Everything Is a Mirror was the title of the “Night Owl” adult workshop I attended this week at the Telling Room. Subtitled “Nonfiction and the Art of Interpretation,” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Instructor Jaed Coffin turned out to be a great teacher, full of energy and ideas. Although the workshop was targeted to memoir and nonfiction, most of the ideas were applicable to fiction as well, and since I am interested in essay writing, criticism and journalism, besides fiction and poetry, it sounded interesting. And it was.
I have been to a small slew of creative writing workshops, and a lot of them feature a published author, writing prompts, writing time, and some relatively gentle critiquing. I’ve always found them valuable for the interactions, insights and motivational aspects, but sometimes they can get repetitive. It’s hard to teach great writing — to convey where it comes from and how you do it. This workshop was a departure from the norm, in that there was a lot of discussion about narrative structure and theory. Jaed had some extremely practical advice on how to tap into the most energized synapses within a narrative. We also discussed how narrative often has an underlying theme or themes of which the writer is not even aware. Some of his ideas were a little formulaic, but they were good and useful ideas.
This workshop made me really think about how dominant the desire for linear narrative can be. Life isn’t really linear (though we often look at it that way), but chaotic. We try to impose order on reality, but we actually experience it in complex and startling ways. Reality is often synaesthetic. Every moment is a fragment of a multidimensional web of memories, thoughts, cultural references, psychology, fears, desires, etc. We are interconnected with the world in aggregates of ways. We don’t live, we collide. Why should writing or art be any different? Truly interesting writing explores those interconnections, the places where the synergy happens. In my own writing I can tell the difference between a boring, plodding passage and a lively, gripping one. That excitement needs to drive the narrative. Sure, order is useful and traditional narrative is very effective. But sometimes mixing up the process a bit can be good too. There is magic in the unexpected. New approaches are invigorating. There are patterns in the chaos.