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A good Shepard for writing narration

July 27, 2018
Posted by:
Ron Seybold

Fifteeen years ago, the Iowa Writer's Workshop named Lan Samantha Chang as the first female director of the program, perhaps the most prestigious writing school in the world. Much has been said about Chang, who as a 1993 grad of the program was one of the youngest writing teachers to hold the post.

Iowa has the cache of Harvard among graduate writing programs. It celebrates its 85th year this summer. "Students are always interested in finding a place and a group of people that allows them to pursue a writer's true work, which is thinking," Chang said in an interview. Indeed, a group of people is essential to the writing life.

While I researched book cover artists this week (all hail John Gall!) I ran across another director candidate that made that 2003 Iowa short list, novelist and short story author Jim Shepard. The summer of 2003 was the season of a couple of stops in my writing training. I  took a seminar from Shepard at the first Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, and earlier in that same trip, stayed in Iowa City while studying at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Not to take anything away from Chang, but Shepard would have been a good choice, too. In looking over my notes from his classes, I found a day when we examined narration within a story. In using dialogue inside narration, you can

  • Minimize the dialogue's importance
  • Move things along quicker
  • Show the reader that you're hurrying

Shepard also told us — by way of teaching from the balls of his feet as we took apart a manuscript to see what make it work — that narrators are more sympathetic when they treat themselves with a brusque manner, "rather than those who piss and moan."

Shepard was like that: funny in a tough way, but never mean-spirited about his advice and counsel. I consider myself lucky to have learned from him for a week. For a great book on the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I recommend The Workshop, edited by Iowa grad Tom Grimes. It's full of remembrances of the community in the workshop, as well as great stories from its graduates. To find a bit of Conroy's legacy, dig up and enjoy The Eleventh Draft, a series of essays Conroy assigned to Iowa graduates about the craft of writing.

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