For the past two years, in addition to the usual critique-of-existing-work workshops, a few Tinker Mountain instructors have done “generative” retreats instead. No need to bring in a manuscript; you’re going to write, based on a prompt, and read what you’ve written…aloud.
Short Stories as Prompts
Since the workshops and retreats at Tinker Mountain are conducted like graduate level seminars, the literature geek in me enjoyed the stories our instructor, Dan Mueller, gave us each night. On Sunday evening, when we all met at dinner and introduced ourselves, Dan passed out “Inventory” by Carmen Maria Machado, from her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties.
“Inventory” is a list narrative; in this case a chronological listing of the unnamed protagonists’ sexual partners in the midst of a pandemic. The protagonist moves further and further east, ahead of the plague, but knows the inevitability of her eventual infection. It’s a powerful story, full of sexual ambiguity, hope, and despair. I highly recommend it, especially as a prime example of the power of a list narrative.
Our prompt? Write a list narrative in the style of Machado or make up a grocery list and write a scene using the items on the list.
I opted for the Machado style, and after reading it in class and hearing everyone’s reactions, it’s a story I’m going to work on developing more.
But, Wait! There’s More
The other stories and prompts were as follows:
- Short story: “The Lost Order,” by Rivka Galchen (which is a riff off “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) Prompt: Write a scene derivative of a recognizable story.
- Short story: “Lost and Found,” by Amina Gautier Prompt: Write a scene/story about someone who did the right thing for the wrong reason orWrite a scene/story about someone who did the wrong thing for the right reason.
- Short story: “Malibu” by Ottessa Moshfegh Prompt: Part one: Narrate a scene in which a central character does something so shameful/embarrassing he or she believes they can never tell anyone. Part two: Put that same character in a scene with another character who will stop at nothing to find out. Or write a narrative about a character you dislike but have him/her do something admirable.
- Short story: “Tiger Bites,” by Lucia Berlin Prompt: We all brought an object of significance to us and showed/explained them to the class. The prompt was to make a list of the objects and pick one to write a story about:
- a second toe longer than the big toe
- pilot certificate (guess who brought that)
- a ring made with stones from a grandmother’s wedding ring
- a small, stone rabbit
- a fountain pen owned for 30 years
- a Zimbabwean hatchet
- the knife almost used to stab a husband
- two pieces of coral and shell from St. Augustine beach; one dark, one light; one light, one heavy; yin/yang
- a picture frame with shells from Key West
- Pesos used to pay a sports debt
I Thought You Relaxed at a Retreat!
A pretty hefty lineup for a writing retreat, right? But, it was good, particularly for me. I’ve put off submitting short stories… Heck, I’ve even put off writing them, unless it was a reader magnet for one of my novels. This was a good way to get back into writing short fiction–and submitting it. One of the scenes I prepared for a prompt was from a novel in progress, and I got great ideas from the group on how to make that scene better. That was worth the price of admission, as they say.
Next post: How to participate in an alumni reading at Tinker Mountain without losing your mind.