Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What Does "Strengthening Your Prose" Really Mean?

by Graham Dunstan

This September marks the third fall I’ve had the pleasure to teach the “Strengthening Your Prose” course at The Writer’s Center. It’s a class for beginning to intermediate writers who want to practice the skills necessary for creating a story—fiction or nonfiction. And while the students are always diverse in skill level and interests in writing, there are a number of questions about prose that come up every class:

  • Are there strategies for finding time to write?
  • How do I know if what I want to write is a short story, a nonfiction essay, or something else?
  • Is there an easy way to tell where my story should begin or end?
  • How can I make my characters feel more real?

The course delves into these kinds of questions and goes deeper into the elements of writing that make up a good short story or nonfiction piece. But there are also a few general rules of thumb that come up repeatedly throughout the course.

Writing takes commitment. Writing is like going to the gym—a million small projects or things to do seemingly pop up, but you have to push all that away and make the commitment to work. For me, that’s turning off the television, putting the cell phone on silent, and really concentrating on those often excruciating first 15 minutes after opening the laptop. Surprisingly, just starting can be the hardest thing in the world sometimes. The good thing, though—further extending the gym metaphor—is that the more you challenge yourself and give it time, the better you get.

Remember that a first draft is just for you. Don’t let yourself get hung up in the early stages of a writing project—if you get stuck on a plot point then move on and come back later. The same thing for a scene that’s not working. And when you’ve just started a piece, don’t feel like you need to know if you’re writing a short story or a prose poem or nonfiction essay. The best way to write a nonfiction essay that doesn’t feel real: focusing too much in the early stages on the confines of the genre.

Read for enjoyment but practice also reading with a critical eye. Ask yourself why you love the short stories you love. Take a look at the memoir on your nightstand and try to uncover how the author wrapped you up in his or her story. It can be a revolutionary thing to really examine the work you love and see how authors and colleagues and classmates approach conflict, character, and point of view.

What these tips (and the questions that sparked them) all have in common is that they revolve around our love of writing and reading. Give yourself the time and patience to learn why writing means something to you. While the “Strengthening Your Prose” class will focus on this through the workshopping of student writing and the reading of selected contemporary short stories and nonfiction, you can also make a commitment to challenge yourself by writing more often and reading more thoughtfully.

Graham Dunstan is a fiction and memoir writer who has won numerous awards for his writing, including a Larry Neal Fiction Award for the District of Columbia, and fiction awards from Lullwater Review and Anchorage Daily News. He earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he also taught composition. Graham has been published in The Signal, The Phoenix, Lullwater Review, We Alaskans, Creative Loafing, Anchorage Weekly, and on PlanetOut.

No comments: