Today I am trying to apply what I learned at a writing workshop Saturday to a nonfiction piece I plan to submit to Wazee in 10 days. Alexandre O. Philippe led a remarkably useful five-hour session about character, under the auspices of Denver’s essential Lighthouse Writers organization. Alexandre stressed that a good story has a protagonist with a clear objective which gets thwarted by strong obstacles. The protagonist displays his essential character in the process of dealing with the obstacles, and if we embrace the objectives we will care about the outcome of the story. My problem in writing about myself as a 19-year-old protagonist is that I’m damned if I can figure out what that guy really wanted, and what the obstacles were to getting it. I wrote the original piece in response to a request from the wife of my college roommate for something to put in a scrapbook for his 50th birthday. It contains a lot of good deatail about my Harvard days, but it lacks the sort of Aristotilian structure that Alexandre laid out so effectively.
The terrifying thing about this sort of personal writing is that you are always invited to go deeper into your motivations and life experience than you think you can bear. I am grateful to Alexandre for raising the stakes on this project. At the start of the workshop, he shared some of his own fascination with the writing process. Here is some of what he said:
The more I study and teach it, the more I realize I don’t know. It’s
unbelievable. This realization that you will never get there is an
amazing thing. You can hit the mark. You can do something fantastic, but the next one is a whole other challenge, and that’s the beauty of it.
Alexandre made the point that craft comes in mainly as a way to figure out how to fix problems. So that’s what I’m trying to do with this problem of a piece, tentatively titled “Claverly 22,” which was the address of my dorm sophomore year.