WRITING LAB 1
MATADOR U WRITING LAB 1
Welcome to our first writing lab at MatadorU. Before we begin, please note the following guidelines.
1. Any MatadorU student is welcome to read these forum threads, however, only students who’ve completed the course up through Chapter 3 are eligible to participate by requesting that their work be reviewed or by leaving comments or questions in this lab.
2. When commenting, please remember that we’re critiquing the writing, not the writer.
3. We cannot guarantee specific feedback on any one particular piece. Instead, we consider students’ requests and factor in how each individual story can be used to illustrate specific lessons at MatadorU. If your writing was not included in this lab, it doesn’t necessarily mean we didn’t ‘like it,’ but simply that other stories may have served as better examples of points we want everyone to learn.
4. At the beginning of each week we’ll post an announcement that we’re beginning the follow week’s lab. For your work to be considered, please leave a link to the piece you want considered, and your name.
Hometown Assignment by Candice Walsh
Long Path Road is dead. Dad and I sit on the front deck of our sandy bungalow, 11 p.m., him smoking and me trying to adjust to darkness without streetlights.
This opening paragraph puts the reader right into the story. In the first sentence the reader is ‘disarmed’ through the narrator’s simple declarative sentence. Then that’s immediately followed by a simple scene that in one sentence gives you both the characters, the close-up setting (front deck, the father smoking cigarettes), and the overall setting (darkness without streetlights.) These simple details also reinforce the overall themes of the piece, simple places vs. changes, identity. [DM]
Why on earth would anyone build a cabin when you already live in the middle of nowhere?” he says, taking a haul on his cigarette.
Great character introduction-sentence serves multiple purposes. [-DM]
I didn’t know Dad had a sense of humour until two years ago, when my relatives and I gathered in my Uncle’s shed, eating homemade beef-jerky, listening to fiddle music, and drinking Black Horse ale.
“Judging by your red hair, you must be a Walsh,” says one man, leaning forward, and his hands gripping his beer.
One can only remain without an identity for so long.
Great movement from plot to an assertion [-DM]
When I awake on my last day in St. Alban’s, I spy Dad’s rucksack sitting by the front door. He’s in the kitchen brewing tea, and he plants a bottle of homemade bakeapple jam on the table for me. The room smells like evergreen trees and wood smoke, and I’m reminded of the time we spent the afternoon hiking through Dad’s trail, pausing to boil tea over a fire in the snow. The best tea I ever had. Suddenly the city is deader than this town.
Conclusion ties back to beginning–is open for reader to draw his /her own ideas. [-DM]
The piece is compact and concise and every single detail–and there are lots–is optimized. Bakeapple jam- I have no clue what it is; I’ve never heard of a bakeapple, but it’s not grape jelly. I get a sense of place through that detail. It’s these types of details that make your writing authentic– there’s no way you could know about that type of detail unless you really know the place you’re writing about, unless you’ve hunkered down and lived in it. [-Julie]
The narrative structure and delivery of this piece function so efficiently and effectively, belying a complexity underlying the piece. You’ve managed to incorporate a few different generations, filtering your conclusion about this place through their experiences and the changes that have occurred. The third, seventh, and eighth paragraphs convey exactly what’s happening to this place without saying overtly: “My hometown has changed a lot.” [-Julie]
A general note: Candice, you were somewhat apologetic that your past couple posts have been somber, but some of the best writing is. Travel writing has often been promoted as a peppy, always-positive genre leaving the reader with a desire to go see a place. I’d like to propose that travel writing can be more nuanced and demanding- both of its writers and its readers. I want to see this place, not because it’s beautiful, but because it’s real. This piece represents exactly the kind of narrative writing Matador is always looking for (especially for the Notebook): true to place, true to personal experience. [-Julie]
TRANSITION ASSIGNMENT by JoAnna Haugen
This piece feels circular to me, and not in a forced way. It lays out the stakes, builds energy through your Burning Man experiences, and leaves the reader with the excitement of you writing your cube job resignation letter…. you make us want to keep reading your work so we can find out what happens to you. Especially for the readers on Matador, there’s a profound identification with you as the writer and narrator. [-Julie]
“I sit in my pajamas, looking over my list of travel writing tasks—an article due to a publication, interview questions to answer for a blog, an assignment for a writing class—and struggle to determine which to tackle first. The struggle is not that I don’t want to do any of these tasks, but that none of them are tasks at all and I want to completely immerse myself in each and every one of them.”
As a writer and editor I can totally identify with this. It seems like a case however where naming the specific publications would make it even stronger. Why not be transparent? Not only does it make it more interesting, but it gives links/pings to editors managing those blogs / sites you mention, thus increasing your ‘value’ to them as someone who is helping spread their Internet footprint (more on this in later chapters). [-DM]
HOMETOWN ASSIGNMENT by Neha Puntambeka
‘You like reading, didi. You can buy books from me. Only half price.’ He reasons and reiterates.
I ask him if he can read. He blushes, looks away at the moving, screaming traffic on the other side of the road.
‘I can read my school books.’
‘Do you enjoy them?’
He does the Indian head nod. His eyes are shifty, in search of real customers before settling at a busy sandwich stall across the street.
‘But the English ones are a little hard.’ he confesses.
I can totally visualize this passage. There are many things happening below the surface throughout this piece, lots of sub-context–poverty, class division, daily struggle–that release here in this interaction. Up until this moment the narrator has only been observing and not directly interacting. Now, even in this interaction, the reader is left with a sense of disconnection–“in search of real customers” between people. The only other thing I’d add is that the details chosen throughout this piece tend to support this sub-context, except for the beginning, the essentially ‘unifying’ smell of the chai. That seemed warm and inviting, incongruous with the rest of the details. Even if that is the smell, focusing on that at the beginning made me think the piece was going in a different direction [-DM]
What I like most about “The southern shore is dead” is that, along with addressing place, it’s just as much about the author and her family. So true of small towns, where the barfly can discern your last name based on the color of your hair. I get the sense of a strong link between speaker and place, which I guess is the point of a hometown piece. Nice job.
Absolutely loved the feedback, thanks so much everyone. I’m still trying to build some confidence in my writing, and the positivity really, really helps. I think these labs are a great idea, I’m learning a lot.
FYI, bakeapples (also known as cloudberries) are a small, sour type of berry found in Newfoundland marshlands. As far as I know, it’s common only to Newfoundland and Norway!
What I liked most about Neha’s and JoAnna’s pieces were their interactions with others. Neha’s description of the little boy is so simple, but I can totally picture him and his body movement in my head. I remember reading the blog and thinking it broke my heart a little.
Thanks David. This was super helpful. I don’t think I would have realized the mismatch between my first line and the rest of the story. I knew something didn’t fit right, now I know.
On a side note, I’d loved this lesson, especially the rewriting and editing bit. I remember reading the Oakland piece (when it was first published) and thinking I was never going to get there, but reading through the drafts (and the comments)answered so many questions. I keep going back to that lesson.
Stoked about the initial comments everyone. As a heads up, the Oakland piece that’s referred to in neha’s comment can be read here.
For students who haven’t gotten there yet–Chapter 3 gives a detailed breakdown of how this piece was edited from its original form through several drafts, into the final published form.
Interested in hearing from anyone else on the pieces exampled above.
Thanks for the feedback David. I’ve been working on being “specific” and sometimes I just don’t see the things that others do. Thanks for pointing out the opportunities available in my piece.
Thank you for your feedback as well Julie. I’m learning a lot and I’m only through assignment #2!