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Understories Writers’ Workshop in the Environmental Humanities
Center for Environmental Futures
University of Oregon
August 25 – Sept. 15, 2020

William deBuy’s assumptions for the workshop:

My approach to writing starts with the idea that it is both an art and a craft. I doubt that much of the art of writing can be taught—the muses bestow their inspiration or hold it back in different ways for different people.

But craft is a different matter. The writer’s toolbox invites our attention, and with practice all of us can learn to use its contents better. Narrative tension, the magic of voice, the importance of strong verbs, word placement, and telling detail—these “elements of style” and many others can expand our expressive possibilities, just as different kinds of chisels, clamps, and saws broaden what a carpenter can do.

Sometimes just identifying a tool and giving it a name can help a writer start to use it. Recognizing craftsmanship in the work of others opens another avenue for expanding our skills. I like to emphasize that no one can write well without also reading well: the prose of writers who inspire us helps train our inner ear to recognize the sound and rhythm of a good sentence, to know better the qualities we want to impart to our own work.

Inevitably, however, we come back to the question of art, and we will devote ample time to discussing the strategies we employ to make ourselves available to the muses’ intervention.

Beyond that, we must simply practice our craft, read well, and practice our craft some more. With or without encouragement, the committed writer will write any way and anyway.

A note regarding the difference between scholarly writing and the explicitly artistic genres of fiction and creative non-fiction: however one many parse it, the difference does not lie in essential technique. Nearly all the tools are the same. An idea is obviously more abstract than a flesh-and-blood person but its presentation — its portrait — prospers from the same kind of attention a novelist gives to a human character. Similarly, depictions of historical eras and other
broad contexts benefit when a writer endows them with a “sense of place.” Perhaps talking about such matters will produce one of our livelier discussions.

William deBuys

Click here for information about the participants

Schedule and assignments

NB: All sessions will be held via Zoom, and will start at 1:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time. They
will last approximately two hours.
Individual consultations (see below for Sept. 10-11) will be scheduled for the mutual
convenience of participant and instructor.

First Assignment: please bring to Session 1, a passage of writing, not more than a page in
length, that inspires you. I don’t mean a passage with lofty sentiment and moral urging. I mean a
passage that you consider to be brilliant, vivid, and moving and that, when you read it, makes
you want to produce a passage of writing that touches people the way this passage touches you.

Session 1, Tues., Aug. 25

Intro to course
Self-intros of participants
Reading and discussion of passages that inspire
Discussion of next assignment:
Write a 2-3 para portrait of place, due session 2
What makes a place vivid?
Ans: being sensible

Session 2, Fri., Aug. 28

Read/discuss portraits of place.
If time permits, discuss “Writing Tips,” which will be distributed
New assignment: write a 1-page character portrait, due session 3
What conveys character?
Ans: voice, tension, and lots else

Session 3, Tues., Sept. 1

Read/critique character portraits
Assign for session 4: a synthesis of character and place, with movement.
not more than 2 pp

Session 4, Fri., Sept. 4

Read/critique syntheses
Discussion: the magic of rewriting
Assignment: rewrite syntheses

Individual Consultations, Sept. 7-8

Session 5,  Fri., Sept. 11

Read/critique at least half of syntheses

Session 6, Tues., Sept. 15

Read/critique remaining syntheses
Final thoughts/discussion on the “yoga” of writing

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