Fiction Workshop: The Short Story
Again and again something in one’s own life, or in the life around one,
will seem so important that one cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion.
There must never come a time, the writer feels, that people do not know about this.
—Shikibu Murasaki, The Tale of Genji
Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this [writing] is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality: this writing weakens the work.
You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. . . .
You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now.
—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
This class is designed to teach beginning and intermediate fiction writers the fundamentals of craft and give them an opportunity to get incisive feedback on their work. To these ends, the class talks every day about some vital aspect of writing fiction based on both reading and students’ individual writing, including: first sentences; the donnée (“that which is given”); setting; structure—including rising action and climax and denouement; scenes; exposition vs. dramatization; description; character—especially honesty (“who we are in the dark”); point-of-view; the narrator-character; the ogues (dialogue, indirect dialogue, and interior monologue); tone and style; theme-mongering; and, of greatest importance, the stout stake of emotion (a la Henry James). Students respond to each other's work, out loud, at every workshop session, and since no writer can produce a publishable piece the first time around, they revise their stories, honing skills.
This particular workshop is focused on the form of the short story: a unique vehicle for storytelling and memory-making. The short story has affinities with the one-act play, the lyric poem, the essay, and the TV show—genres that are meant to move, to arrest, to enrapture, and/or to provoke their audiences in a single reading or viewing. As Edgar Allan Poe wrote in his “Philosophy of Composition”: “If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed.” A short story, then, is a totality. It is a whole world, distilled.
Moreover, the short story is a flexible genre—able to contain multitudes. In this course, students study traditional short stories of the Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor type, but they also delve into that oxymoron the long short story as well as the microfiction, proems, foodie fictions, and po-mo approaches to storytelling. Inspiration comes from master storytellers: oldies but goodies such as Poe and Hemingway, yes, but also modern maestros including Melanie Rae Thon, Ursula K. LeGuin, Joyce Carol Oates, Lee K. Abbott, Toni Morrison, and Stephen King.
Note, however, that this course isn’t a literature seminar; it is a workshop, a craftspace where students will smith words. Thus, in addition to studying models, students also respond to each other’s work, out loud, at almost every workshop session. And since no writer can produce a publishable piece the first time around, every writer will revise three of his or her five stories for a final portfolio. What I expect most of all from the workshop is hard work on the part of the writer, careful reading and discussion on the part of the class—lively, appropriate, forthright, and indefatigable.
Download a sample assignment from Fiction Workshop: The Short Story (PDF):