One Story Workshop Day 4: Book Love

book-heart-valentineDay four of One Story’s writing workshop continued in NYC’s epic heat wave. But the stifling weather did nothing to deter our writers from braving the sweltering city streets to reach that wondrous air-conditioned haven of creativity, the Center for Fiction.

After an assorted pastry breakfast, the writers divided into their workshop groups, led by Will Allison and Marie-Helene Bertino. After the morning workshops, our writers enjoyed fresh pizza and San Pellegrino (because here at One Story we know that before there can be good writing, there of course must be good food). After lunch everyone gathered on the Proust Floor for a lecture given by novelist Myla Goldberg on Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact.

Myla wasted no time in telling us that all fiction requires research of some kind, whether it be personal or general. She told us that while in non-fiction your research forms the “bedrock” of your writing, in fiction it becomes the “springboard” for your imagination. Myla said that as a fiction writer, you must research with an open-mind and always be prepared to be surprised by what you find.

She turned to an essay by Jim Shepard to explain how fiction writers use historical and non-fictional material to enlarge their contact with the world. Writers are often encouraged to write what they know, but when what they know isn’t enough, drawing from non-fiction and historical material expands what Shepard calls, “the ground,” of their work. The project of literature depends on the writer’s capacity for empathetic imagination, which allows them to get a sense of why characters do what they do, by using their imagination. We are writing from our lives, but not necessarily about our lives, and so as writers we must respect the facts while taking advantage of our imaginations, to mold them into something aesthetically beautiful.

Myla described her methods of researching both setting and character. When investigating a place, Myla suggested that that it was best to visit a couple of different times and in a couple of different ways. On the first visit simply experience and explore. Get a feel for the place without trying to write anything down. On the second visit take notes. On the third visit: take pictures.

When conducting character investigations Myla said that one of the best methods is to interview people, since everyone loves talking about themselves. On this subject, she had a great deal of advice. For instance, never take notes, but always record the interview. When you take notes you remove yourself from the other person and thus miss out on the emotion, nuance and tone they are giving off. Let them know that the interview is for general knowledge and that they will not be a character in your work. Be prepared to respond naturally to them and use the opportunity to get a feel for the person, and thus the character you are trying to create.

Myla also encouraged us to investigate as an observer, using eavesdropping as a way of gaining access to peoples’ lives. She told us of how she used this method when conducting investigative character research for her first published novel Bee Season. She told us that we can conduct character investigation as a participant as well as an observer, and then relayed how she joined a Hari Krishna Temple in Brooklyn under a false name in order to research the place and the people.

Following Myla’s craft lecture, One Story hosted a panel of representatives from different MFA programs: Alexandra Soieth (Sarah Lawrence), Eliza Hornig (Brooklyn College), Camille Rankine (Manhattanville), and Perrin Drumm (Vermont College). When is the best time to get an MFA? Don’t go right after college–go when you know for sure that’s what you want to do, when you’re ready to take the next step in your writing, and can make the best financial decision, so that you don’t put yourself into debt. What’s most important about an application? The work sample. Make sure you send your best possible work, and be sure to have other people read it first to give suggestions and catch mistakes. How do you choose which MFA program to go to? Do your research, make sure there are writers at the program you want to work with, make sure the time commitment is something you can do, check to see what financial assistance they can give you, and be sure to visit the school. What do MFA directors look for? Writing that feels alive on the page, that makes them sit up and take notice.

In the evening, we hosted One Story author Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the prize winning collection of stories Battleborn. Claire read a selection from her book, then had a conversation with One Story Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti, where they discussed how to handle violence in fiction, what books to read while working on a novel, how to go back and repeat certain objects or themes in work in order to create texture and depth, and the editorial work they did on Claire’s One Story issue, “Man-O-War.” Claire also talked about the Mojave School, the project she began with her fiancé Derek Palacio, which hopes to bring free writing classes to rural teenagers. Their first session will begin shortly in Nevada, and One Story has donated subscriptions and issues of One Teen Story for the students. Hannah and Claire ended by talking about the importance of giving back to the literary community, whether through projects like the Mojave school, or running non-profit literary journals like One Story. No one decides to become a writer because of the money, Hannah said. We do it for the love.