In the middle of July, I arrived at Brown University in Providence, RI, for a two-week course titled “Speculative Fiction Writing.”
The “classroom” had the appearance of a dining room: a long mahogany table took up most of the space, with six chairs lining each side and a chair on each end. There was a marble fireplace, an antique mirror, and two oil paintings that hung on opposite walls. Each day the professor would unlock the wooden double doors, walk briskly to the end of the table, and settle down with a brooding solemnity upon his face. When the grandfather clock struck three thirty, the professor’s face would light up; he would lean in and ask, “So what do you guys think of those pieces you’ve read for homework?” And upon that note, we would tuck into the exquisite taste of the short stories before us.
On the first day, Professor Michael Stewart did not give us a syllabus. Instead, he gave us a story. Tweaking the French folktale of “Bluebeard,” the professor had us hooked the whole hour with a whimsical “Once upon a time” land, the gruesome appearance and actions of the antagonist, the helplessness of the doomed damsel, and finally, the death blow that never came. I later learned that his story not only served as a grand opening of the course, but also introduced literary terms such as tone, tension, pace, and modality, became an example he could reference back to, and illustrated his point that a good story doesn’t have to mean anything. It just has to somehow captivate the readers.
In order to learn how to tell a good story, it’s always helpful to see the masters at work. Stewart had us read three to five short stories for homework every day. Some were classics such as “The Call of Cthulhu” by H.P. Lovecraft or excerpts from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, others I had a hard time finding online but were just as good in their own ways. In addition, we were to come up with a two-page short story every day, which had to fit the genre of each reading assignment. So I had a lot of fun making up a myth, tweaking a horror story, experimenting with magical realism, and writing in a non-human voice.
Each class started with Stewart leading a discussion about the readings he assigned. We would bring up any issues that came to mind: the way tension is created, a radical way of formatting, or a struggle with the ambiguity of the writer’s language. I soon learned that the masters do not like to be clear. They drop subtle hints of meaning and invite you in, to peel back their words and discover what lies underneath. And after all that work, lo and behold: there isn’t a “right” answer but multiple interpretations that make equal sense. I loved this seminar style class; my classmates never failed to amaze me with the depth of their interpretations, and the joy of discovering something new between the lines can be shared so easily.
After the discussion, we would break into small groups and workshop one another’s short stories. The professor had emphasized the importance of these workshops at the very beginning: “You will not come up with a very good story in such a short time, but through workshopping you will become a better editor to others’ and your own writing, which makes you a better writer.” He was right about that. In contrast to our crude stories, the edits were needle sharp. Not only did we have to find what was working and what was not, we had to know why we thought that way. He was also right about another thing: “It’s very easy to find faults, but try to look for the good stuff in the stories. Finding faults will only help you write a not-so-terrible story; finding the good stuff can help you write a really good story.”
I spent that weekend writing a six-page short story, which was due on Monday. We were going to workshop everybody’s stories as a class that coming week, each person assigned to a twenty-minute slot to receive feedback about their work. The thought of thirteen people mulling over every word of my story and giving very honest, very straightforward feedback was troubling, and I did not sleep well the night before my story was workshopped.
It went better than I thought. In that intense twenty minutes, I scribbled down everything I could. The feedback I received helped me pinpoint what was unclear about my story, what could be developed further, what could be deleted, and what should be set up beforehand. I can still hear Stewart: “Show. Don’t tell” or “Too many modifiers here.”
Two weeks went by in a flash, and I was packing my suitcase before I knew it. Although the course was titled “Writing Speculative Fiction,” it was more like a whirlwind overview on many genres of fiction. I became acutely aware of just how much time a writer can put into his or her stories, whether it be sci-fi, myth, horror, or magical realism. Every sentence, every word, every punctuation does something for the reader; the sound or placement of a word is just as critical as its meaning. These realizations struck me and will forever change the way I read a story. Before I would flip ahead to discover the bottom of a mystery, now I read the same page over and over to find new meaning every time. Reading so meticulously brings me a different joy—of not just hurrying through the plot but piecing together hints in between the lines to uncover what the writer is really trying to say.
Junior Summer Study Award
The Junior Summer Study Award is presented to members of NEHS who are high school juniors, rising to the senior class in fall 2018. This award is intended to support students who have been selected for or who will be attending a summer learning program that is related to English studies in a direct way. Up to two awards for $750 will be offered each year.
This award is competitive in nature; applications will be evaluated by members of the Advisory Council of NEHS.
Submissions due April 30, 2018, 11:59 p.m. CDT.
Read More from Past Recipients:
Junior Summer Study Program Facilitates Immense Personal Growth
Junior Summer Study Stipend Results in Unforgettable Learning Experience
People, Presence, and Perseverance: My Experience at the Vanderbilt Summer Academy
NEHS Junior Summer Stipend Recipient Attends Writers’ Workshop
Junior Summer Stipend Recipient at Cornell University