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We’ve all heard the rules: no starting with a ringing alarm clock, no ending with a sudden flash of insight. Useful suggestions, but they won’t get you far when it comes to your best opening and closing, which depend on the voice, tone, subject, and overall sensibility of your story. We’ll look at some great—and not-so-great—examples and talk about what they do for the reader and why, as well as how to apply what you discover to your own work.
Joan Leegant is the author of a novel, Wherever You Go, and a story collection, An Hour in Paradise, which won the PEN/New England Book Award, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Recent story prizes include the Nelligan Prize from Colorado Review, the Moment Magazine Story Prize, and Special Mention in the 2014 Pushcart Prize. A recipient of an artist grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, Joan has taught at Harvard, Oklahoma State University, Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, and Cornish College of the Arts. A former attorney, Joan is the 2014-2016 Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. A night writer, her best hours are between midnight and five a.m. For more about Joan, visit: www.joanleegant.com
Teaching Philosophy: I’ve been teaching writing workshops since 1999, and while there’s much to be said for the now standard format where the writer doesn’t speak and the other participants weigh in, lately I’ve loosened that up to include the writer in the conversation. Often what’s most beneficial for a writer is a brainstorming session. Or a chance to ask specific questions of people who’ve actually taken time with their work and read it closely. The result is a workshop that’s more about helping each other put on the page what we hope to put on the page rather than critiquing or evaluating or simply giving feedback that may or may not be about what’s at the heart of a piece of fiction. I also have a strong interest in writing process and, in particular, how we get in the way of our own work and what we can do to change that. Writing is risky; it involves being lost and not knowing what we’re doing. So we employ a lot of strategies to keep ourselves from that terrifying state. Most of the time we’re not even aware of those limiting strategies (like outlining our stories in advance or writing too glibly—from the head, not the gut). My goal, then, is to create a safe place for risk-taking because that’s how the good stuff will get written. By safe, I don’t mean a place where we just pat each other on the back; I mean a place where we all care passionately about this strange business of making up stories about people who don’t exist in order to get at the truth. When you’re among a group of people who might also spend two hours on a paragraph, or understand that it can take three or five or ten drafts of a story to finally figure out what it means, you can do great things. That’s what I try to create in my classes.
Writers I return to: Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Lorrie Moore, Tillie Olsen, Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, Tobias Wolff, Bernard Malamud, Jim Shepard, William Faulkner.
Favorite writing advice: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it's the only way you can do anything really good." William Faulkner
Past Student Feedback:
"Joan handled the balance of introducing craft techniques via published (and excellently chosen) works with student workshopping brilliantly! Great curation and highly insightful writing tips with emphasis on writers’ processes."
"Joan has a talent for finding and emphasizing the best in every writer. It was a learning experience for me to hear her critique other writers."
"Excellent balance between Joan’s insights (always right on target) and the class’s. I learned from others’ stories almost as much as the comments I heard about my own."
"Joan’s facilitating skills are top-notch. She keeps the discussions pointed and direct and allows everyone ample time. She also values everyone’s opinion."
"I appreciated Joan’s intelligence and insight."
"Loved the readings, and the workshop discussion was great."
"Excellent analysis and prompts for discussion."