Welcome, I'm really excited to be here with all of you today. I feel like as we're getting started, it's important for us to address the elephant in the room right from the jump. I am not your mom. (students laugh) I'm not your mom. Why is that important? Well, let's say that you make a kitty cat out of yellow play dough. I don't have to put it on my desk at work to showcase it for all my colleagues to enjoy, right? If you trace your hand and turn it into a Thanksgiving turkey, maybe draw googly eyes on the thumb. Ever done this, Drew?
Turn the fingers into fluttering feathers. I don't have to put it on the fridge, stand back with awestruck pride. I'm under no moral obligation to cherish every little thing that you make. I might not be your mom, but I might be your reader. I may gobble up your novel, your short story, your essay, your screenplay, whatever it happens to be. I may be that person so long as you take the time to honor your art, to honor your craft. So long as y...
ou take the time to carve out the time to be creative. And that's the million dollar question for us in the 21st century. Where is the time, right? I get it, we're busy. You have a family, I hope you have some friends (laughs), you have a job, and somebody has to pick little Johnny up from soccer practice later or Child Protective Services might knock on your door and ask some serious, pointed questions. So here's the secret, right? There are all sorts of bad reasons not to write. We'll pull the blinds, do bong hits, listen to the blues, like that's not a good reason not to write. Not that I've ever done that. Not that any of you have done that, but other people might have. But for our purposes today, there are also really good reasons not to write, really valid reasons. That family, that friend, those jobs we were just talking about. You know, see little Johnny sitting on the curb, cleats clacking on the pavement, wondering why you're writing and not picking him up from soccer practice. But there's no bastion of free time coming. You're not suddenly gonna see it sprout up like a garden growing, feeding you on the leafy greens of capital F free, capital T time. So the onus falls squarely on our shoulders, right? Like are we gonna be the sort of people who just talk about writing? Or are we gonna be the people who sit down and actually put words on the page? And ultimately, that's why we're here today, right? Life is hectic, and we're wondering how and where and what to do to honor our art. We all have had life experiences, this kind of vault of memories, and we'd like to make art out of these things. But how do we do that? Now assuming that you've actually carved out the time to be creative, how does a memory turn into a beautiful piece of writing? Well so today, in six short hours, we're gonna do nine writing exercises. Nine. When was the last time you wrote nine scenes in a day? A week? A month? Gasp, a year? (laughs) And you know, not only are we gonna produce plenty of pages today, we're also gonna talk specific principles to kind of help you excavate down into those memories and give them some shape. And what we're gonna talk about today is gonna transcend any genre divisions, so it doesn't necessarily matter if you're interested in writing a novel, a memoir, an essay, a short story. Even some of you kind of copywriters out there can think about how you can use these things, or these principles, in your sort of occupational life. You know, we'll talk techniques to make sure that you have a vibrant and compelling main character on the page. We'll talk tactics to make sure that you're generating enough narrative conflict to make the work readable, to kind of lure in that reader. And we'll talk precisely about plots, how to shape a beginning and a middle and an ending so it has some sort of cogent trajectory for this total stranger, the reader, to dive into and have the time of her life. Cause if you think about it, what the reader does for our stories is incredibly generous on her part, right? Cause if we're busy, our reader's just as busy as we are, right? She's got that family. She's got that friends, and she has her own little Johnny at soccer practice. And if she's generous enough to give you 20 minutes of her time to read an essay, or eight hours, 10 hours of her life to read a novel or a memoir, that's her side of the transaction. And if she's going to be that generous with her time, it's up to us to make sure that we take her on this wild and compelling and unpredictable romp that's unlike anything she's ever experienced on the page before. And I know that you can do it, because I'm gonna teach you how today. Let's check this out. Let's start here. This is my fingerprint. I guess technically it's my thumbprint, but you get the idea. Nobody else on Earth has a fingerprint quite like mine. It's completely unique to my body. And I believe that the same is true for every human's imagination. I believe that your imagination is as unique as your fingerprint. I also believe, and this is a little crazy but bear with me here, I also believe that your imagination is a vital organ. I think it's something that we need to survive. It's important for us to make sure that we're regularly expressing what's throbbing in our heart or what's kind of kicking around in our brain. And because no one else has an imagination that's quite like yours, it's the ultimate asset on the page. You know conventional wisdom says that we should be writing the books or the stories that we wanna read. Now of course I agree with that, but I think we could also take it a step further, and we can say write the stories that only you can write. What has life taught you in your kind of vast system of life experiences, how can you use that, put it through this vibrant imagination, and spin something that's unlike anything that your reader has had the privilege to interact with before she sits down and reads an essay, reads a screenplay, reads whatever? Because if we do that, as story tellers, if we play to the imagination as the ultimate asset on the page, it doesn't matter that our reader is not our mom. At this point, she's gonna become something way more important to us. She's gonna become a fan if you tell the story that only you can write, the things that your life has taught you and put them on the page in a compelling, accessible way, people are gonna find it, people are gonna cherish it, and they wanna interact with it. You know I've been a novelist, a memoirist, a professor, a professional editor my whole adult life, and today I'm really excited to share all the trade secrets. I saw this TV show awhile ago in which a magician was wearing a mask. He was trying to protect his true identity, his anonymity so then he could go on this show, and he could give all the secrets away. I guess he had to be kept secret in case he wanted to go to the next magician happy hour, right? If he wanted to like chomp soggy egg rolls and slug Charles Shaw with the other magicians, he had to protect that stuff, right? So anyways, wearing a mask on TV, and all of a sudden he showed us how to pull a rabbit from his hat. And he taught us how to saw someone in half. And that's what I wanna do today. I wanna kind of take advantage of all the lessons and all the mistakes that I've learned over the years and like that wily magician, kind of give away all the secrets today. And I'm not even gonna wear a mask, Drew. No mask. I thought about it. I had a gorilla mask, and I had Princess Elsa, but I was worried that it might undermine my authority a little bit if I was trying to teach wearing a Disney princess mask. What do you think? Yes, no mask? (laughs) Anyways, I'm really excited to dive in and start to talk some principles of storytelling. I like to start these things with some sort of inspirational quote, or kind of an epigraph that we can use as kind of to dip ourselves or kind of slowly immerse ourselves into the pool of storytellers. You know, we're participating in a conversation that's been happening since scribbles on cave walls. And now it's our turn to make our contribution to this continuum, and this whole conversation will go on well after we're gone here. But we've got something from Picasso. He was pretty smart, right Drew? Would you say Picasso's pretty smart?
The chief enemy of creativity is good taste. I like this quote so much that I even tattooed it on my arm, so when I feel like my sentences are getting lazy or my images are getting lazy, I'll look down and be like Picasso would not approve. (laughs) Gotta up your game more. This isn't compelling enough. You're not doing your job right. Again, this idea about doing the work that only you can do. No, you see a Pablo Picasso painting, and it's immediately recognizable. Lots of people over the years have tried to ape his style, but you certainly know it when you see the real deal. It's one of those people that you can't even begin to try to imitate or try to emulate. We're gonna start off today kind of talking about conflict and talking about scene, or ways to maximize a scene's potential. And what I mean by that is we live in scene, right? We experience life in scene. We wanna make sure that we're using that as the framing device by which we start to communicate with our audience. So it isn't just this exposition in which like let me tell you some stuff, let me tell you some stuff, let me tell you some stuff, and it becomes this sort of one way conversation. What we wanna try to do is make sure that we're putting scenes that give the reader the opportunity to inhabit them, right? We want our reader to be as active participant as she can possibly be while she's navigating the beginning and a middle and ending of a narrative. So scene, there's a great writer named Grace Paley, and Grace Paley used to always say I know that I've written a good scene when I've written two scenes. I love that idea. And what Grace was getting at is this idea that there's gonna be sort of a literal story, stuff that's happening from an external perspective. But underneath of that, there's sort of the emotional journey, the emotional kind of the subvocal story, what we call the subtext. And we're gonna make sure that we're kind of imbuing these scenes with both of those planes, the literal action, what's happening in an external sense for the reader to interact with, and what it all means down in the basement, what it all means in the story's heart, or in the story's essence.
Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, including “Damascus,” which The New York Times called “Beat-poet cool.” He’s also written “Fight Song” and “Some Things that Meant the World to Me,” one of O Magazine’s Top 10 reads of 2009 and a San Francisco Chronicle best-seller, as well as “Termite Parade,” an Editors’ Choice in The New York Times. His novel “All This Life” recently won the Northern California Book Award. He is the executive editor at Decant Editorial and his first book of nonfiction, a memoir entitled “Sirens,” is due out January 2017.
I really enjoyed this class. It was inspiring and packed with very wise advise for upcoming writers. Josh was great in teaching us "how to fish", instead of just feeding it to us. Thank you for this amazing class, Josh!
this was a great class and I learned what I had never heard before from others teaching about writing. His approach fits my way of thinking and I felt totally comfortable in class and with sharing what I had written. Josh was great, encouraging, informative and a great wordsmith!
I am a filmmaker and as such I have read and gone through so many methodologies in my own chosen art form as well as in a lot of others. There is a huge common ground when it comes to communicating or telling stories. Writing in its broad sense, that is an essay, a novel, or even a screenplay is at its core essence, the same. Sure, you have techniques and tools specific to all of those different "containers", but generating ideas, connecting with audiences, telling truths and playing with one's own imagination is a common ground to every written art form.
I must admit I haven't read any of Josh's books, but I can definitely tell that he is an incredible communicator and a well experienced writer, because Josh puts difficult and unclear concepts into simple definitions, and gives techniques in order to get your own cooking progressing. I am really happy I took this online class. I will definitely use a lot of Josh's teachings in my future screenplay writings. Thanks to Josh for sharing, thanks to Creative Live for making it available. Erik (Spain)