Saturday, March 5, 2011

Book Learnin'

I'm working on an analysis of The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers--specifically of its narrative structure. I've analyzed several works during the past year, and I've learned a lot about narrative each time.

I'm also part of a group that reads and provides feedback on works in progress. Some call this a workshop, others a critique group. At the moment, our group is small but mighty, and one of my pieces is on tap for this coming week. It is always interesting to see whether this group of readers, each of whom is also a writer, confirms what I suspect to be the limitations of a story (in this case, a loooooong one). (Sadly, they often point out things I didn't even think about. Sigh.)

Both kinds of learning are important to my development.

That's why I was pleased, in reading an interview with Powers, to see him say that the workshop needs to be supplemented with direct learning about narrative technique. Here's why:

We never tell a person who wants to learn how to play violin or how to paint to go out and figure out all the skills on her own, and then come back and have a group of other autodidacts tell her whether everything is working. Surely it can't hurt a student writer to look at all the nuts and bolts that go into making a resonant story, and to work on exercises that isolate those components. In the class, I do lots of different kinds of exercises -- wordgames, syntax challenges, stylistic imitations -- as well as very close analysis of really masterful stories.

I would only add that I also learn from close analysis of non-masterful stories, with an eye to figuring out why they don't work so well. (Other books. Not this one. This one is puzzling and challenging, to the point that I can't stop thinking about it.)

The full interview with Powers relates specifically to his book Gain (1998), so I expect the interview is from that period. But there's lots of material about him online.

Although it's nice when I find justification for something I already enjoy doing, I get enough answers to "why does this work?" that I'd do it anyway. Just as I keep getting good feedback from the other reader/writers in the group.

A "both/and," not an "either/or." Love when that happens.