April Writing Show Recap
Coloring Between the Lines: Using What You Know and Where You’re From in Fiction
by Kris Spisak, KS Writing

Surrounded by the Broadberry’s chic chandeliers, stomachs happy from a sumptuous spread, April’s Writing Show audience had a night to remember. Author and JRW advisory board chair Virginia Pye moderated the evening, introducing us to veteran novelists and professors Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown, who discussed mining one’s own geographical and personal history as a writer. 

Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” and that ‘slant’ was the night’s focus. Writing what you know doesn’t have to be telling the mundane stories of your life.  Applying real emotions and observations can add a greater level of depth to any tale, the panel told us. Amid stories of New Orleans apart from Mardi Gras and a small British town that decades later rose to the creative surface, we realized we were in the presence of remarkable literary talent.

In the words of Carrie Brown, “The emotional integrity of human experience is at the heart of what every writer is doing.” To that end, any place and any memory is defined by the perspective of the one seeing it—it’s true for our characters and for ourselves.

Gems of the evening included the lesson that cliché landmarks often take away from a story rather than give it a sense of place. John Gregory Brown recommended using a few unique telling details to establish setting more convincingly. Carrie Brown reminded the audience that strong writing constantly disturbs the equilibrium of the story. “Give your characters something to contend with. Repeatedly,” she advised.

By the end of the evening, everyone who was on the fence about signing up for this duo’s Master Class the next day was ready to take the plunge.

Master Class Recap
Learning to See: A Master Class for Writers on The Art and Practice of Looking
by Bruce Yoder

With sharply contrasting and complementary styles, Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown led “Learning to See: A Master Class for Writers on the Art and Practice of Looking,” held on April 25 at St. John’s Church Parish Hall, Richmond. The award-winning authors focused the attention of their Master Class participants on the power of the ephemeral moment when it is framed and “aestheticized.” Carrie’s presentation was built on the assertion that good stories “take the reader to a place before the beginning and after the end.”

Photographs, whether of individuals or landscapes, can do the same. Why is that woman holding a rabbit? What is she feeling? How did the rowboat come to rest among the reeds? Who will drag it to water where it can be rowed? What is the ineffable that has been framed and presented for our consideration?

Carrie punctuated her presentation with quotes from a host of writers who learned to listen to the “majestic silence.” This is the silence that arrests us when we are caught by a piece of visual art. From John Duns Scotus who coined the term haecceity in medieval philosophy to denote the discrete characteristics of a thing that make it a particular thing to Emily Dickinson who saw that “there’s a certain slant of light,” the case was made to stop and notice the sensory detail as well as the indescribable within a moment. When time is money and the senses are bombarded with thousands of messages and images, it takes discipline to stop the flow of life, be still and observe.

John’s animated and informal guidance built on Carrie’s more academic presentation. He shared with the class the images that he created using a cell phone and Instagram. His goal of taking 10,000 photographs as a way of learning to pay attention to the world became “a daily practice of devoted awareness” as he saw texture, light, power, shape with new eyes. Prior to prompting us to write, he scrolled through hundreds of images and offered memorable, seemingly off-hand, quotes:

“Writing slows things down so we can see something we would otherwise miss.”

 “Stories are about juxtaposition. Two oranges on a table are not a story. An orange and a pair of pliers is a story.” 

“Stories disturb the equilibrium.” “When we see in a new way, moments become calming, they have transforming presence – grace.”

The writing exercise at the conclusion of the class that seemed productive for both fiction and non-fiction writers was to begin a story based on three seemingly unrelated photos—two of people and one landscape. What connection does that woman holding the rabbit have to the man with the menacing stare and the rowboat in the marsh?

Class members agreed: it was worth slowing down long enough to discover the living story in the frozen moment.

 

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