Last night I was speaking with an accomplished writer friend who teaches in a well-known low residency MFA program. She is a close friend, and we always like to talk about our experiences in studying writing and teaching. I attended a low residency MFA program, Warren Wilson, where half (or more than half) of our work consisted of analytical writing. I told my friend that, though there was so much of this that sometimes it took away from time for writing fiction, nothing teaches a writer about craft better than analyzing the great masters. I mentioned that I learn best by doing, by writing and getting feedback from others and “tearing apart” fiction to see how it works. She immediately agreed. Her experience was studying in traditional, residential MFA programs, and now that she is in a low residency program that asks students to submit analytical work with every packet, she really admires this exercise in analysis. My friend said that she thinks it is a good way to learn craft that one eventually applies to one’s work.
At Warren Wilson, we called the analytical exercises “annotations,” which is really just a fancy word for craft essays. We had the freedom to choose a topic on the text we had been reading and write an approximately three-page essay. This taught me how to read for craft, how to read like a writer. What things jumped out at me from a particular story or [passage in] a novel? What was this “secret code” I had to crack to understand a particular writer’s skill? It became like a game, and I grew to enjoy it very much.
Here are some of the things I learned from my annotations. (Please DO NOT plagiarize this material or use it without direct permission from the author!)
-From Flannery O’Connor, I learned how dialogue works. It can serve to advance something with the plot or indicate something about the characters’ personalities. For example, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” I found that dialogue was deception. The characters were not saying what they meant, which was indicative of their dishonesty.
-Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift uses metaphors that anthropomorphize inanimate objects; this serves the key theme of the novel, which is that writing can bring to life that which is no longer living. Therefore, your craft and metaphors can affect the structure of your novel, the craft reflects the content.
-Shakespeare’s Othello shows how the careful choice of words (a.k.a. diction) spoken by Iago eventually linguistically poisons the title character, as Othello begins to repeat his words and believe the negative lies. We can find passages of dialogue repeated word for word. This is how Iago gains control over the situation, as we can see that he physically does very little (i.e., does not commit murder, stage a coup, etc.) So, a story or piece of fiction can be quite active even with very few actions taken. Shakespeare is always known for beautiful language, as is Toni Morrison, a modern master of diction.
-A “hologram” chapter. When I had to write a long paper discussing omniscience in two works (Pride and Prejudice and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye), I noticed that both novels had something in common: a chapter that seemed to summarize all the key themes and events that would unfold in the novel, with key characters present. This chapter laid the groundwork for the whole book, setting up a reader’s expectations. When I discovered this, I thought it a brilliant structural device and was surprised at how these two very disparate authors were doing the same thing.
-Metafiction is more than a quirky, clever literary genre. If we look at Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, it is a story within a story, about a director who has suffered a situation similar to the protagonist of The Tempest is putting on the play at a prison. It is self-referential, it calls attention to itself in a very enjoyable, even comic way. However, in doing this, we better understand the masterwork by Shakespeare, what sorts of choices a director needs to make when putting all the work, what the play is really about, and (in a retelling as this) what choices the author needs to make in terms of retaining elements from the original.
Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” is a masterpiece of metafiction. On the surface, it is incredibly funny, a “theme-and-variations” gem that shows us how a woman and a man fall in love and how their story can play out comically, tragically, or something in between. But if we look deeper, Atwood is teaching us about plot points, what happens with the same cast of characters when put in different situations and environments. How do we get from point A to point B? How do we create a plot? She asks us at the end, as readers and writers, to “Now try How and Why.” This is one of my absolute favorite stories of all time, and it accomplishes so much in a short space.
These are just a scant few of the things I learned in analyzing fiction. One thing my MFA program taught me was how to be a better reader, and this helps with my own work as well as when I read the work of others. I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is for any writer, this process of deeply investigating how a well-established author is crafting their work. Give it a try, even if it seems daunting, and you might find that you have learned way more than you expected.