Writing the Journey: Teaching Storytelling in the Undergraduate Workshop
Lawrence Coates | February 2018
Near the beginning of Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster states that the fundamental aspect of the novel is that it tells a story. He is a bit regretful about this, because he finds that story is a rather primitive and unlovely thing, designed only to make readers want to know what comes next; indeed, he compares story to a tapeworm. And yet, he doesn’t see how a novel can get along without it. Late in the chapter entitled “Story,” he discusses Gertrude Stein’s attempt to “emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time,” and while he admires her effort, he calls it in the end a failure. And he asks his audience—for these chapters were originally delivered as a series of lectures—to repeat after him, in a sad tone of voice, the following words: “Yes – oh, dear, yes – the novel tells a story.”1
I have been returning to this section of Forster’s book because of my experience teaching Creative Writing to undergraduates at Bowling Green State University over the past fifteen years. BGSU offers a BFA in Creative Writing, one of only thirty-six in the country by last count, and our students usually come to us because they have self-identified as writers from an early age. The majority come as fiction writers. They grow up reading stories—sometimes multi-volume works like The Lord of the Rings, or the Harry Potter heptalogy, or George R.R. Martin’s series Game of Thrones, and sometimes more traditionally canonical literary works like Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Lord of the Flies. I had one prospective student tell me he wanted to write the Gatsby of the 21st century. And a number of students come into the program having already written a novel—or, at least, having completed the requisite 50,000 words that NaNoWriMo sets as the minimum.
But I have found that the basic ability to tell a story, with character, conflict, and resolution, is frequently lacking in our students. They have read examples of great quest narratives like the journey to Mount Doom to destroy the one ring. They visit the Cineplex and absorb stories centered on a titanic conflict between the Empire and the Jedi. They have seen the use of MacGuffins like the horcrux drive a narrative. And yet, when these committed young writers sit down and compose something of their own, a piece of short fiction in an undergraduate workshop, they frequently fail at telling a story. They either write something very static, something in which characters sit and think a lot about life, or else they write something that has scenes of action and sometimes violence, but that has very little connection and coherence between the scenes.
This tendency to founder when attempting to create an original story was noted by Flannery O’Connor in her collection of essays Mystery and Manners. She writes:
I have heard people say that the short story was one of the most difficult literary forms, and I’ve always tried to decide why people feel this way about what seems to me to be one of the most natural and fundamental ways of human expression. After all, you begin to hear and tell stories when you’re a child, and there doesn’t seem to be anything very complicated about it. I suspect that most of you have been telling stories all your lives, and yet here you sit—come to find out how to do it.
Then last week, after I had written down some of these serene thoughts to use here today, my calm was shattered when I was sent seven of your manuscripts to read.
After this experience, I found myself ready to admit, if not that the short story is one of the most difficult literary forms, at least that it is more difficult for some than for others.2
My experience, at BGSU, has a lot in common with Flannery O’Connor’s. I’m not certain why this might be. It’s certainly possible that today’s media- and technology-saturated world does not foster skill in storytelling. This is part of Nicholas Carr’s argument in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He discusses how the kinds of interactions we have constantly with screens may actually be changing how our brains are wired, and he conjectures that “the linear, literary mind [that] has been at the center of art, science, and society” may become a thing of the past.3
While not discounting this notion, it’s clear that O’Connor’s students came from an era well before the personal computer. I prefer to think that storytelling is a skill that can be taught. It is a difficult skill, something that cannot be learned simply by reading stories or by learning abstract principles, but rather something that must be learned through practice. It’s possible that it’s more difficult to teach today, in the context Carr has analyzed, than it was in the past. But I believe that learning it through practice may be precisely what students need in order to find and create something beyond the shallows of the mind that is Carr’s ruling metaphor.
I prefer to think that storytelling is a skill that can be taught. It is a difficult skill, something that cannot be learned simply by reading stories or by learning abstract principles, but rather something that must be learned through practice.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided to try a radical experiment in my undergraduate workshops. I would establish formal requirements that would force young writers to create a traditional story. I didn’t do this to limit the creativity of writers, and I know that brilliant work by writers like Jorge Luis Borges, or Donald Barthelme, or Lydia Davis break all the general precepts of what a story should be. But I’m of the notion that it’s better to know the rules well before you break them.
I also thought that some requirements might force students to be more creative, not less. Similar to a poet struggling with the formal requirements of a villanelle and finding a word that is fresh and exactly right, a fiction writer striving to fulfill a form may discover things that would otherwise go undiscovered. At the same time, formal requirements would lead students to complete at least one story that would not lead Flannery O’Connor to despair.
After some reflection, I decided to require that at least one submission in my undergraduate workshops classes should be a journey story. I chose the journey story because it’s the most traditional of forms. It is at the center of Gilgamesh, the most ancient story known, and it also underlies The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Don Quixote. It is the foundation of every space exploration movie. And it seems to fulfill naturally Aristotle’s basic requirement, that a story have a beginning, middle, and end. Leaving is the beginning, adventures and misadventures form the middle, and arrival at the destination (or death) is the end. In the journey story, ordinary life is left behind. Something story-worthy is almost inevitably happening. A journey form naturally invites the invention of scenes, situations, conflicts.
I also remembered John Gardner’s definition of fiction from On Becoming a Novelist. He writes, “In nearly all good fiction, the basic – all but inescapable – plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”4 The journey story, in the form I will describe, practically requires students to produce at least one finished work in what Gardner calls the inescapable form of nearly all good fiction.
What I offer here is a series of steps that can be incorporated into an undergraduate class in Creative Writing. I used this in a junior level workshop, but I think it could work at any level.
I first ask students to do an exercise I borrowed from Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction, in which students write down ten trips they’ve taken in their lives, from a short trip to the dentist to a long trip to the Grand Canyon.5 I give them the option to list one imagined journey, either fantastical or simply desired—a Jules Verne style Journey to the Center of the Earth, or a journey to Tuscany during the grape harvest. And I also give them the option to list a journey someone in their family took.
I then give them the following list of exemplary journey stories, and we discuss and analyze a number of them in class. This list consists simply of some stories that I’ve enjoyed teaching, but it’s a list that could be expanded almost indefinitely.
“A Distant Episode” by Paul Bowles
“Boar Taint” by Bonnie Jo Campbell
“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter
“The Five-Forty-Eight” by John Cheever
“The Caretaker” by Anthony Doerr
“The Palatski Man” by Stuart Dybek
“Rock Springs” by Richard Ford
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
“Stars of Motown Shining Bright” by Julie Orringer
“The Ant of the Self” by Z.Z. Packer
“The Father” by Irina Petrushevskaya
“Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by Wells Towers
“The Rich Brother” by Tobias Wolff
As they are narrowing things down and choosing a journey on which to center their story—it doesn’t have to be from the list the created in the exercise—I tell them that their journey story must have a destination and a goal. If students write about a character who simply hits the road without any goal, they might write what I would call a “wander story,” not a journey story. While it’s true that a picaresque can be simply a series of series of adventures, without an overall narrative structure, for the purposes of the form I require the journey have a destination and goal. It could be to recover the Golden Fleece, or it could be to fill a prescription at an all night pharmacy in Toledo, but if a character is going somewhere for something, it means that the story will have a complete narrative structure.
I also require my students to be able to articulate specifically why their characters have set out on a journey. What is it about the destination and goal that motivates them? And the motivation might best serve the story if it grows from who the character is.
A quest, for something concrete and specific, is at the center of many stories. For example, in Tobias Wolff’s story “The Rich Brother,” the main character is going to pick up his younger brother who just got kicked out of a commune. In “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” by Julie Orringer, a teen-aged girl is going to meet a boy she thinks is in love with her. In Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” the Vikings are going to find a monk they think has cursed their crops.
It’s true, a journey story can also begin with something less defined than a quest. Bausch’s “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” begins with someone heading west, without any real goal. And Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” begins with a family vacation to Florida. But note, in each of these, an antagonist arises that actually gives shape to the story. Without the Misfit appearing in Flannery O’Connor’s story, it would have only been a series of misadventures for a family, and Bausch’s story doesn’t really begin until a seemingly innocent hitchhiker gets into the car. It’s the encounter with the antagonists, Belle Starr or the Misfit, that makes these into complete stories.
There’s one other reason worth mentioning that people go on journeys in stories: The Nemesis. Anyone who is a fan of Les Misérables has encountered one of the greatest nemesis characters in fiction, Inspector Javerts. The nemesis is rare in short fiction, but it’s certainly something to be considered. Your character can be running from something as well as seeking something. In “The Five-Forty-Eight,” by John Cheever, a concupiscent businessman is pursued by a secretary he seduced and then fired. And there’s nothing to say that a good quest story can’t also have a good nemesis as part of it. While Frodo is on the way to Mount Doom to destroy the ring, he’s got the Nazgûl, the Ringwraiths, on his trail. But in all events, whether it’s a quest or an escape, I want the students in my class to be able to articulate why their character is on the journey.
Once students have determined the journey they will write about and have articulated the destination and the motivation, I introduce them to a plot outline that works very well for the Journey story. I found it in Anne Lamott’s excellent book Bird by Bird, and Lamott herself credits Alice Adams.”6 The outline goes ABDCE:
Beginning with action is one of the most common and effective ways to start a journey story, and so I tell my students that they should begin the story with the character or characters already on the way. This is not the only way to begin a journey story, of course. But my goal is to give students formal requirements that will lead them to write a successful traditional narrative, and this requirement to begin in medias res means they will have one less decision to make and one more chance to be creative within the constraints of the form.
…my goal is to give students formal requirements that will lead them to write a successful traditional narrative…
I’ve found the following openings particularly useful in class discussion to demonstrate how beginning with action can be effective:
Edna and I had started down from Kallispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.7
“Rock Springs” by Richard Ford
On his way west McRae picked up a hitcher, a young woman carrying a paper bag and a leather purse, wearing jeans and a shawl – which she didn’t take off, though it was more than ninety degrees out and McRae had no air conditioning.8
“The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” by Richard Bausch
“Opportunities,” my father says after I bail him out of jail. He’s banging the words into the dash as if trying to get them through my thick skull. “You’ve got to invest your money if you want opportunities.” It’s October of ’95, and we’re driving around Louisville, Kentucky, in my mother’s car.9
“The Ant of the Self” by Z. Z. Packer
In all three of these exemplary openings, it’s clear that the characters are in motion and the journey has begun.
Another point about these openings is that they all establish characters for readers to be interested in, and the relationships between characters are already being sketched out. In addition, these story beginnings look both forwards and backwards – forwards into the future, where the journey is headed, and backwards into the past, where the characters are coming from. In Ford’s story, we know that the narrator has some legal problems he’s running away from, and he has a vision of where he’s going to escape his troubles. In Bausch’s story, we know at least that McRae has already been driving west, and the addition of the hitchhiker promises some story in the future. And in Packer’s story, we know that the narrator has just bailed his father out of jail, and we can guess his father is going to try to talk him into pursuing some opportunity.
Background, the next part of Lamott’s outline, is also something I require. Here’s something I’ve said hundreds of times in creative writing classes: A character without a past doesn’t have much of a present, and certainly has no future. And frequently, the background of a character in a journey story is conveniently placed just after the action has been established, as it is in the three stories referenced above. In Richard Ford’s story, we find out about the narrator’s background as a lead-out man at the dog track, as a petty thief in Florida, and as the live-in boyfriend of a woman who has lost custody of her children. In Richard Bausch’s story, we find out that McCrae’s father recently died, and that he has been in military prison for sucker punching a sergeant. And in Z. Z. Packer’s story, we find out about the narrator’s success in high school as a debater, the casual racism he suffers from at school, his relationship with his divorced father, and his father’s history of hair-brained schemes. In every case, the background gives depth to the characters.
The Development section of a journey story requires students to invent freely within the context of the journey they have created for their characters, but I do give them some guidance. Development frequently arises from obstacles that come up along the way. They could derive from the means of transportation: a car breakdown, as in “Rock Springs,” a wrong turn, as in “Good Country People,” defective hiking boots in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild10 (nonfiction, but still relevant). But more frequently, the obstacles are people. In accordance with Aristotle’s Poetics,11 I divide the kinds of people characters might interact with on their journeys into three categories.
- Enemies or adversaries
- People bonded by friendship or kinship
While students might think initially that the most dramatic action would come from an encounter with an enemy, or a stranger who becomes an adversary, as happens in “Good Country People” or in “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr,” Aristotle would say that the best stories show conflict between those bonded by friendship or kinship. “The Rich Brother” is a story about two brothers. “The Ant of the Self” is about a father-son conflict. “Stars of Motown Shining Bright” is a story about two friends (or frenemies) journeying to see a boy they both are enamored of. “Boar Taint” is a story of a wife trying to prove herself to her husband.
Whatever obstacles students create for their journey, and they could be many, I ask them to pose two questions for themselves. Do the obstacles build suspense and tension? And more importantly, do the obstacles force the characters to react in a way that is revelatory?
Because I require students to craft their stories around a journey with a destination and a goal, the climax of the story is easily defined. There will, inevitably, come a moment in the story in which the characters either arrive at their destination and achieve their goal, or they fail to do so. Did Frodo get the ring to Mount Doom? Did Little Red Riding Hood get her basket of goodies to her grandmother? In literary fiction, the objective may be more subtle and spiritual. However, fiction takes place in the physical world, and so it’s helpful if there is something concrete that corresponds with whatever is happening within the heart and soul of characters. In “Boar Taint,” the wife actually does manage to get a boar home to breed with some gilts she has, but the real story is what’s changing between her and her husband.
How stories end, after the climax, is a large topic in and of itself. However, the stories I have listed frequently end with an image or gesture that somehow encapsulates the experience. In “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned,” it’s the imagined sound of oar blades that reveals the vulnerability of the main character. In “Stars of Motown Shining Bright,” it’s the red imprint that a gun has left on the flesh of the main character. In “The Rich Brother,” it’s the vision of a woman standing at the door, asking ‘Where is your brother?’
For the purposes of the class, I ask my students to try to discover an image or gesture that truly reveals the character’s situation, both externally and internally.
In the classes where I’ve used this method, I’ve only required one journey story per student. All other workshop slots are open for the students to submit whatever creative work they choose. But I’ve been gratified by some of the wonderful stories I’ve read that made use of the form. In one I recall, an elderly man is driving to see his son in the company of his wife and her new boyfriend whom she found at the assisted living facility where they all reside. In another, a group of young girls living in a dry county in Tennessee decides to join a charismatic stranger on a journey to a bar just over the county line.
I hope to see more good work in the future arise from establishing formal requirements, and I hope that all of my students will have a better grasp on the structure of a story, not just through learning the abstract principles of story but through the act of creating one. And perhaps, at the end of the semester, my students can all join E. M. Forster with more understanding and say, in a sad tone of voice, “Yes – oh, dear, yes – the novel tells a story.”
Lawrence Coates has published five books, most recently the novella Camp Olvido. His work has been recognized with the Western States Book Award in Fiction, the Donald Barthelme Prize in Short Prose, the Miami University Press Novella Prize, an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction. He teaches at Bowling Green State University.
- E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1927), pp. 25–42.
- Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974), pp. 87–88.
- Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2010), p. 10.
- John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1999), p. 54.
- Jesse Lee Kercheval, Building Fiction: How to Develop Plot and Structure, (Cincinnati: Story Press, 1997), pp. 10–11.
- Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird, (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), pp. 62–63.
- Richard Forge, Rock Springs, (New York: Grove Press, 1987), p. 1.
- Richard Bausch, The Stories of Richard Bausch, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), p. 156.
- ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), p. 82.
- Cheryl Strayed, Wild, (New York: Knopf, 2012).
- Aristotle, The Poetics, trans. Stephen Halliwell, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), p. 46.