Do-it-yourself writing course

I spent some time over the last couple of months looking for a writing course I could participate in. My challenges at the moment are two-fold – the hours I work are erratic, and I have relocated to a small town due to work. I am unable to commit to being anywhere at a scheduled time and place, and I don’t have the time to get to cities large enough to offer summer classes.

I looked into online options from the university where I took my two classes last year, but I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a course when there were weeks I wouldn’t be able to participate because my hours at work were overwhelming.

But! I have found a solution. I stumbled on a book called The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice LaPlante and it is wonderful. It’s a hefty tome, 600-odd pages long with a neon yellow cover. It’s a writing course in book form, and looks as though it could be the textbook for a university-level creative writing class. The chapters include “How Reliable is This Narrator: How point of view affects our understanding of a story”, “You Talking to Me?: Crafting effective dialogue”, “The Plot Thickens: Figuring out what happens next”, and so on.

Each chapter is divided into three parts. The first part is the textbook section, where Ms LaPlante takes the reader through the subject at hand. The second part includes exercises, with samples of responses from Ms LaPlante’s previous students. And the third section includes selected readings to illustrate the points made in the chapter, with questions afterward to help direct the reader’s understanding of how the craft was used in practice.

To this, I have also added Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. My particular difficulties are with story structure in general, so I’m hoping this text will be helpful. And related to this, I’m digging into the iTunesU audio courses on mythology, to help round things out.

Also on my reading list are Stephen King’s On Writing. Because everybody says so, basically. And eventually I want to get a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. It was too much to handle, trying to read all the books at once, so that one is for later in the summer, but I was really pleased when The Making of a Story turned out to have sections of guided readings. I am able to at least dip a toe in to that skill set.

This self-directed study is working well for me so far. If I have a free hour I can sit in a coffee shop and do the exercises. I can read the text before bed or over meals. And if work goes nuts and I end up with a 60-hour week, I can put it all down for a bit with no consequences.

The only thing lacking is the workshop aspect of a class, the ability to discuss thoughts and learn from others. But that can come later, when my work schedule allows me to go back to my night classes. In the meantime, it’s good practice.

Do you have a favourite writing handbook? I’m always looking to add to the list!

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Righting an old wrong

Once upon a time – back when I was in theatre school – we put on a play about Orpheus and Eurydice. (The story is a part of Greek mythology, and I’m sure wikipedia has all the details.)

In theatre, one of the main activities on the first day of rehearsals, after going around the room and introducing ourselves to the group, is a read-through of the play. We sit around a table (or, more often, several tables pushed together) and all the actors read their parts out loud, with scripts in hand. It always starts a little flat, with actors feeling awkward and self-conscious with all these new people. It’s not intended to be a dramatic reading at all, just an introduction, but by the end of the play there’s usually more acting going on, more emotion in the voices. This is the first time we hear the play, the first time we get a sense of what it will become, of who the characters will be. It brings the text alive for the first time.

For this play about Orpheus and Eurydice, we did the read-through in a classroom, not in a rehearsal hall which is the usual setting. I can’t remember why. This classroom was on the top floor of the school, only just big enough to fit us all in. It was a warm afternoon in early summer, and we could see the dust motes in the sunlight pouring through the windows. We kept the overhead fluorescents off, and the whole thing felt more comfortable, less formal, than our usual read-throughs.

The text of the play was quite stylized, and something about the warm, somnolent feel of the summer afternoon melded with the words to create a thing of beauty. The reading was quiet and understated, but that allowed the tragedy of the story full reign. This interpretation of the myth was grappling with why Eurydice would choose to go back to Hades rather than escape with her lover, Orpheus. The idea was that her father was in Hades, having died when Eurydice was little, and the relationship between them was beautiful and heartbreaking. And that reunion was held up against the anguish of Orpheus at Eurydice’s death on their wedding night and his attempts to get her back.

There were a number of symbolic elements in the play, but in this perfect, nebulous read-through, everything fit. Everything worked. It became one of my favourite plays of all time on that day.

And then the director got hold of it.

The result was awful. Just… awful. None of the symbolic elements worked. The beautiful stylized language became flat and awkward. The character of the father, who I had loved, was pushed to become a hard, nasal, accountant type. It broke my heart.

I wasn’t in that production. I ended up working as crew backstage. I operated the stage left elevator door, and my friend operated the stage right elevator door (the characters entered and exited Hades via elevator), and between cues we sat backstage together in the dark. Half the time we mimed slitting our wrists to the play’s incredibly depressing soundtrack of French accordion music. The rest of the time we talked about how the play should have been done. We both had a LOT of opinions.

I’ve always wanted to see that play done properly. I nearly booked a trip to New York for it, once, but in the end I couldn’t make the dates line up with my work schedule. One day, though.

All of this to explain, really, why I’m writing a re-telling of the Orpheus myth for this week’s challenge over at Chuck Wendig’s blog: “I want you to write a story about Hell.”