Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Winesburg + Prezi

This week, we read and discussed Winesburg, Ohio in my Linked Stories workshop. Oh, how I love this book. I wrote about it here. 

In my class, we "reverse storyboard" the books we're reading, to take them apart, mix them up, arrange, rearrange, and put them back together again. I don't think there's any better way to learn how to structure your own collection than to mess around with the order of a published book in order to learn what makes it tick, how different orders produce different effects and can provide an entirely different reading experience. 

Last week, we turned the poems of Spoon River Anthology into detached, movable pieces. This was easy. I just printed the poems on separate pieces of paper. The poems themselves are thumbnail sketches or screen shots. 

When you're trying to reverse storyboard a work of fiction, you have to distill each chapter/story down into that thumbnail or screen shot. The thumbnail can be a physical artifact (using Post its, index cards, posterboard, the blackboard) or a digital one (using Scrivener,, Power Point, or Prezi). No matter how you do it, the storyboard must be visual, and there must be some logic to how you arrange it so we can "see" the entire structure of the book somehow. 

One of my students, Kat Greene, used the presentation software Prezi to storyboard Winesburg. Here she is, walking us through the thumbnails, or in Prezi-speak, "frames."

Basically, she typed up brief paragraph-long synopses of each story and decided on an arrangement that involves the degree to which each story is related to George Willard, the "through line" of Winesburg, Ohio. The big red circle is George, and the one story that's all about him is the very last story in the book, "Departure."

Winesburg, Ohio storyboard on Prezi

As you can see, most of the stories "revolve" around George Willard--literally. The four stories sitting off to the right side, that's "Godliness," a four-part story that never mentions George; it doesn't totally "fit" into Winesburg, and you can actually see that in the Prezi. Other "loose" stories on the screen are those in which George Willard isn't really mentioned, but as you can see, the stories in which he plays a role as a character far outnumber the number of stories in which he doesn't--which is one of the main reasons the book reads more like a novel than a collection of disparate short stories. 

Next week, we're reading Evan S. Connell's Mrs. Bridge, a book widely regarded as a novel, but what I find interesting about it formally is that it's comprised of 117 individually titled vignettes. It will be interesting to compare it to Winesburg.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Spoon River Anthology

I started my grad class on Linked Stories by giving them poems...the first 21 poems of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology all mixed up. They re-assembled the poems in whatever order made sense to them.

They laid the poems out on the tables and grouped the linked poems together: Benjamin and Mrs. Paintier. Minerva Jones, Butch Weldy, Doc Meyers, etc.

They couldn't remember the order Masters had chosen, and this was a good thing, because it forced them to think about assembling a collection of pieces into a whole, something they will all need to do when they assemble their theses of poems, stories, and essays--not to mention the books they'll write someday. 

I read Spoon River when I was a graduate student at Alabama, and I fell in love--not with the poems so much as the form, the linkages, the structure. I think more people should read this book for that reason alone. Most of the titles of the stories in The Circus in Winter are the names of characters, just like Spoon River. 

It was a great opening exercise to what I hope will be a great class. Check back for more, and follow us on Twitter by searching for #amlinking. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Diptychs and Triptychs

This semester, I'm teaching a graduate fiction workshop on Linked Stories. I've talked about this topic a lot recently. At the 2011 AWP Conference, and on my blog.

I created #amlinking to document this particular course. My hope is that by making the class a little more transparent, everyone wins:

  • the students learn how to present themselves in an online environment as writers
  • creative writing teachers learn how they might teach a class on the linked story form
  • writers learn how to work in that formal space between "story collection" and "novel."

I've subtitled the class "Diptychs and Triptychs, Rings and Mobius Strips," and on the first day, we're going to look at how painters and photographers arrange images into different shapes and forms, creating narrative sequences and juxtapositions. Consider for example if these pictures were arranged in the opposite order--what different kind of story would be told?