Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Happy Accident

There were four days before my community creative nonfiction workshop was set to begin when I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I’d be taking on the community fiction workshop as well. At first this seemed like a daunting task. I had all of my lessons already planned out, my readings selected and ready to be photocopied, and they were all centered around—you guessed it—works and craft elements of creative nonfiction. This left me with two major questions I needed to answer in order to ensure that all of my students got out of the workshop what they’d hoped to: 1.) How am I supposed to fit fiction into the mix now with an already packed-to-capacity syllabus? And, 2.) Of all of the combined craft concerns of the two genres, which do I choose to focus on in the eight class meetings we’d have together?

The second question needed to be addressed first. Once I decided how to shift the focus of the class in order to encompass both genres, then I could worry about organizational measures. With six students in the class, that meant I could only afford to dedicate two of the two hour sessions to craft if I wanted to have enough time for all of my students to have two different pieces workshopped—which only seemed fair to me. A crash course in craft concerns was certainly in order, but which craft concerns should take the focus? Well, I would at least have to cover the elements of craft that are integral to both genres. This meant, for me: plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, point of view, and voice. On top of these, I’d have to cover certain elements unique to creative nonfiction as well. And so I chose to add truth and universality to the mix. No creative nonfiction class could be complete without a hearty discussion of the difference between objective and perspectival truth and how to handle weaving through both on the page. Universality, on the other hand, seemed crucial to bring up in order to avoid the awkward possibility of having to workshop 15 pages of Jane Doe’s private diary entries. “Your pieces should appeal to an audience broader than just you and your circle of friends and family,” I made sure to tell them straightaway.

With that, I added a few fiction readings to the list, photocopied them out, and the class had begun. Over the course of the workshop I found the amount of overlap between the two genres (even in terms of truth and universality, believe it or not) to be quite surprising. In fact, teaching the two genres together didn’t seem to muddle the concerns of either in the limited amount of time we had, but, instead, helped to illuminate the concerns of both in fascinating and beneficial ways. They reflected and refracted one another when they needed to, making for a swift understanding of the craft of creative writing overall. The other happy accident of the hybrid workshop was that it gave the students a chance to step outside of their comfort zones—an experience that I would argue is critical to the practice of writing. If I remember correctly, everyone in the class, whether they originally signed up for fiction or nonfiction, wrote one piece in each genre and I had the pleasure of being able to watch their writing improve and their appreciation of reading increase because of it.

Originally from Rochester, New York, Dustin J. DiPaulo is an MFA candidate at FAU. He writes creative nonfiction and music.

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