Demystifying Writing with PEN Award Winner Mark Richard
Written by Chandler Ryd
This fall, the Visiting Writers Program brought PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) Hemingway award winning author Mark Richard to campus. The fiction workshop he taught at Hillsdale brought the abstract concept of storytelling into tangible focus for all who attended. He used the power of simple metaphor to demystify the writing process. Here are a few tips he gave us for writing a story.
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- To begin a story, Richard said to begin with one sentence. That’s all. Easy, right? Write one good sentence about something you’ve seen. Then take the sentence and run with it. The story is an expansion of the first sentence.
- After the first sentence, add a few narrative elements, like settings, characters, objects, or even colors or adjectives. Richard, in his short story “Happiness of the Garden Variety,” introduces aquamarine paint that one character slathers on everything around his house. Aquamarine paint shows up a dozen or so times throughout the story. In this sense, writing a story is like using a Lazy Susan. You begin by placing these narrative elements (like aquamarine paint) on the metaphorical Lazy Susan until it feels like you could write a story about them. Next, you “spin” the Lazy Susan and land on one element that you then write about. Maybe the character puts aquamarine paint on his house and his truck. Maybe the aquamarine paint sits out in cans in the shed. Pretty soon, you have a story about your first sentence and aquamarine paint. The goal is to limit the story to a set number of characters, settings, objects, etc, that you establish near the beginning and then bring to life by exploring their relationships to each other. Make the elements collide.
- After you write about an element on the Lazy Susan, use the momentum of your last sentence to swing from element to element, like a man on a trapeze. Repeat the first element and show why it leads to the second. This works at the ends of sentences or at the ends of paragraphs to swing the reader through the story. Mark Richard talks about aquamarine paint to bring one of his characters, Vic, to life.
- When the paragraphs begin to form a story, when the elements begin to collide, change their order. If you begin to associate the aquamarine paint with Vic, instead move from Vic to the aquamarine paint, or from the paint to Vic’s wife . Richard said writing is like a card trick. Use linguistic sleight of hand with the elements from the Lazy Susan so that you swing from the paint to Vic, now Vic back to the paint, now the paint to his wife, and then perhaps back to Vic. It keeps the reader guessing while developing the relationships between the paint, Vic, and his wife.
- Keep writing and finish the story. Amateurs leave a story unfinished, but professionals push to the end. An ugly but complete story can be improved, but a beautiful half-finished story is useless. Finish writing, then the real work—editing—begins.
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His advice gave the writers on campus the tools and inspiration to push past writer’s block and take command of their storytelling by presenting it in concrete terms.
“It’s not the fine frenzy that Shakespeare talks about,” Senior Forester McClatchey said. “It’s actually a very mundane, quotidian, rational contraption that needs to function, and he was utterly unpretentious about it.”
Junior Rachelle Furguson said something similar: he made the blank page seem approachable.
“He was willing to explain the flaws in his writing. His openness and honesty broke down the barriers I tend to feel between myself and a published writer,” Rachelle said. “Of all the visiting writer’s I’ve seen so far, Mark Richard was my favorite.”
Novelist, filmmaker, and resident root-beer snob, Chandler Ryd, ’18, is the president of the Creative Writing Club. He studies English in his free time. You can usually find him in the periodicals section of the library.