Saturday, June 6, 2009

Book Review: Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm

The best sort of friend is the one who knows about your interests outside of whatever brought you together, and gives you gifts related to that. Like my gaming friend who brought me a pearl from Hawaii because he knows I do beadwork. Or a beading friend who sends me a book on writing, because she knows that I'm an aspiring author.

That was how Kate Wilhelm's Storyteller ended up in my hands. This book's subtitle is "Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers' Workshop" which sums things up pretty nicely. It's a memoir and a how-to beautifully wrapped up together.

Many years ago, another beading friend who was very supportive of my writing sent me On Writing by Stephen King. That book spent the first half of itself detailing the author's early life and journey to being published, and then delved into his drug abuse and more, before switching gears to being a how-to.

Storyteller takes a different approach. The author reminisces about the years that she and her husband (the late Damon Knight) spent at Clarion, starting at the very first Workshop (actually, starting with a different workshop that inspired it), and as she tells this tale, she also weaves in how they worked, how the workshops evolved, and what exercises the reader can do at home to improve their writing without attending a 6 week workshop.

I'd heard of the Clarion workshops before but didn't really know much about them. By reading this book, I learned that it was a 6-week residential workshop geared towards writing short stories of genre fiction. Students wrote while at the workshop, and had their work critiqued. What was interesting to me was that the writing class that I took, that was very biased towards literary fiction ("genre fiction" was often said with contempt, much to the dismay of those of us who wrote it) used the exact same style of critiquing as was laid out in this book. Take that, literary snobs!

Most of the exercises are geared towards short story writers and would be impractical for a novelist to use -- for instance, it's recommended that you cover up all of your story except for one sentence, and see if that sentence says what you want it to. And then you do that with every sentence. Tedious with the 12-page stories students were producing at Clarion. Damn near impossible for a many thousands of words long novel like The Princess Dilemma.

Some exercises, however, would work for a piece of any length. For instance, writing a scene multiple times, from the point of view of different characters. And doing the same with character descriptions. By creating three or so different subjective points of view, the author then has a more objective point of view of the scene or character in question.

Although this advice is scattered throughout the book, it's also gathered conveniently in the end, for ease of future reference.

As much as I found the lessons and exercises to be thought-provoking, it was the memoir aspect of this book that kept me turning the pages. Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight taught at Clarion from 1967 to 1994. The chapters about the early days of the workshop were like a window into another world. The late 60s were a time when a woman in jeans or a man with long hair were still looked upon with a certain amount of confusion or even distrust. Co-ed dorms were practically unheard of, curfews at the colleges were strict, and the towns rolled up the sidewalk at 6pm (ok, there are still parts of Tucson that do that in 2009...). A time when an author couldn't just walk down to B&N to pick up the latest Writer's Handbook to get all of the advice they needed, nor could they attend writing workshops in their own city, unless they were very lucky.

Storyteller never dwells on any one thing, occasionally leaving me wanting to know more about how certain things were resolved, more about the students over the years. At 190 pages, it's a slim volume. At times it feels almost shallow, skimming over things, moving on to the next tidbit about the difference between plotted and unplotted stories or an anecdote about a squirt gun battle that got out of hand. It's almost like you're sitting in Kate Wilhelm's living room, and she's telling you the story, and each little thing sends her off on a tangent, and then she might forget to come back to where she left off. Maybe that's where the title comes from.

All in all, I thought this was a neat little book and will probably improve my writing, even though my main focus right now is novels. I would especially recommend it for anyone trying to get published in the short story market. It was published by Small Beer Press and you should be able to purchase it directly from them.

1 comment:

mjlayman said...

Glad you liked it!