In addition to giving the keynote address, Dufresne taught a four-day workshop titled: Is Life Like This? How To Write the First Draft of Your Novel in Six Months.[/box]
Day one: I listen and jot down what I find interesting, not certain if any of it will be useful.
“To be good at anything you have to put 10,000 hours into it,” John tells the group of students whose ages, backgrounds and social media pages can’t be cross-referenced to any shared ancestry – or even seven degrees of separation, except for their common desire to write. Dufresne moves from the elementary: “use the Chicago Manual of Style,” to the philosophical: “make yourself susceptible to the provocative world,” and throws in the OED for good measure all in one s-curve sentence.
Day two: A fellow classmate confides at lunch that she is not finding his teaching as she expected.
His trademark white hair is as unruly as his teaching method, his wisps of wisdom refusing to be tamed and trotted out according to the structure he has outlined on the white board. Instead they spin in his mind and like numbered lottery balls shoot out of his mouth in random fashion.
So goes John Dufresne’s novel writing workshop – a blend of instructive exercises; name-dropping reading lists: Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Eudora Welty and more specifically: On Becoming A Writer by Dorothy Brandt and Chekhov’s The Lady with the Little Dog; lectures on theme and scene and the importance of being vivid; a lesson on eavesdropping, and another on the use of news stories for plot inspiration and obituaries for identity theft.
Day three: the realization that John is not teaching, but touring students through the internal mechanisms of his mind as it travels through the process novices call writing but novelists understand is actually imagining, populating and orchestrating the actions of an entire world translated to words.
Dufresne’s mind is a storehouse of seen and imagined minutia about his characters’ lives, living spaces and daily routines. “I’m in their living room,” he tells his students as he invites us to accompany him into the home of his characters on his rounds of pre-writing exercises, “and I see the coffee table and the magazines on it. I know what magazines they read.” John pauses and the student voyeurs remain silent and watchful as he mentally sorts through the stack of magazines. “Something shiny is on the rug.” He points to the bare classroom tile and we see it. “It’s a bracelet – no, an anklet. My characters don’t know it is there, but I do and I will use it later.”
Day four: my ideas start to bubble up, buoyed by the unruliness of John’s thought process, plot lines and characters are lotto balls bouncing in my head, the minutia of their lives and the magazines they read competing with their story arcs for attention – each one vying for the chance to be the POV character until one of them shouts out louder than the rest, with a want that demands my attention and I begin to put that character’s story into words.
Sara Smith is employed as a grants writer for FIT and is the author of three novels.
Her fiction work is represented by Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency.