Saturday, June 2, 2012

Can creative writing be taught? Learning the craft

I took a class this year in which the instructor had us read "Hunters in the Snow" by Tobias Wolff.  Three guys go out hunting and eventually one of them shoots another.  It's all downhill from there. 

The instructor asked us to pick one of the three main characters and write a one-page bio or character sketch, (i.e. where he was born, what he does for a living, married or single, kids? etc.) 
Well, if you don't know the story, this wouldn't mean much.  But the sharp reader working on this assignment soon realizes that Wolff tells us nothing, nothing about the background of these three fellows.  The point is that you can write a good story without telling the reader any background.  Just start the story wherever the action starts and take it from there. 

This is a real eye-opener for me.  The writer should know something about the characters so that he can write a "true" story, as my man E.H. might say.  But the writer doesn't have to tell the readers what posters the character had on the wall in his childhood room, what he or she majored in, whether he dropped out of high school or she has a Ph.D.  I don't need to know if Frank in "Hunters in the Snow" was an electrician or a computer programmer.  I don't care if Kenny married his high school sweetheart and has three kids, or if he's gay.  Just write the story, tell what happens now. 
I'm going through my first (unsold) novel one more time prior to submitting it in a contest.  I just cut 17 pages of exposition and background from the beginning and started the story in a new place.  And I love it.  Thank you, Jim Matthews.  You can teach the craft. 


  1. Harley, I like how you bring evidence to support two points. I agree that a lot of background is about as unwelcome as landscape and weather. The writer, however, needs to know the background of his/her characters. Solveig

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Harley. Of course, I agree with you and I also agree with the points Soveig made during class about striking the proper balance - after all, without compelling character background, you're basically left with a screenplay - and (potentially) a whole bunch of flat characters.

    I think the genius of the Wolff piece is that he did provide background for the characters - via action and dialogue; he just didn't offer any specifics and allowed the reader to unconsciously create those specifics without interrupting the story's forward progress. Pretty neat trick, if you ask me. It's an approach not for everyone - certainly not always for me or even Wolff for that matter (read his masterpiece "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs" if you don’t believe me!).

    But when stories begin to slow and drag and stumble (as my current story is doing!) then it might be time to stop peeling and start chopping. ;-)