Running the Story Machine
December 1, 2016
I used to teach creative writing workshops more or less the traditional way: Students wrote whatever they wanted outside of class, then we critiqued the stories of the day, with students commenting on each other’s work. But I’ve since found the writing becomes much more compelling when my students face limitations.
Think about it: Which would you find more intriguing — an improvisational dance in which the dancer could do anything he wanted, or one in which the dancer’s hands and feet were bound?
So I’ll ask my students to write, for example, a realistic story about a mythological creature. The stricture is limiting, yet they still have an entire universe to explore. If they can’t engage with the assignment, that’s okay, too. I encourage students to find imaginative ways to subvert the prompts and break the rules.
Recently, I’ve been reserving 15 minutes at the end of each class — even literature classes — for students to write creatively. In my Contemporary Fiction course, I ask my students to tackle an exercise I call Writing Under the Influence — producing a story in the style of one or more of the writers we’ve read. They find the assignment liberating. When they write in a genre they’ve never tried, such as magic realism, their palette enlarges, and they end up abandoning writing that feels obligatory.
I don’t teach my students so much as challenge them to experiment. I ask them to think about writing forms beyond stories and essays — grocery lists, Twitter feeds, epitaphs — and to consider the particular conventions of those forms. There are unstated rules to writing a product warning, for example, that allow it to be identified as such. What happens when you conform to some of those rules, but break others?
When you pour your story into a new, unexpected form, the form starts to break apart—and the writing comes alive.
Then you’ve powered up what I call the story machine — appropriating a writing form to tell a story. Often you generate a tension when you ask a form to do something unconventional — and that tension is what fascinates readers.
I call it story machine because I find the juxtaposition of those words interesting. When a story takes on an unexpected form or limitation, that’s the start of automation, almost like a Rube Goldberg contraption aimed at banishing writer’s block. Even in literature classes, under time constraints, my students always produce something creative.
In my own work, when I’m pushing against the boundaries of what I mean to say, the writing surprises and inspires me. For the true joy of writing is found not just in the making, but in not knowing where the words will take you.
Matthew Vollmer, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, directs the undergraduate creative writing program. A previous Pushcart Prize winner, he has written three books and edited two collections.
This essay appeared in the 2016-2017 issue of Illuminators, as part of the “Creative Genius” roundup.