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  • LIsa Madsen Rubilar

I Took The High Road . . . To Better Writing

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

I drove to Winston-Salem, North Carolina last Friday to attend the High Road Festival of Poetry and Short Fiction sponsored by Press 53. A big thank you to Kevin Watson, Press 53 publisher and editor-in-chief, who even signed me up by phone when I was having computer problems and couldn’t register online. His wife, Cathy Watson, gave me a ride back to my hotel from a restaurant Saturday night. I appreciated their kindness.

The Festival attracted a good-sized crowd of word-lovers, with a full day of classes and readings. I spent my time in fiction master classes by David Jauss and Clint McCown and a poetry seminar by Tom Lombardo. I was so busy I didn’t have time to eat, but my writerly heart was satiated.

It was a treat to learn again in person from David Jauss, who was one of my advisors at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). Press 53 has published his two most recent story collections, Glossolalia and Nice People, both of which are wonderful. Previously, he literally wrote the book on fiction-writing: Alone With All That Can Happen: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom About the Craft of Fiction. The title expresses perfectly the crucible, and the heady freedom, we fiction writers face every time we sit in front of an empty page or an empty screen. Absolutely anything can happen. The burning question is, What, exactly? We’re the only ones who can decide. That’s a lonely and exciting place to be.

What I love about Jauss’s method is that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. He closely examines what great writers do, and encourages all of us to learn in the same way. For example, point of view isn’t just about whether the story is told in first person or third person. “Defining point of view according to person is futile and unhelpful since all narrators, regardless of person, can and do use the same spectrum of techniques,” Jauss says. Just as cinematographers zoom in and out at will, most great writers move seamlessly from close-up to panorama using a variety of craft techniques. This is the essence of point of view.

I took copious notes during Jauss’s class. Here are a few other pithy nuggets: “Eyes are the most over-used body part in fiction. Hands convey a lot more.” “Consider everything you are writing provisional.” “Your first thought is the worst thought. Slow down.”

Jauss’s book has been retitled On Writing Fiction. If you're a fiction writer, you need to have a copy.

I’ll post separately about McCown’s and Lombardo’s classes. Stay tuned.

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