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powerful objects (iowa fiction mooc i)

The first lesson from the University of Iowa MOOC, "How Writers Write Fiction," was actually a surprise bonus to the eight-week course. The week before the MOOC officially started, they offered us a Welcome Week, complete with lessons, writing exercises, and peer review. It was an awesome way to kick off the course, and it gave us a taste of the gems coming our way.

Welcome Week's focus was on objects. There was a three-day writing assignment that was written in parts and then assembled at the end, which was also a neat exercise.

1st reading:

Read the following excerpt from Annie Dillard's essay "Write Till You Drop."

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art; do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength. Giacometti's drawings and paintings show his bewilderment and persistence. If he had not acknowledged his bewilderment, he would not have persisted. A master of drawing, Rico Lebrun, discovered that ''the draftsman must aggress; only by persistent assault will the live image capitulate and give up its secret to an unrelenting line.' Who but an artist fierce to know - not fierce to seem to know - would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe any way but with the instruments' faint tracks.

Admire the world for never ending on you as you would admire an opponent, without taking your eyes off him, or walking away.

1st exercise:

An Object of Wonder ...

After reading Dillard's essay under Launchpad: Reading, find an ordinary object in your home that you like looking at. This could be a sugar bowl, a crooked lampshade, a spoon with a bent handle, a tiled coffee table with a matador theme, a remote control ... the choice is yours, but choose something that stirs your wonder. Write a description that brings it to life: show it to us as if it were the main character in a new story.

Challenge yourself by trying any (or all) of the following:

Imagine its birth. How did it come into the world? What did it think of the world it was born into?

Write a few lines that imagine an older version of the object -- what would it have looked like a hundred years ago? If the object had parents and grandparents, what would they look like? 

Write a line that asks the object a question. For example, what is its deepest desire? What does it fear? Is it lonely, or overworked, or bored? Does it love you?

Write a few lines that imagine a new purpose for or new version of the object.

Write a few lines that look at the object from the perspective of a child or an animal.

Write a few lines that look at the object from the perspective of its friends -- if it has any. What other objects, or even living things, would be its friends? Are there objects it resents, or competes with for attention or prominence in the world?

Word limit: we suggest 500 words for this. That doesn't have to be your exact limit. But you will do yourself a favor by keeping your work around the suggested limit: if you submit something very long, your fellow writers are less likely to have time to read it and comment helpfully.

2nd reading:

Read the following excerpt from Matthew Fogarty's essay from Passages North: "Writers on Writing #82."

It's hard to explain without sounding pretentious and/or ridiculous. But I rarely start with a story in mind. More often, I start with an idea or a moment or a line or a premise or a character or whatever provides the seed for the story, whatever photosynthesis. Some people plot everything out in advance. I don't. I can't. I'm not that smart. Stories exist in a world, characters are real people in that world with real agency in that world. There's no way I can know what a person would do until I get to it. Create a character that's a real person, put him/her/it in a situation, and let him/her/it surprise. If I'm not surprised by anything in the story when I'm writing it, there's no chance the reader will be surprised and surprise is the thing. Surprise means interest and emotional investment which equals a story that exists in more than just the pages or plot that I've written, that resonates beyond the page.

2nd exercise:

An Object of Desire and Conflict ...

Yesterday, for your Welcome Wagon Day 2 Writing Practice assignment, you invested an object with a history, desires, relationships: you began the process of making an object into a character.

Today, for your Welcome Wagon Day 3 Writing Practice assignment, try introducing desire and conflict.

Step into the room where your object lives. Bring someone with you: your significant other, your parent or child, your friend or roommate or neighbor or coworker. This person is your opponent. Each of you wants to do something with this object, something that creates a conflict:

Maybe you want to keep the object, and your opponent wants to throw it away.

Maybe you want to take the object with you to a new house, a foreign country, your dorm room, your office, and your opponent wants the object to stay right where it is.

Maybe you want to replace the object, and your opponent thinks that would be 

As you and your opponent argue, take the object's history, emotions, desires, and fears and make them part of the argument:

Maybe you want to throw the object away because you know that it hates living in your house.

Maybe you want to take it with you because you know that it loves you, or because you know that it has always wanted to live in France, or because you know that it hates the way your opponent always treats it, or because you know that in your office, it will make friends with other objects there.

See what happens. When two characters (you and your opponent) argue about the fate, and the feelings, of a third character (your object), how do those two characters look at that third character differently? Which one of them is right about what the object wants? What happens in that conflict to show the reader what kind of person you are, and what kind of person your opponent is?

See what happens. You don't have to settle the argument if you don't want to or aren't sure how it should end. You and your opponent can reach an agreement, or one of you can win the argument by force, or you can leave it hanging. If you reach a conclusion, on Monday your fellow writers can tell you what they think of that conclusion. And if you don't, on Monday your fellow writers can tell you what they think the ending should be.

Word limit: we suggest 500-600 words for this. That doesn't have to be your exact range. But you will do yourself a favor by keeping your work within the suggested limit: if you submit something very long, your fellow writers are less likely to have time to read it and comment helpfully.

3rd reading:

Read the following excerpt from Neil Gaiman's essay "Where Do You Get Your Ideas?"

You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.

You get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. The most important of the questions is just, What if…?

(What if you woke up with wings? What if your sister turned into a mouse? What if you all found out that your teacher was planning to eat one of you at the end of term - but you didn't know who?)

Another important question is, If Only…

(If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. If only I could shrink myself small as a button. If only a ghost would do my homework.)

And then there are the others: I Wonder... ('I wonder what she does when she's alone...') and If This Goes On... ('If this goes on telephones are going to start talking to each other, and cut out the middleman...') and Wouldn't it be interesting if... ('Wouldn't it be interesting if the world used to be ruled by cats?')…

Those questions, and others like them, and the questions they, in their turn, pose ('Well, if cats used to rule the world, why don't they any more? And how do they feel about that?') are one of the places ideas come from.

3rd exercise:

An Object of Agency …

In Welcome Wagon Day 2, you invested an object with a history, desires, and relationships: you began the process of making an object into a character. Then, in Welcome Wagon Day 3, you introduced conflict by bringing another person into the relationship between you and your object: you took the object's history, emotions, desires, and fears, and you made them part of an argument between you and that person.

Today, for your Welcome Wagon Day 4 Writing Practice assignment, let your object settle the argument.

Imagine that your object has the ability to move, or speak, or both. Think back to the argument you wrote yesterday. Imagine your object listening to that argument, waiting for its turn to act.

Write a couple of lines summing up the argument, if you think you need to give the context. Then write a short set of concluding lines that describe how your object will settle this argument. If you wish to give it a voice, it could speak up to settle the argument, or to refuse the settlement you and your opponent have come to. If you wish to give it the ability to move, it could attack, or hide, or run away. Of, of course, it could do both.

Don't rewrite the whole argument -- just try to write a paragraph or two describing your object's concluding activities. If you wish, you can include your and your opponent's reaction. Or you could leave it out, allowing the object to occupy center stage. See how powerful you can make your object's decision in such a short scene.

Word limit: we suggest 200 words for this. That doesn't have to be your exact range. But you will do yourself a favor by keeping your work within the suggested limit: if you submit something very long, your fellow writers are less likely to have time to read it and comment helpfully.

And to inspire you:

The writer's "rulebook" is a coveted and yet nonexistent text. The best part about the rules of writing is that we can follow them, make up our own, break them, and revise them as we see fit. We've handpicked a few from other writers here, but take some time to browse through this list and this list, modeled after Elmore Leonard's rules that appeared in the New York Times.

Roddy Doyle: "Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–"

Helen Dunmore: "Don't worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed 'What will survive of us is love.'"

Michael Morpugo: "Once the book is finished in its first draft, I read it out loud to myself. How it sounds is hugely important."

Anne Enright: "Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand."

Esther Freud: "Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess."

Andrew Motion: "Honour the miraculousness of the ordinary."

Hilary Mantel: "Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules."

Ian Rankin: "Don't give up."

I can't post the videos, but here is the transcript from the last day of our welcome week:

Hello! I'm Michelle Huneven. I'm the author of four 
novels, and I'm here today to give you tips.
A few years ago, I realized I was getting older. 
It came as a shock, and I decided that I needed 
some guidance. So I went to a therapist, but when 
she sat down, she just looked at me. She wanted 
me to start talking and to do all the talking. 
I was like, "No! I'm getting older here, and I don't 
want to be analyzed. I want to figure out how to 
deal with this enormous life transition." 
And she said to me, even sarcastically, "So what 
is it you want, Michelle? 
And I was like, "Yes! Tips! Tips would be nice." 
Tips were exactly what I wanted, and tips are 
something that I thought I would give you here 
today: craft tips, craft writing tips, tips that I feel 
can and will improve your writing life.
The first one is a little psychological in nature, 
and it comes from the late, great, radical feminist 
Mary Daly. She was trying to write a book, and 
she just could never quite get around to it. She'd 
have to buy groceries; she'd have to take the dog 
to the vet; she had to clean the house. Everything 
distracted her. She realized at some point that she 
was really going to have to change her priorities 
and put her creative life in the forefront and the 
rest of her life in the background. The mantra that 
she came up with for this was, "I have to turn my 
soul around." So that's my first tip: you have to 
turn your soul around, and you have to make 
writing the priority in your life. And then 
everything will fall into place. I promise.
My second tip is more practical. This is the timer 
tip. Get yourself a good timer; you actually 
probably already have one on your phone. So 
when you're feeling blocked or rushed or simply 
resistant to writing and you don't want to, just 
decide how long you can stand it. Set the timer 
for twelve minutes, seven minutes, and then 
just get to work. Or set the timer to write an 
hour or three hours. You'd be surprised what 
that little timer can drag out of you: whole 
stories, whole scenes, whole chapters. It's also 
good for cleaning the kitchen. I can stand to 
clean the kitchen for seven minutes. It's amazing 
how much you can do in seven minutes.
My third tip is join a writing group. It just helps. 
If your writing group 
meets on Thursday, and it's Tuesday, you just 
think, "If I can push this into sentences, I'll have 
another chapter to give to the writing group." 
Again, you'll be surprised at how finished that 
chapter will actually be.
My fourth tip is find a writer whom you deeply 
admire, who's maybe a little bit better than 
you are, and talk them into swapping work on 
a regular basis. You can save yourself a lot of 
time this way. It's a little hard to get used to 
seeing each other's work at a really ugly stage. 
You may think, "That writer's not very good 
after all." But if you show stuff to someone else 
at an early stage, sometimes they can save you 
a lot of heartache. They can keep you from falling 
into a lot of rabbit holes. Also, the other thing 
about having someone who's essentially a writing 
partner is it makes writing a whole lot less lonely.
Tip number five. I'm sorry. You hear this in every 
other aspect of your life, but here it is again: get 
plenty of exercise. This is really important. You 
don't want a flabby mind; you don't want a flabby 
body. And they're connected. Especially when 
you're trying to figure out a fictional problem, 
there is really nothing like walking. Walking and 
narrative are really deeply linked; they both take 
you from place to place. The unconscious is the 
hidden engine and partner in your writing life, 
and you have to give it time to work out the 
problems that only you can solve. 
My sixth tip is do something else creative. 
Cook, garden, play music, throw pots, paint--do 
something that is not word-based. 
Again, it gives the subconscious, 
the psyche, the imagination--whatever you want 
to call that thing--time to range about. It gives it 
fuel. It will sort things out for you that you 
couldn't ever sort out from a direct assault.
Number seven: the unconscious needs something 
to work on. So it's always a good idea to bang 
out a really rough draft of a story, a chapter, a 
scene, an article that you have to write--
whatever. This gives that part of the mind that 
structures and patterns something to dig into, 
something to organize. I spent many years as a 
restaurant critic. I learned over time that-- I 
always wrote my restaurant reviews on Tuesday, 
but I learned that if I sat down sometime on 
Monday--Monday night before I went to bed, 
especially--and banged out a really crappy first 
draft, that half my work was done for me overnight 
as I slept. Sometimes I wouldn't even look at the 
draft again. It was just something to get those 
organizing cogs moving.
Tip number eight: if you are a novelist, write 
something short once in a while--an essay, a 
short story, a little article. This is essential 
because you might forget how to finish something 
if you're working on a novel for a really long time. 
So this reminds you of the pleasure of finishing 
something. It keeps you in practice for finishing 
something. A novel is a really long act of faith, 
and it's just nice to know that you can dispatch 
a few smaller things in the meantime.
My ninth and last tip is remember that writing 
is a form of play. You have to be able to get into 
flow. You can struggle and work hard and get 
stuck--and you will get stuck--but you can't force 
things. Solving difficult problems is the job of 
writing: how to bring this character to life, how 
to structure this scene so that it makes sense, 
how to get this transition to work. It's infinite. 
But you have to remember to give yourself a 
little room. You have to work your way into flow. 
Flow never comes cheaply, but you can't force 
your way into flow. If you're too stuck or going 
at it too hard or trying to control too much, just 
back off. Take a walk. Cook a meal. Turn on some 
loud music. If you've been working on a story for 
a year, or a novel for ten years, and it's not 
working, step back. Try something else. There's 
only so much you can do to make it happen. And 
while you're busy forcing one issue, your 
unconscious is probably ranging about and trying 
to work on something else. What is that 
something else? Don't you want to find out?
So, here they are: my tips. Turn your soul 
around. Use a timer. Join a writing group. Find 
a good writing partner to swap pages with. Get 
plenty of exercise, and take lots of walks. Do 
something else creative that is nonverbal. Write 
a super rough, rough draft to give the 
unconscious something to work with. Write 
something short and easy that you can finish 
quickly every so often. Remember that writing 
is a form of play, and know when not to 
force it.

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