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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 24: The Relationship between Writer and Reader

But the eye and the ear are different listeners, are different audience. And the literary storyteller is one who must try to bring eye and ear into synchronization. But it is a subtle art.…the art of storytelling in the printed book must persuade and captivate. It must hold the reader as the spoken tale holds the listener…
—Jane Yolen, introduction to Folk Tales of the World

 

The Relationship between Teller and Listeners
At the heart of any told story—told out loud or on the page—is a relationship: the relationship between the storyteller and the audience.

 

In oral cultures, the existence of stories depends entirely on this relationship; without it, the story would not be told, could not be remembered. In cultures without writing, stories depend for their lives on the face-to-face engagement of tellers and listeners.

 

Until the twentieth century, almost all fiction replicated this relationship: the narrator of the story was talking TO his or her readers. But then the nature of written storytelling changed. Wallace Hildeck (a writer and teacher) points out: Read More 

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Story Lesson 23: The Language of the Imagination

If you want to make images come alive in the mind of your reader, then you need to use a specific kind of language: I call it “the language of the imagination.” We could also call it “the language of the senses.”

If you’ve been doing all the practices, you’ll remember that a well-developed faculty of imagination depends on strong powers of observation. In the same way, the language of the imagination depends on words that evoke sensory experience. Read More 

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Story Lesson 22: Letting Images Lead

PRACTICE: LISTENING TO PICTURES 3
Choose a story—a short one—that you want to write (or are in the process of writing). This can be a brief anecdote, a folktale you want to retell—anything you like. Now be relaxed, and then let the story unfold in your imagination, one image at a time. Try to concentrate on images that involve action or happenings. As with the previous practice, it’s fine if words come as well (if characters are speaking, for instance), but try to keep your attention on the pictures.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 21: Listening to Pictures

The imagination is central to making stories, for when a reader reads one of our stories, it takes place in her or his imagination. Whether the story is true or invented, realistic or fantastic, it is never taking place, for the reader, in the world around her; it is always taking place in an world inside her head, an imagined world. (In this respect a story, whether told or read, is different from a play, which is taking place in front of the audience’s eyes.)

If we want our stories to speak to the imaginations of readers, then, we need to know something about the faculty of imagination.

You may want to take some time to review the imagination practices (lessons 16-20).

The imagination is the mental faculty that thinks in pictures. It is a storehouse of images taken from direct observation of the world around us, from books and magazines and movies and anything else we encounter that we pay attention to. From this storehouse we select images to use in our stories, and we combine bits and pieces of images in order to make new ones. Finally, we use the medium of language to transfer the pictures in our minds to the imaginations of our readers.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 20: Thinking in Stories

“Thinking in stories” sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? What could thinking and stories possibly have to do with each other?

In school, when (supposedly) we are taught to “think,” we are taught what is known as “abstract thinking,” the kind of training of the intellect that provides the foundation for all academic disciplines. While skill in this kind of thinking is necessary for those who want academic careers, and while it has its uses in ordinary life, it’s not of much value to imaginative writers—in fact, if you want to write creatively, too much training in abstract thinking can handicap you.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 19: Movement

Whichever tools you make use of in your writing, and whether or not you construct an elaborate plot for your story, there are two things you will have to consider:focus (or theme) and path.

If, as Ursula LeGuin says, all stories involve change, then we can think of a story as taking our readers on a journey. But what kind of journey is it?

To answer that question, we need to know the focus of the story: what is it really about?  Read More 

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Story Lesson 18: Learning from the Pros

Several times so far in these lessons, I have encouraged you to turn to a story by your favorite writer to see how some aspect of it works, and then to imitate that technique. I want here to emphasize how important for your learning this study and imitation of a master writer is.

Although  Read More 

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Story Lesson 17: Story Process

How do we begin to make a story? It seems to me that there are lots of “ways in” to the process, and each writer needs to find the one that works for her or him. Most likely, you already have a process that you like to use. And you have probably found, as I have, that not every story is born and grows in exactly the same way.

So rather than setting out specific steps to follow every time you want to write a story, let me offer you some tools.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 16: Story, Plot, and Character

If you have read a lot of writing manuals, you will undoubtedly have found instruction in how to create a plot. You may have come to the conclusion that plot and story are the same thing. But they are not.

The stories told in oral cultures do not have plot as we moderns are likely to understand the term. In Orality and Literacy, Professor Walter Ong observes that highly structured plots of the kind we are used to reading can only be created through the use of writing. We are usually taught that plot structures— climactic and linear— are the only way to organize story materials. But plot came into being only with writing. It was first discussed (in writing, of course!) by Aristotle, not in reference to oral storytelling, but in reference to Greek drama, which was composed in writing. Read More 

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Story Lesson 15: More on Story-Time

As we’ve seen, the world of story exists outside of real time; that may be one of the key sources of its power. Any time we hear or read a story— if the enchantment is strong enough— we may leave the realm of ordinary life, where the clock ticks on and a hour passes unnoticed; we may enter the story-world, where a hundred years pass between the moment Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on the spindle and the moment when she is awakened by the prince’s kiss, or where in an instant a twig grows into a tree.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 14: The Power of What Happens Next? 2

One of the things that may have happened to you as you did the previous exercises is that you felt a bit guilty. Oh no! a voice in your head may have said, I’m TELLING! If that happened, let me reassure you.

In the past few decades, writing teachers have become obsessed with the idea of showing. Show, don’t tell has become a mantra, repeated endlessly in classes and books about writing. While the ability to “show on the page” is certainly an important writing skill, so is the ability to tell. That’s because of the power of “what happens next?”

Humans, as I have said, love stories. And the engine of a story is its happenings. More than any other element of a good story, what keeps readers reading is, I think, that they want to know the answer to the question, “What happens next?”

And to provide them with that answer, over and over again, we must be able to tell as well as show.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 13: The World of “What Happens?”

And after all, it is not the expectation of a happy ending that carries us on. Rather it is the unraveling of the story itself; it is the traveling and not the destination.
—Jane Yolen, introduction to Folk Tales of the World

What makes a story? There are lots of answers to that question. Some people think that story demands a main character driven by desire. Others think that stories require lots of action, or conflict. My view is different. I believe that, at its most basic, a story is a series of happenings. To make a story, in its most elemental form, is to say: This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.

Whenever I have spent time with small children, I have heard this fundamental narrative drive. Phoebe, then five, once told me this story: Read More 

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Story Lesson 12: Invention

Selection and Invention
Inexperienced writers often find it difficult to “patchwork” with material collected from their own lives. But the ability to remove story-elements (events, people, etc.) from their original context is an essential skill for writers who want to be good storytellers.

I know that these days, in many writing classes and books, the main emphasis is on “being honest,” or “telling your truth.” But the best stories reveal truth, not by obsessive fidelity to every detail of an experience, but by the selection and arrangement of the most important details. To become skilled at making good stories, you need to know, not only how to collect material, but how to select from it. Read More 

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Story Lesson 11: Patchworking

Patchworking

In her introduction to her anthology, Favorite Folktales of the World, Jane Yolen, a writer and storyteller herself, tells us that, as she researched and gathered tales,
I was reminded again and again how bits and pieces of stories—archetypal characters, situations, magical hats or sticks or rings—have been lifted from one teller’s quilt and sewn into another. The patchworking of Story is endless. Read More 

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Story Lesson 10: Playing with Story Material

Once you’ve collected some material for stories, you’ll probably need to play with it for a while before you understand how to proceed. It’s certainly possible that, as you collect your material, you suddenly see how you can use it to create a story; more likely, though, you’ll need to play with the material in different ways first. Here are some things to try: Read More 

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Story Lesson 9: Retelling Stories

A kid who wants to be a baseball player will often pick a professional athlete to imitate. That’s because one of the main ways humans learn is through imitation. We writers can learn our storytelling skills in the same way.

There are a number of skills we need in order to be good storytellers; one of the most important is being able to come up with events for our stories. Read More 

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Story Lesson 8: An Instinct for Story 2

STORIES FROM WITHIN
So far we’ve been collecting material for stories from outside sources; naturally, we can also collect story-material from inside ourselves, from our memories, our imaginations, or both.

PRACTICE: Stories from within 1
Using the freewriting technique, write as many sentences as you can that begin with I want to tell a story about.... or I want to tell that story about... Let yourself just play as
you do this.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 7: The Instinct for Story

When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts—only for the day. Today we live, but by tomorrow today will be only a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer  Read More 

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Story Lesson 6: Story Materials 3

Ideas and material for stories can come from anywhere: from our own experiences or those of our friends; from history or current events; from tales told in our own cultures or in other places around the world; from our observation; from our imagination. If we want to write stories, all we have to do is pay attention, and stories will come to us. Read More 

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Story Lesson 5: Story Materials 2

To make a story, you need ideas and material, just as a cook who wants to make soup needs vegetables and salt and stock. It’s impossible to create a story out of nothing. Where do these ideas and material come from? They can come from outside you—from your reading or your observation—or they can come from inside you—from your memories or your imagination. In both cases, if you want to be able to discover and use this material, you need to collect it. Read More 

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Story Lesson 4: Telling Stories

In oral cultures, when someone wants to learn to tell stories, she or he undergoes a process of learning that is quite different from what we typically engage in in school. First, an aspiring storyteller has to listen to lots and lots of stories, and she may have listen to the same story a number of times. Without writing, she can only absorb the story into memory by receiving it through her ears, and by letting it sink into her subconscious. (The faculty of memory is, as you might expect, developed among oral peoples to a degree we would consider phenomenal.)  Read More 

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Story Lesson 3: Listening to Story

The Value of Story
In oral cultures, the storyteller was highly valued. That’s because, in addition to entertainment, he or she preserved in story the traditions and values of the culture. The storyteller was cultural historian, teacher, and repository of wisdom. Jane Yolen points this out in her introduction to a collection of folktales from around the world: Read More 

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Story Lesson 2.1: The World of Story (continued)

Let me tell you a story…

Ah, the magic of those six words! The invitation to sit back, relax, and surrender ourselves to the power of story. We can all recognize the voice of a writer who is a great storyteller:

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit…

Marley was dead, to begin with…

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…

Once upon a time there lived a poor woodcutter who had three sons…

The voice of a storyteller on the page, just like the voice of an oral teller, grabs our attention, makes us want to keep listening, keep turning the pages. Can we learn to do have that kind of hold on our readers? Yes, we can. But we need first to understand a few things about what a story is.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 2: The World of Story

Imagine, if you will, a world where there is no print. No books. No newspapers and magazines, no billboards, no road signs.

Now imagine that there is no writing at all: no letters, no diaries, no notes passed in class.

And now imagine that there are no letters, no alphabets of any kind.

And now, if you can, imagine that this world without books and writing and letters is not one where those things have been wiped out, but one in which they have never existed, in which they have never even been imagined.  Read More 

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Story Lesson 1.1 Finding Stories

To become a storytelling writer, you need, first, to read lots of stories. Perhaps you do this already: you read genre fiction, which is usually story-based, or children’s books. But if you need to deepen your experience of story, you may want to turn to tales from traditional cultures, re-tellings of those tales, or stories by writers working within the story-telling tradition.

You do not need to “study” these stories; rather, just let yourself enjoy them—let them become part of you. As these lessons continue, you’ll discover many ways to make use of them. For now, though, it’s enough to read for pleasure.

To get you started, here are some lists of books you might like: Read More 

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Story Lesson 1: The Spell of Story

The next several lessons are a course in the basics of making stories. These lessons derive from a course I taught for a number of years in the MFA Program in Writing at Lesley University. They provide fundamental practices to help you become a better storyteller on the page.

 

Telling Tales

All literature is oral at its root…. Dante, Shakespeare, Melville, Flaubert, Joyce are read because they speak, although the pedants' books are mum.
—Robert Bringhurst, A Story as Sharp as a Knife

 

In my three decades of teaching, here's one of the most important things I've discovered: many people get stuck in their writing because they are trying to produce a complicated project, such as a novel, without first having learned basic skills. Aspiring novelists, as well as writers of nonfiction, often lack a most important skill—the ability to tell a story.

 Read More 

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Lesson 20. Train Your Imagination through Imitation

One of the main ways that humans learn is through imitation. Young children imitate the behavior and speech of their parents and older children. In the past, apprentices in various fields imitated the masters. In the present, aspiring athletes and musicians find models to imitate. Writers, too, can use this exceptionally valuable learning tool. Here’s one way:  Read More 

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19. Using Material from Your Imagination

There’s another reason I recommend that people who want to do imaginative writing not spend more time than they have to with mass media: those pre-fab images fill your imagination with content that you may not want to collect. Many studies have shown, for instance, that someone who watches a lot of television will probably view thousands of murders in his or her lifetime. Are you sure you want to fill your imagination with these particular images?  Read More 

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Lesson 18: Thinking in Pictures

As you do the imagination practices, you’ll notice that you don’t need words—not yet!

Of course, when you want to communicate the images in your mind to other people, you’ll need words. But I think that often, when they write, many people get stuck or blocked because they are straining for words instead of letting their imaginations make pictures. When you concentrate on making images in your mind—on making sure they are clear and detailed—often the words you need to get them into the mind of a reader will come to you quite easily.  Read More 

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Lesson 17: Reclaiming Your Imagination

If you found the practices in the last lesson difficult, you may decide to give up on writing. I urge you not to do that! There are good reasons why it may be hard for you to use your imagination the way you want to.

First, the imagination has been entirely banished from our educational system (except, perhaps, in early childhood education). Instead, educators focus on the acquisition of information and the development of abstract thinking. (These are useful skills, but when they are relied upon to the exclusion of the imagination, they make us mentally unbalanced.) At higher levels of education, the banishment of the imagination is total, and “thinking about thinking” rules. If you have spent a lot of time in the academic world, you will probably have lost connection with your imagination.  Read More 

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Lesson 16: From Observation to Imagination

PRACTICE: FROM OBSERVATION TO IMAGINATION
Use one of your senses to notice something—the color of the sky, the sound of a bird or a passing car, the taste of your coffee, or something else of your choosing. Now wait until that “something” is no longer present before you—or close your eyes, if you have used them to make your observations. And now, in your imagination, recreate whatever you noticed: see that particular blue of the sky, hear the sound of the bird or car, bring back the taste of the coffee.  Read More 

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Lesson 15: Using Material from Observation

When you practice using your powers of observation, you make that faculty stronger. In the process, you also collect a lot of material that you can use in pieces of writing. As you gather your material, and live with it for a while, you will find your own ways of using it. (Don’t forget, though, that you don’t have to use it, if you don’t want to; the most important value of the practice of observation is to strengthen that faculty.) Here are a couple of ideas to get you started:  Read More 

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Lesson 14: The Power of Observation 2

You can do the basic practice of observation any time as you move through your life; you don’t have to write down what you notice. But after a while you will probably find yourself noticing things that you want to write down. Now you can engage in observation practice not just to strengthen your powers of observation but also to collect material for pieces of writing. The collecting you did in earlier lessons was what I call internal collecting —you collected material from inside yourself. When you collect material through observation, you are engaging in external collecting—collecting material from outside yourself. (You can do external collecting in other ways as well; you can find more details in How To Be a Writer.Read More 

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Lesson 13: The Power of Observation

The imagination is the mental faculty that enables us to make pictures of things that aren’t present to our senses. But in order to make those pictures, we need to have already filled our imaginations with raw material. How do we do that? By making use of another essential writer’s faculty: our power of observation. The imagination is completely dependent upon observation; so, if we want to be able to use our imagination in our writing, we need first to develop our ability to observe.  Read More 

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Lesson 12: Imaginative Writing

We typically refer to poems and stories, novels and plays—even, these days, some kinds of nonfiction—as “creative writing.” Each one of these kinds of writing, or genres, works differently, and if you want to produce pieces of writing in a given genre, you need to know how that genre works. In these lessons I do not discuss the specific things you need to know to write a poem or a novel or a play; there are hundreds of books available which will teach you these things. Instead, here (and in my book, How To Be a Writer,) I provide you with the opportunity to learn some basic creative writing skills you can then apply to work in whichever genre interests you. I do this because my experience as a teacher has shown me that many people don’t realize that creative writing requires the use of different mental faculties than other kinds of writing.  Read More 

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Lesson 11: Kinds of Material

It’s impossible to create a piece of writing—in any genre—without content. Naturally, skilled writers also need a command of language; but words are not the most important aspect of a piece of writing. Words are only the medium through which a writer’s content is communicated. If a piece of writing has nothing to say, has no content, then no one will want to read it. Read More 

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Lesson 10: What Do I Do With My Material?

If you spend a few weeks—a few months—even a few years—collecting material, you will soon have quite a pile of it. So, what do you do with it now?

You don’t have to do anything at all with it, if you don’t want to. Collecting is a practice; it builds your content-mind as well as providing you with material. If you don’t like any of the stuff you’ve collected so far, be satisfied with knowing that you have been strengthening your writer’s mind.

Chances are good, though, that there is some material in that pile you will want to use. In order to find that useful material, you will need to engage with what you've collected  Read More 

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Lesson 8: Learning Through Practice

Practice puts brains in your muscles —legendary golfer Sam Snead

Athletes and musicians who want to become great devote countless hours to what the expertise researchers call “deliberate practice.” This is not just fooling around, or playing a game with a friend. Deliberate practice is highly focused and intentional. It’s designed in such a way that we can learn a new skill or improve one we already have. Anders Ericsson, an expert in skills acquisition, says deliberate practice “entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.” It’s deliberate practice, not innate talent, that makes some people great at what they do.  Read More 

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Lesson 9: Training Your Content-Mind

The goal of writing practice is to train your writer's mind.

 

We can think of the writer's mind as having two main parts: content-mind and craft-mind. Content-mind provides us with ideas for things to write about and material to use; craft-mind gives us the words and sentences we need to get what we want to say into the minds of readers. When we train both parts of our writer's mind, we can fulfill the basic requirement for good writing: Have something interesting to say, and say it as well as possible.

 

Many people who want to write get stuck because they can't find the things they have to say. Exercising the content-mind will provide you with lots and lots of material.

 

If you've been doing the basic freewriting practice on a regular basis, you have likely noticed that there's much more inside your mind than you realized. Nonstop, private writing is a great tool for bringing all that "stuff" out onto the page so you can see whether there's any material you can use in a piece of writing. Freewriting, by itself, will give your content-mind a good deal of exercise. Read More 

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Lesson 7. The Skills Writers Need

Although just putting words on paper, as with freewriting, is easy, writing so that other people understand your words, and are moved by them, is not. That’s because writing, like hitting a 95-mph fastball over the Green Monster, or singing a Puccini aria, is a complex skill. Like any complex skill, it is made up of a large number of component skills. I group these skills into two main categories: content skills, and craft skills.  Read More 

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Lesson 6. The “Be a Writer” Practice

If you want to be a writer, you need to be a writer.

That sounds like a Zen saying, doesn’t it? Let me explain.

So many people say they want to be writers; few of them actually do it. There are many reasons why a desire to write doesn’t translate into producing finished pieces of writing. One of the main reasons is that most people don’t know what writers actually do.  Read More 

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Lesson 5. Getting on the Mastery Path

To get on the Mastery Path is simple. First, you need to give up the talent myth, thereby freeing yourself from the endless worry of wondering whether you’re any good or not. Second, you need to give up the idea that writing is easy.

Once you’ve abandoned the talent myth, then it’s possible to see how experts in any field become great: they aren’t born with their skills—they learn them. We can do that, too: after all, the human brain is designed for learning.  Read More 

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Lesson 4. The Talent Myth

If you have bought into the prevailing idea that being a writer is something you “are,” a function of your “self,”then the concept of “talent” probably lurks in your mind, threatening to overwhelm your fragile self-confidence. Most people believe that great writers are born, not made; that they are special individuals gifted at  Read More 

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Lesson 3. How I Discovered the Mastery Path

Once, many decades ago, I was an ignorant and scared writing teacher facing my first classes. I knew little about writing, and still less about how to teach. But right from the start I loved teaching; right from the start I loved reading my students’ writing;  Read More 

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Lesson 2. The Trouble with Workshopping

These days, most people who want to write find themselves at one time or another in a writing workshop, perhaps a course at a college, or a group that meets in someone’s home. That’s because the workshop model for learning prevails in the teaching of creative writing (and often composition as well). Participants in the group present work in progress, and give each other “feedback” on their work. This is supposed to help them improve as writers. But does it?  Read More 

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Lesson 1. The Mastery Path: How To Become a Writer (or a Better One)

Anyone who wants to become a writer these days is likely to be confused by the variety of approaches offered in writing workshops and how-to books. Maybe you’ve been told, “Just keep writing, you’ll get better,” or you’ve followed Annie Lamott’s advice to produce “sh-tty” first drafts, or you’ve followed Natalie Goldberg through years of freewriting, or Julia Cameron into endless exploration of your psyche. Or perhaps  Read More 

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