Notes from Frank Conroy's workshop

I found my old notebook from Frank's last workshop before the surgery. He taught only four or five weeks before Chris Offutt had to take over for him. Caution: Contains hoary chestnuts:

Impersonal criticism is the name of the game. It's not you on the page, it's not about our souls. Everything that's wrong is always revealed in language. Art takes place at the overlap between the writer's energy and the reader's. Where the reader's energy doesn't reach the writer's is private writing. Where the writer's energy is so overwhelming that the reader doesn't need to use any of his own, that's propaganda.

I'm well aware of the joys and temptations of bullshit, but most of what I say will be negative.

Fancy stuff
Meaning Sense Clarity

Do the words precisely mean or just nearly mean? Does it literally make sense? Clarity: also known as brevity. Control diminishes as you go up the pyramid. I'm sorry and wish it were not this way. Trying to tell the truth creates pressure, supercontrols the language, and allows the upper layers to emerge. Trying to tell the truth is the gasoline that drives the engine.

You must do weak work. Every writer has 4/5 under the surface. Don't be afraid of failure. It is necessary. Process is what's important, not the particular story. Taste is beyond dispute.

Popular culture is the writer's headwind.

Meditate on the text. Backstory should be an artful part of the structure.

Abject naturalism is when believable, safe events occur in chronological order.

Dialog should be short. Likewise flashbacks. If they are too long, the reader falls off. The writer implies, the reader infers. The reader builds character from details you give. A loose reader will insist on any material making sense -- will come up with an outlanding explanation so that it does. Writer and reader are equal and are together looking at the same thing. The writer has his arm around the reader, and is going around pointing out stuff.

Don't ever count on a second read from the reader. You're lucky if you get one. If something is intelligible on 2nd read but not 1st, something's wrong. There's nothing you can't do, but there are plenty of ways to screw up. For dialect, read James Baldwin. He gets the rhythm and sound of black speech without dropping the G's.

The reader is smarter than you are. Never explain if you trust the dramatization. The reader will not miss. American Pastoral is a masterpiece. Drop City is Boyle's best. Read The French Lieutenant's Woman. Read The Red and the Black.

It's zen, it really is. It's weird shit.

Meditate deeply on the text. Doctorow got Ragtime from meditating upon his wall. You must punch through to the story's manifest destiny. Think of John Cheever getting dressed in a suit and tie and going down to write in the basement of his building with a typewriter on a card table.

Be a monk for your story. The monks know where power comes from.

The deal between the writer and the reader was made a long time ago, and there's nothng we can do about it: I'm taking you somewhere for a reason -- you may not understand now, but I promise you will.


Lila said...

I didn't know that Frank loves American Pastoral. That surprises me.

Thnks for the posting, Grendel. There's some great stuff in there worth thinking about as I sit down to revise a story for the thirteen-thousandth time.

SER said...

PJKM, could you add some of your notes from Frank's class? The ones that aren't necessarily about writing? Oh, yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

Antoine said...

Word up. How about the one where you can't stand next to your books at the bookstore, explaining the meaning to people?

I have two or three of FC's visiting writer intros on tape somewhere...they are masterpieces.

Drop City is Boyle's best novel. Nice to hear it out of FC's mouth.


PS I like this blog. Enjoyed the Curtis interview.

Grendel said...

Thanks, Antoine. You've got a fine one going yourself.

Another Frank classic that is so, so true: Everything you are planning to put in your story, pretend you are putting it into the reader's backpack to carry up a hill. When the reader gets to the top, she opens the backpack, and if she finds stuff that weren't necessary, she will not be a happy camper.

Grendel said...

Of course I meant "...and finds stuff that wasn't necessary..."

Dave Daniels said...

Thanks very much for this. There's a lot to think about here.