Notes from Workshop #9

Chuck Palahniuk’s writing workshop in Portland 2022 summer.

The group workshopped my piece on the car accident, a chapter that comes early in my novel. It is my attempt to recreate the moment teenage Grace’s life changes. Among the comments I received, I noted the following: people didn’t like the fact that I put the critical information in dialogue. As Chuck often says, “Go on the body” meaning – provide that information in the form of physical experience. Show Grace hearing the sound of her pelvis breaking inside her own body, rather than having the doctor tell us. Chuck also said I resolved too much in this story. He said, “Never use dialogue to further the plot!” He also said, “Milk the tension.”

At first, I didn’t quite understand what Chuck meant but I read the Amy Hempel story he recommended – The Harvest. Oh Wow. Hempel’s short story is fantastic. Her story is also about a teenage girl in a car accident but told in the first person POV. Her line: “I knew there was pain in the room — I just didn’t know whose pain it was.” is wonderful. It shows the disorientation of the girl who is severely injured. Hempel skillfully layers in so much in this short story — the teenage girl’s “man of the week”, her lawyer defining “marriageablility” and the connection between trauma and telling stories. Interestingly all issues that I want to include in my novel.

After reading that fantastic story, I decided I needed to learn more about Amy Hempel. In this video clip I found, Leaf by Leaf does a wonderful job of not only analyzing one of Hempel’s flash fiction stories, but also explaining a concept that has eluded me thus far – minimalism. There’s a nice shout out in here to Chuck’s book Consider This.

Analyzing “IN A TUB” by Amy Hempel

I’ll probably try to listen to more of Leaf by Leaf’s analysis of stories to get another perspective on how stories are put together. I also wanted to get Hempel’s own take on writing stories. This is a good short video: Hempel explains in A Conversation on Writing With Amy Hempel

Hempel explains in A Conversation on Writing With Amy Hempel that she’s interested in how a story is told, rather than the story itself. She wants to know how the writer’s mind works. A story should allow the reader to experience what a particular character does to try to deal with a specific predicament. Hempel does a wonderful job of making each word, each sentence pack so much emotional and psychological baggage.

And she starts each story with a great title. A carefully crafted title that can have multiple meansings. In the case of The Harvest, that title implies what the narrator gleans from this experience. The fruits of toiling and planting. But it also hints at what often happens after a car accident. The harvesting of organs. And that concept also appears in my novel, although in a very different context. I’d love to be able to give readers that same joy of going on a treasure hunt. Hearing the echo of a word, an object, an idea throughout a story or book.

All these revelations have given me much food for thought. So I’ve been considering how to weave all these ideas into my writing. Wish me luck.

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