When you write scenes for your characters, build in small moments that signal larger experiences.
  5. Some writers say they are “plotters” and others say they are “pantsers” (they go by the seat of their pants, following where the character leads them). What might be closer to the truth is that plot and character need to turn together, one influencing the other, putting things into motion, casting previous acts in a new light.

Thats all for now. Back to writing!


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