Tuesday, February 26, 2013

A Functional Guide to the Use of Tools in Fiction

Until you were well along your way as a writing teacher and workshop leader and as a book and magazine editor, you'd never heard of much less considered engaging in the practice known as prompts.

When you were first asked by a potential student if you gave prompts, you had no idea what she was talking about.  When you investigated, then discovered what prompts meant, you had no words or concepts with which to display your sense of utter amazement that someone who wished to write should need a prompt.

Later, in the kind of workshop you'll talk about in a few moments, you encountered a participant who read something that had a strange, unearthly quality to it, a quality that at the time caused you to remember the old Frankenstein's monster motion pictures in which the fine actor, Boris Karloff, portrayed the monster, cobbled together from a myriad of human corpses, then energized to life by a process much on the order of electric shock therapy.

After the student finished reading the piece, she announced that the work had been an exercise for her writing group, then went on to explain what the four or five prompt or trigger words were, so that you and the other students in the audience could see how deft her braiding in the prompt words and concepts were.  She also revealed that, somehow, this particular piece had somehow resulted in her being awarded a scholarship to this writers' conference, and wasn't that almost as good as being published.

At this point, you understood how you felt:  flabbergasted

To make matters more complicated yet, some years later, at the same writers' conference, you became attracted to a student to the point of entering a romantic relationship with her.  She, too, it seemed, had won a scholarship to the conference,  She, too, belonged to a writer's group, which made their weekly meeting a platform for prompts, which the group members would write, then read to one another, then save with the notion that when they had enough narratives to make a book of approximately three hundred printed pages, they would have no difficulty finding a publisher who would be only too happy to publish the work.

Instead of being confrontive about the notion that writing from prompts seemed to you a literary equivalent of the Frankenstein's monster, you invited your friend to a workshop you co-chaired with a longtime friend, Leonard Tourney, wherein many of the regulars were publishing with some regularity or close to it.  Your thoughts centered on the belief that this atmosphere would suggest to your friend that writing from prompts inevitably produced results that sounded as though they'd been written from prompts.

In all fairness, your friend adapted well to the group, producing one or two ventures close to the level of publishable quality, although her frequent complaint about "writing your way," the your given heavy emphasis, was too confrontive and conflict based.  She did not  like conflict.


But, you protested, fiction is based on conflict.  In fact, conflict is the armature about which conflict is wound.

She spoke to you at length of her belief that your vision of fiction was different from hers.

As it should be, you countered.  Fiction is a matter of an individual voice and approach.

All the while, she was attending meetings of her original writing group, calling from time to time to inform you of how a certain session was enlivened by a combination of fortuitous prompts.  She used that term--fortuitous prompts--a number of times, to the point where you asked her if, in fact, her definition of fiction was in fact a series of fortuitous prompts.

How unfortuitous you thought.  A person did not have to accept your vision of fiction, nevertheless, someone who wished to write fiction needed a personal vision of what story is and how it works in order to produce fiction that does not appear derivative of the fiction being produced by a writer who has established her own voice and vision.

This is all prologue to your regard for prompts as a means of generating narrative.  A great many of your previous entries in this years-long succession of blog essays attempts to clarify and define your own vision of story.  This prologue is essayed with the awareness that:

1. Musicians, when they are not in the act of performance or rehearsal for a performance, will run scales or exercises to keep their fingering or bowing or blowing or a combination of these at performance level.

2. Athletes will in their way exercise or train for performance with some daily combination of exercise and stamina work.

3. Dancers will in similar fashion exercise in order to move up to rehearsal for an actual performance.

4. Artists will sketch, paint, carve, draw.

5. Photographers will make exposures with certain goals in mind.

6. Actors, when not in rehearsal for a specific play, will practice diction or do the equivalent of exercise at workshops where they join brother and sister actors who are intent on keeping awareness and execution potential at a fine-tuned level.

Writers will do the equivalent of sketching, writing about characters or places or circumstances that intrigue them.  In the back of your mind, there was an awareness of something else they did, something you'd come across in the 1980s, during your earlier days running the late night fiction workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.

This very day, a friend asked you to comment on something he'd written from a series of prompts.  His argument for using prompts stopped you cold in your tracks.

In essence, he admitted he'd not have written what he had if he had not had the prompts as a framework.  The prompts were more or less of an assignment, which made him feel the obligation to write.

Once again, you find yourself on the opposite side of that divided highway.  You don't approach writing with the notion or desire to have found a way to get things down on paper or, to be more reductionist, to have written.  The process is alive before you, often frustrating but over the long term, made satisfying because of the calculus that writing is a means of getting emotional and visual information down in some form, at which point the scaffolding, drop cloths, and tools are moved to the side and the finished work or the near-finished work stands shining on the grass, a vehicle perhaps, waiting to be ridden or a pond, waiting to have fish set in it, or a tool, unlike any tool you'd ever seen before, waiting to be picked up by some character you'd also deposited there on the grass, eager to show you and anyone else who would care to listen what wonderful things could be made by using that tool, which was unlike any other.

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