Tuesday, August 28

The Side Door Cracks Open:
The First Day of Class

"The side door cracks open."

My first Intro to Fiction class at Susquehanna University started like the first line of Tom Bailey’s short story “Snow Dreams.” We were in a little room in the library on a Tuesday afternoon, me and 14 other writing majors all sitting around a large oak-veneered conference table. The room filled with excitement as we waited for our first writing class to start.

I’d been waiting for Dr. Bailey’s Intro to Fiction workshop since before I mailed my Common Application to Susquehanna University, since I left Susquehanna’s annual weeklong Writer’s Workshop for high school students two summers ago.

I attended the workshop the summer before my senior year of high school, and I loved it. It really gave me a feel for what it would be like to go to college, what it would be like to live at Susquehanna. I stayed on SU’s campus for a week, lived in a college dorm, ate college dining hall food, attended writing classes ("workshops") led by a college professor (Dr. Bailey), and spent the rest of the week making friends with other young writers and falling for Susquehanna’s beautiful campus. In fact, four other writers that I met that week also enrolled at Susquehanna. Three of them are in my Intro to Fiction class.

“The side door cracked open,” and Dr. Bailey entered the room and flashed us a grin. He wasted little time with the syllabus and started teaching.

“Fiction deepens feeling,” he began. Then to prove his point he read Isaac Babel’s short story “Crossing Into Poland” out loud, and everybody around the table was spellbound, transfixed, completely focused on listening to his energetic interpretation of the work.
That’s how Tom Bailey is. Whenever he starts speaking about writing his eyes light up. His passion for writing is big enough to fill a room and everybody in it.

I left Dr. Bailey’s class feeling like I could write eight novels and then walk over to Deg to grab some dinner. It’s a good feeling to have since Dr. Bailey has already assigned us a writing exercise (in the third person, write about yourself writing) along with two short stories and an essay on writing to read (John Updike’s “A&P,” Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” and Francine Prose’s “What Makes a Short Story?”). Even so, I’m still looking forward to Thursday.

Thursday, September 6

Short-Shorts Should Be Short:
A Mock Workshop

On Thursday, Dr. Bailey asked us to read some “short-shorts,” really brief pieces of writing, a paragraph to a page, that just capture the essence of something. Then he asked us each to write a short-short of our own.

On Tuesday, we discovered our short-shorts all failed pretty miserably, including my own three-page not-so-short-short about an old woman playing the piano. It was more of a short story than a short-short, and this became obvious as my piece went through a sort of mini-workshop. As I read the thing out loud for the class to comment on, it became clear my short-short was two pages (that is, three times) longer than everyone else’s, and I felt naked.

My classmates were polite, though, and they pointed out some of the strong descriptions I had in the piece. Then Dr. Bailey quickly singled out the paragraph that held the essence of my story, the paragraph I have to go chisel out and shape into my second draft. The rest of the details were all right, he explained, but they were just too much for a short-short.

I have a pretty clear picture now of what a short-short is and an even better picture of what a short-short is not. I guess you learn from your mistakes. I think that’s something the whole class found out Tuesday. There were one or two other short stories hiding among our short-shorts, and in general we discovered as a class that our writing tends to suffer from flat characters and vague details.

Don't Use The Shotgun Approach:
More on Short-Shorts

Dr. Bailey started class today by apologizing for “roughing us up” on Tuesday, for acting like one of his son’s football coaches, the big guys who bark and shout so they can “make men” out of ten-year-olds. Then like any good coach would, Dr. Bailey launched into something like a pep talk to keep us from dwelling on our defeats and get us focused for the big game coming up (that is, the next short-short he assigned us for Tuesday).

“There is no reality on the page,”
Dr. Bailey began. “It’s all the trick of reality. It’s all the dream of a reality.” As writers, he explained, we can’t assume a reality exists for our stories. We can’t have vague details and generic people in our stories and assume the reader will fill in all the blanks. We have to carefully construct a world on the page, and these worlds are built from strong specific details.

“You can’t make it up!” Dr. Bailey is always saying.

Then he grabbed a piece of chalk and scribbled a shotgun and a goose on the board. In large capital letters above the barrel he wrote “KA-POW!” and then he peppered the board with shot that killed his poorly drawn goose. This was not how a short-short should work, Dr. Bailey explained.

Then below the shotgun, he drew a rifle firing into a bull’s-eye. That was how a short-short should work, he said, like a bullet. Most of us were having trouble with the short-shorts because we were employing the shotgun approach, firing all over hoping to bag all sorts of ideas. A short-short should be like a bullet shot out of a rifle, tightly focused on one target, one idea.