The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need
October 20, 2015
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. (more…)
October 10, 2015
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. (more…)
September 10, 2015
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. (more…)
August 20, 2015
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. (more…)
August 9, 2015
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? (more…)
July 30, 2015
July 12, 2015
So rather than setting out specific steps to follow every time you want to write a story, let me offer you some tools. (more…)
June 22, 2015
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. (more…)
June 9, 2015
May 22, 2015
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. (more…)
May 1, 2015
—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: (more…)
April 22, 2015
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. (more…)
April 2, 2015
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. (more…)
March 21, 2015
March 3, 2015
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. (more…)
February 25, 2015
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. (more…)
February 11, 2015
—Isaac Bashevis Singer (more…)
January 26, 2015
January 12, 2015
December 28, 2014
December 14, 2014
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: (more…)
December 9, 2014
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. (more…)
November 27, 2014
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. (more…)
October 28, 2014
Story 1: Introduction
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. (more…)