First of all, to call only the second semester of Fiction workshop class “Advanced” is hilarious. I took Advanced Fiction, a workshop class, the second semester of my freshmen year at Emerson College and unlike the rather gold-stars-for-everyone approach of Intro to Fiction, Advanced Fiction was a workout.
I still remember my professor, Ms. McLarin, a writer-in-residence at Emerson. At the time of our semester, she was getting a book published. I remember she showed us the mockups of potential book covers, which was so cool to a room of aspiring writers.
Here’s what I remember about that class, nine years on (9 years?!). As much as you call it “Advanced Fiction” and as much as everyone in the room had been writing for years, we weren’t all at the same level. I definitely felt lacking during discussions to certain references to books or authors or genres or writing mechanics.
Ms. McLarin came at us from a different perspective. I don’t remember specific details of discussions now, but I remember her wanting us to write about more conflict, about weightier issues, stories where the scales are high. Everything in a fictional story has to have a purpose, she told us. I wasn’t ready to figure out how to do that; I was still in a “fiction is just like real life” mode, where crap just happens and where my inspiration/muse was the only reason why things were typed down.
My stories that semester were pretty disjointed. I don’t think I have any of them saved. I remember one girl saying that her characters fell in love while dancing together in her story because it was based on her grandma’s recollections of how she and the girl’s grandfather met and fell in love. Granted, we were writing 10-page short stories.
“But that doesn’t happen in real life!” One fellow student said. (There was always somebody to point that out in workshop. I guess they took a wrong turn somewhere in the Walker Building instead of going to Creative Non-Fiction class.)
“It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen in real life. Does it work in the story? Is it believable? Do you feel it?”
Another girl, one I’d had Fiction I with, finally came in with a fantasy story–a princess and a sorcerer, iirc–and it was clear from reading it that fantasy was what she was meant to write. After that, I decided to write what I wanted to write instead of handing in little insipid pieces of contemporary fiction. Funny how a workshop class of a bunch of snotty, pretentious, pre-hipster hipster kids can inhibit you because of public opinion. But I decided, for my last piece that semester, to hand in something historical fiction. And this wasn’t because I wanted to write historical necessarily, but because that was what I read rather than contemporary stuff.
Ms. McLarin had us write little proposals of what our final short stories would be that semester. I decided to try to write what I knew of my grandmother’s experiences after the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki: seeing the mushroom cloud from Sasebo, having experienced bombings during the war, hearing the Emperor’s voice over the radio and trying to work out what he was saying because the Emperor spoke a bizarre dialect of Japanese. She actually said she’d been looking forward to the story and hoped that I would keep working on it. I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean I might not revisit the topic at a later date. Hell, it might motivate me to actually read about Japanese history.
I’m still putting what she taught us during that spring semester of ’05 into practice. I’m still sorting through it, until the pieces really fit and I truly understand it. It’s one thing to hear it and understand it intellectually (like, “duh! of course this isn’t an actual storyline!”) to actually understanding the concept and integrating it into one’s writing. Slow process, that.
But I think anything I learned about fiction writing during college really began in her class. As harsh as she might have seemed then, really, she was trying to make us understand and make us better.