Friday, August 21, 2009

Notes on Skidmore, Jim Shepard

In the course of 3 workshops, Jim Shepard articulated the most useful method of reading one's own work in progress I've heard to date. I think what appeals to me the most about this method is that it relies on the skills of close reading that we're trained to apply to the "classic" works of literature. Close reading: the default method of approaching literature. I aspire to create literature myself. Shouldn't I be able to approach my own text as a close reader? Wouldn't reading my own work closely make obvious things to me that I am accomplishing on the page and things that still need to be developed? This is what Jim Shepard's method aspires to: to allow a writer to approach her own work as though it were a piece of literature -- which it is. Or wants to be.

At the beginning of the second workshop -- and after doing a brilliant presentation of the method two days before -- Jim read off to us his instructions on reading. I wasn't able to write down every word he said, but I think I got the gist. He talked specifically about the way to approach reading another writer's work in a workshop environment -- but all the rules apply equally well to reading one's own work in preparation for the revision process (after the first draft is completed).

First, he described the best kind of (workshop) readers. The most helpful readers are "rigorous, fastidious & optimistic." And best reader responses are "not only wearing because they believe everything can be improved" but also inspiring because they "provide a source of hope."

The most important rule of reading a work of another workshop participant: read more than once. In fact, Jim's method involves reading a text four times.

First, read a story straight through without making any marks on paper. Then, follow the instructions below. (I'm not putting these in quotation marks because I'm not sure I got the language right. But the ideas are all Jim.)

1. Second time you're reading a story from the beginning to the end, mark up the events that seem crucial, things you don't understand, punctuation, line edits.

2. Go to the end of the story and reread the last 2-3 pages.

3. Begin the story again with those last 2-3 pages in mind, as though the end of the story has something to do with the beginning. Skim the story for its larger features. Describe to yourself what different parts of the story are doing.

4. Mark those moments that are the crucial parts of the story, "the secret key of the story." A pattern that a story (or a novel) is revealing. Language that points to things that the fiction is obsessively returning to. Language that points to things that are left emotionally unexplained.

Jim talked in greater detail about this last point. He talked about narrators of fiction as having a hostile relationship to the author. Once the narrator starts speaking, she immediately reveals intentions that are different from those of the author. Re-reading your own work is an exercise of figuring out what your narrator's goals are and what to do about them. Jim's phrase: "Narrator's obsessive tyranny." He also mentioned that protagonists have still different agendas than narrators in fiction. (This is the basics of narrative theory, but so important to remember when writing!).

Stories, he said, (and narrators) "always provide their own operating instructions." Hence, as readers we need to read for them -- I think finding these operating instructions is also what he calls finding the "secret key" of a story. Or it maybe a prerequisite to finding the "secret key"?

One way he recommends of getting the narrators (and characters) to reveal their agendas is asking them a direct question: "What is your problem?" (I can still hear Jim's voice making a distinct emphasis on every word of this phrase.) In the classroom, he got a lot of humor out of this approach. He picked on a line from one of our stories, in which a narrator described her protagonist thus: "and her eyes shone like those of a wolfhound." Jim approached the author and asked him point blank: "Would you tell your sister when you see her tomorrow morning, Hi, honey, your eyes are shining like those of a wolfhound today?" His point was to bring our attention to the violence implied in this simile. To get us to read closely the emotion lodged in the language. What is the source of this emotion? Is the narrator driven by hatred or anger when he refers to his protagonist in this way?

Two other things he talked about that were not directly related to our work with narrators.
a) Rate of Revelation: "Everything should be showing something new." If a sentence is not pointing to new things, it's not doing its work. Cut it down.
b) "Conflict in literature involves two equally powerful but opposing values. I love my father. // I hate my father."

I wish I could post a snapshot of what my story looks like with Jim's underlining and editing marks, but I can't figure out how to use my camera. Trust me, it's a work of art.

Something to ponder about all of this. Personally, I am convinced that each story contains as many "secret keys" as there are readers. I think it would be a mistake to take Jim's method as reading for either the author's or even the narrator's *intentions*. As we learn in reading literature, the best we can do in reading a piece of literature is to formulate a series of theories about it that explain this text to us in some sort of a coherent pattern. My interpretation will always be different from that of Olga A, B or C's -- or the writer's own. To interpret a story and then to present my own interpretation of the story back to the writer is an exercise that allows both the reader and the writer to see how convincing my interpretation can be. The more positive statements I, the reader, can make about a story, the easier it is for the writer to decide whether these are the statements that she wants her reader to make. A story that is less well put together will be harder to interpret convincingly.


  1. the most helpful readers: rigorous, fastidious and optimistic: yes!

    I want to know more re: author vs. narrator. find that my subconscious goes to work in fiction in much the same way it does in dreams. The teacher Albert Guerard said that writing is a kind of dreaming

    Can't believe how much ground he covered in three afternoons....

  2. Author vs. narrator: this is why I'm turning toward narrative theory (theories). So many different interesting ways to look at it.

    To me, it's less related to psychology (to dreaming) and has more to do with highlighting the imprecise ways I use language in the every day life. This difference has probably much to do with English not being a native language (sometimes I doubt that I dream in language) -- but also the different impulses of coming to writing.

    Narrators' language defines them, so learning to be precise author is very important..