Novelist Karen Russell gave a reading and a master class at Rollins in early February. Of the many helpful things she said to our writing students, two points were important enough for me to repeat in my class the following week.
The first has to do with a story being an “engine of revelation.” In workshops, we discuss the importance of “something” happening to the central character of a piece, not just externally in terms of the plot, but internally, in terms of the emotional state. What changes at the end of the story? I ask. What shifts for her? How does she start seeing herself, others, or the world in a new way? Revelation: a dramatic disclosure of something not previously known or realized. Revelation: something peeled back for close observation.
A good writer helps us see more closely the subtle transformations of the heart that make a character or a narrator believable, palpable, like us in our own yearnings and fumblings. Sometimes this revelation comes when a character gains insight into what is happening to her. Other times, a character fails to grasp the meaning of his actions, and revelation happens for the reader, not the character. Either way, this revelation is why we so often say that fiction is actually a vehicle of Truth; its fabricated facts create insight into who we are at the very core of our being.
The second important idea Russell gave students was the importance of a question: “What is the question you are answering through your writing?” In other words, what’s really going on in this piece? Sometimes, Russell explained, “what most needs saying is left unsaid.” In my classes, we often approach this important aspect of writing by examining the concept of “yearning.” Dynamic characters are inhabited by a specific yearning that motivates them to act, speak, think in the way they do. It might not be stated, but it will be there and the writer needs to know what it is because that yearning is probably what the whole piece is about. What does this character most yearn for and how is she making mistakes as she sets about trying to fulfill that yearning? That’s a good question for seeing at how stories complicate, and ultimately resolve.
It’s also a good question to ask about your own life. (And doesn’t every good story ultimately lead us back to ourselves?) What yearning is motivating you to speak, to act, to touch the earth with grace? What are you yearning to say, to accomplish, to create? Choices become easier when you are clear about this.
Such question help us all create LifeArt.