Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Fiction Module - Class 1

Yesterday we got the Fiction module under way, and it was an interesting experience to again be able to sit, interact and discuss the issues of narrative structure, what we liked/didn't like about stories, and cover some ground work, all face to face. Here I will try to give a run down of what we covered:

  1. Firstly, we were given three items - drinking glass, button, wastebasket - the task being to choose one and write down as many uses as possible:

    Button: choke on, as Button Moon, eyes for a teddy, fixing clothing, finish off a cup cake, start/stop machinery, nuke the world, allow/prevent access...

    You get the point. It's about freeing the mind, getting us to broaden our imagination (whilst also being a warm up exercise to get the group used to one another)

  2. Next, write down a list of concrete nouns:

    Water, Bomb, Fireplace, Toilet, Lamp, Car, Bus, Shelter, Button, Echidna, Leaf, Tree, Vine, Boat Sun

    Now, choose one: Lamp

    Finally, use the word Lamp to describe the abstract noun: Life.

    Life exists when the lamp turns on. Like the lamp it dazzles when first it pushes back the darkness, drawing warmth and comfort about itself. That lamp may shine on, seemingly forever strong, and good, and bright. But, it doesn't last forever and if the lamp gives out of its own accord, the filament snapped like a snuffed candle caught by a breath, the cold and darkness shall return. And though the lamp may be replaced with the light of another - for light and life do go on - this warning must be heeded: The lamp, like life, can exist in the hands of another, who, by their own whimsy may so switch off the lamp as they please, thus ending its illumination prematurely.

  3. The third task was Consequences. Each person takes a loose sheet of paper. Everybody starts by writing a man's name at the top. They then fold a line of the sheet over and pass the sheet onto the next person. That person writes a woman's name, folds passes on... writes something the man says, folds, passes... writes something the woman says... fold, passes... writes a consequence (or outcome), folds, passes... and the final person, unfolds the sheet and reads out the story.

    For example:

    Man: Englebert Humperdink
    Woman: T. J. Pink
    Man says: "Hmm, loose lips and wide hips. No thanks, I think I'll pass."
    Woman says: "Don't you like my tight sweater?"
    Consequence: The man gave up fishing.

    Not very evocative, not in the least bit exciting, but it shows a basic narrative structure, that all the stories passed (and developed at random) around the group possess.

  4. We discussed two very different short stories, one by Ernest Hemingway and the other by Amy Hempel:

    Hills Like White Elephants - Ernest Hemingway
    The Harvest - Amy Hempel

    Hemingway's piece is stark in its description, choosing the describe the place in a functional manner, to evoke time and place, but not describing the characters or associating them to who is speaking at any one time. There's no he said, she said, there isn't even the description of the man translating for the girl - he simply repeats what is said before. What is important about the story is that Hemingway has written everything important into the subtext. The characters are at a crossroads - having travelled for such a long time (their suitcases have a load of country stamps upon them) - the girl is pregnant, and they are to seek an abortion (thanks to Nick for advising us all of the meaning of "To let a little air in")
    Of course, neither of them say this. Instead they talk about other things, such as drinking, and whether or not the other is happy with the decision. There's a great moment when he goes to the bar alone and drinks in there by himself, kind of reliving the life they had before complication.

    Perhaps though, because the piece takes a couple of reads to really absorb its deeper meanings, it doesn't work as well as it might - but isn't that why so many people are turned off by Hemingway?

    In complete contrast, Hempel's piece is American Minimalist. It is a postmodern story about an accident... well it's not, because it's really about garnering sympathy and how to weight a story by bending the truth or lying about the situation to make it sound worse than it was, or to embellish the circumstances to try to ellicit different emotional responses from the audience.

    I felt that this was something akin to the style of Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club), to which my tutor said that Hempel's short story is Chuck's favourite - yay! on the money.

    There is very little dialogue, and it's a completely different style to Hemingway. Interesting to consider both in this manner - the very antithesis of each other.

  5. Before the lunch break we each discussed a chosen book we'd read recently - and surprisingly out of the entire group of 12, none of us chose the same book. I reviewed John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany - which you can read from some months back, here.

  6. After that, and after none of us could come up with a book that we'd all read (we were going to cover a narrative structure from start to finish using a novel we all knew) - the closest we came was the Hungry Caterpillar! - we entered into our critique groups. More to follow on that later.

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