St. Gertrude’s L.I.V.E.~Who Lives Here

St. Gertrude’s L.I.V.E. > Who Lives Here

Who Lives here: A Workshop on Character Development in Prose Storytelling

9 – 11 a.m. Pacific Time, Saturday, May 29, via Zoom, with Peter Chilson

At Cornell University in 1919, E.B. White, the poet and novelist perhaps best known for Charlotte’s Webb, was a student in William Strunk’s freshman composition course. Strunk handed the students his own English style guide, which White later edited into the classic, The Elements of Style. In the forward, he described his professor as “puckish…his short hair parted neatly in the middle and combed down over his forehead, his eyes blinking incessantly behind steel-rimmed spectacles, as though he had just emerged into strong light, his lips nibbling each other like nervous horses, his smile shuttling to and fro under a carefully edged mustache.”

White didn’t get to know Strunk personally, but he’d wondered about him his whole life. Decades later when a publisher asked White to edit Strunk’s style guide, he was ready with a vivid, visual description of the teacher who’d made such an impression on him. We spend our lives with people—thinking about them, complaining about or praising them, marveling at the things they do, wondering what makes them tick. White’s put his own curiosity and wonder into his description, giving us a sense of what it was like to be in that composition class. The stories that interest us most are filled with compelling human characters, heroes, villains, and the quirky. This workshop will focus on exercises, including simple research activities, to help writers bring human beings alive on the page. 

Brief introduction, each limited to 30 seconds. 

Opening Lecture: 30 Minutes

  1. A review of two brief readings, one fiction and the other nonfiction, to introduce the concept of STATUS DETAIL. This is the detail a writer uses to help define a character in relation to the person’s surroundings and other characters in the story. Such detail captures habits, mannerisms, facial expressions, gestures, ways of talking. 

We will take a look at dialogue as a defining detail of character. 

One brief research exercise, for example, involves identifying the incongruous detail in one’s own character. This will be followed by applying that self-observation to observing the incongruous detail in another human being. This is exactly what EB White was doing in the description of his professor—describing him so specifically that he was unique.

  1. Discussion of Round Characters versus Flat Characters and how they work together in fiction and nonfiction stories. The two brief readings will help serve as examples.

The Writing Workshop: 90 minutes

Students will spend the remaining hour writing from two character-focused prompts. Each prompt will allow for 20 minutes of writing followed by student reading of the work. Students will offer reflection and feedback on the readings of their peers. If there is time, we will do a third writing prompt.

Peter Chilson teaches writing and literature at Washington State University. He is the author of the travelogue Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa (University of Georgia Press, 1999), which won the Associated Writing Programs Award in nonfiction, and the story collection Disturbance-Loving Species: A Novella and Stories (Mariner Books, 2007), winner of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Fiction Prize and the Maria Thomas Fiction Prize. His essays, journalism, and short stories have appeared in Foreign Policy, the American Scholar, Gulf Coast, High Country News, Audubon, and Ascent, among other publications, as well as twice in the Best American Travel Writing anthology. Chilson first traveled to West Africa in 1985 as a volunteer in the Peace Corps, teaching junior high school English in the village of Bouza, Niger. A longtime visitor to Mali as a travel writer and journalist, he traveled to Mali in 2012 for the Foreign Policy-Pulitzer Center Borderlands Project, becoming one of the few Western journalists to visit the country’s troubled northern half to see firsthand the impacts of civil war and the new breakaway jihadist state.

Suggested donation: $30. Participant max: 15

If you have any questions or need assistance, contact Theresa at 208-962-5065 or email creative@stgertrudes.org.

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