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Lazette Gifford,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk,
Assistant Editor

Issue # 56
March/April 2010

Table of Contents

Book Review:
Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop
By Kate Wilhelm

Reviewed by Erin Hartshorn

Copyright © 2010, ErinHartshorn, All Rights Reserved

This book, like Stephen King's On Writing, is part memoir, part reflection on writing, and part instruction manual. At its heart, Wilhelm's book is about the founding of the Clarion Workshop and its changes through the years. Along the way, she gives us glimpses of the people she met and problems they all faced.

Her descriptions of water gun fights and students banding together to complain, of segregated housing and student pranks, of friendships developed over time, and of methods used for critiquing felt like reading a secret history. As she said toward the end of the book, workshops are everywhere now. "Honest and supportive criticism" patterned after the Milford/Clarion method now helps writers and would-be writers in all genres move toward publication.

She talks about how stories that she and Damon Knight liked were roundly panned by students, who thought they were fundamentally flawed because there was no plot and nothing appeared to happen. She talks about how sometimes the change associated with a story is supposed to occur in the reader rather than the characters, and she talks about vertical stories that explore a character's life situation in great depth. I may never like this form of story (I'm a plot-driven writer), but now I feel I understand the techniques and merits of such stories better.

One of the things that really struck me was her description of how she develops a story idea. I am an outline writer, but her explanation of how she takes dreams and emotions and fragments and begins to write tempts me to try winging it. She is very convincing.

At the end of the book, she gathers some of the writing tips from throughout the book, giving a quick reference guide to the problems found with openings; a reminder about the five W's (one of the things my own mom, who has a journalism degree, always wanted to emphasize); as well as specifics on character, plot, setting, and the various forms.

Some of her advice might sound basic, but I know how often I've violated it -- for example, a story starts with a person in a place. Sounds pretty obvious, doesn't it? But she talks about a woman who wrote a story set in a walled city. When Ms. Wilhelm asked the woman what was outside the wall, the woman didn't know. I know I've written stories without knowing about the wider world, and I know at least one person who critiqued my cozy mystery commented that the small town didn't seem to exist anywhere in particular. Obvious, but easy to overlook.

Although this is not primarily meant as a how-to book for writers, the nuggets in it (and the recapitulation of those points at the end of the book) are worth reading for, and the book as a history makes fascinating reading. It wouldn't be high on my list of books for people who are just learning to write, but for those looking for a little more insight or a slightly different way of looking at things, it's definitely a good choice.

Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop
By Kate Wilhelm
Small Beer Press paperback, copyright 2005
ISBN 978-1-931520-16-4

Words like winter snowflakes
-- Homer, The Iliad