Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Vinita Hampton Wright- The Soul Tells a Story

Just when I thought I was finished with Cornerstone entries! The very first workshop I was able to attend this year was a writing workshop run by Vinita Hampton Wright. She is an author and I have to admit I have not read her work. I would like to read the book she has written called The Soul Tells a Story: Engaging Creativity with Spirituality in the Writing Life. She did mention that her favorite novel she has written is called Velma Still Cooks in Leeway. and it only took her one year to write. One of her later books, called Dwelling Places, took her five years to write.

She also has worked as an editor for fifteen years and currently works part-time for Loyola Press in Chicago. This workshop has been running for six years around the country. She shared a lot of wisdom. I was only able to see one session but was glad for the opportunity. She actually ran a two day workshop in Grand Rapids last weekend before Lauren Winner, but again, I was not able to attend.

She said good fiction involves having a character that really desires or fears something. When she begins writing fiction, she starts with the characters and scenes; not plot. I really like the questions she asked us to help us come up with ideas for writing.

~What fears have influenced the way your family operates?
~What desires have influenced the way your family has been?

She, like Lauren Winner, encourages daily writing exercises. She calls this "tapping the well". Tapping the well is right-brained and very intuitive. That material is not the art, that is a "holy mess". After that one must go to the left side of the brain which is analytical. I think it is natural to hope art just comes to us already pre-packaged and flowing out of us, but it involves a great deal of work. She said art is first going to work on the writer. God gives us gifts to help us be the whole person we were meant to be. We are the first witness to the art.

If a person is writing non-fiction the intuitive side would involve your theories, passion and voice. She recommends starting with the analytical side when writing non-fiction. She suggests first having one point to make per chapter or even for the whole story.

There were two points she wanted us to leave the workshop with more than any other.

1. I cannot control the process. (you do not know where a story is going to end up)

2. I must master my craft. (making it original, beautiful, establishing voice, care of words)

She quoted John Gardener from The Art of Fiction. He says, "The story is a dream and your goal is not to wake up until you read the last page and the last word." I certainly feel like JK Rowling mastered this...

A couple other questions she asked were, what makes the tension run out of a story and what causes a character to go flat?
Then she had us write. She gave us an exercise and said to write for about ten minutes a story with the idea that the character knew she had one hour to live. I appreciated the exercise and at some point may go back to finish what I started in that short time.

She recommends writing a paragraph and then picking three words or a sentence and then writing about that. As one develops in this way, the craft improves and becomes more specific. She gave us more questions to get us thinking about our writing.

~What do you think the point is?
~Where do you want more?

Then she touched on a delicate point with me. She said the more advanced the writing is, the more technical the critique can be. The wrong criticism at the wrong time can really hurt your process.

I have first hand experience with this. During my writing workshop in my class this year, I had given my students a topic to write on. A little girl came up very excited about fifteen minutes later with her piece. It was about why she thought we should be a blue ribbon school. (We were applying to become one.) This was not the topic and as I mentioned that she burst into tears. She thought I was going to love her writing. She struggles with reading and writing and looking back, I should have recognized the effort that went into this. I apologized to her and made it clear how valued her writing piece was. I displayed it in our window to the hallway and kept it up there the entire rest of the year.

That was not the time to teach her about staying on topic. I had made a grave mistake. That was the time to encourage her for writing from the heart. She had tapped the well and I had not even noticed. I pray that I was able to make that up to her and not get in the way. I pray that all the time; that my teaching does not get in the way of my students learning. It is a huge responsibility and one I do not take lightly.

Vinita Hampton Wright finished the morning by recommending that we take writing classes to make sure that our craft keeps up with our intuition. Buy grammar books! Also, she said don't talk away your energy. If one talks too much about a great idea, the enthusiasm dwindles and one no longer has the desire to write about it.

I do not know if I will ever write a book, but I do love writing and would like to keep the possibility open. Also, being a teacher of writing nudges me to keep up with my craft, so as to help others develop theirs. These notes will be here to help me along and remind me what makes good writing.


Kimberly said...

ok, this doesn't directly apply, but I read it at lunch today and your post made me think of it:

If we ever, God forbid, manage to make each child succeed with his peer group, we will produce a race of bland and faceless nonentities, and all poetry and mystery will vanish from the face of the earth. Somehow I am not worried. Surely every teacher must want each child to succeed... must hope to help him find a self, but this self may be a non-conforming self. And surely there will always be the occasional prickly child who rejects all efforts, who kicks the other children, bites teacher's hands, is unloving and unlovable, and yet who will, one day, produce - perhaps out of this very unloveliness - a work of art which sings of love.
~ Madeline L'Engle (A Circle of Quiet)

Carrie said...

That is beautiful Kimberly. Thanks for posting that. A Circle of Quiet contains some of L'engle's best writing. You recently posted one of my favorite quotes by her on your site. I may have to copy it onto mine!