MFA Nugget: The Secret to Including Drama in Your Creative Writing

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: If you think this post on enhancing dramatic moments in your creative writing is going to feature craft tips, think again. Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing instructor Lawrence Sutin has some amateur psychology and insightful philosophy to guide you; that is, he did in his lecture here at my final residency, and I’m going to pass a bit of it along to you. I say a bit, because Larry can provide more wisdom in an hour-long lecture than most instructors can in ten, so I couldn’t possibly begin to capture it all. (Here are write-ups on previous lectures by him, on writing to the reader and on including details in your writing.)

Lawrence Sutin
Lawrence Sutin

No offense against studying craft, Larry said, but creative writing “isn’t the most difficult field of study.” In his nearly thirty years of instructing creative writing students, he rarely encounters a writer struggling with craft when trying to put more drama into their fiction or creative nonfiction: “A lot of the problem writers have with drama is their difficulty in facing that drama.” In other words, in writing what we know, we have a hard time facing the painful elements of a story that will be most welcomed by our readers. “We hold back as a cloaking mechanism from risk,” he says. Some takeaways, with full acknowledgment that I cheapen Larry’s wisdom when condensing it:

  • We all want to write understated prose–to introduce drama in our narrative without being melodramatic–but “a good understated writer is a virtuoso pianist,” knowing exactly which details to provide and when. Most of us are not virtuosos, so we end up leaving out material the reader needs to fully understand the dramatic moment.
  • Aristotle in Poetics said the key to drama is that it conveys pity and terror. When a writer is brave enough to invoke both empathy and fear in a writer, regardless of genre, they are doing the reader a favor. When the reader makes it through to the other side they experience a catharsis, which is pleasurable to the human psyche.
  • “We keep hoping when we write about others that they’ll like what we’ve written about them,” Larry said. “I find that hilarious.” “You’re going to have to have the right to your artistic vision,” he said. Nothing sucks drama out of prose like trying to protect the people you write about. He wasn’t saying we should rip people apart or exact revenge on those in our lives. He was saying we should write about everyone–including ourselves–as you understand them, with what Aristotle called “exactitude.” When you do this, there is no issue with melodrama.
  • You don’t have to tie up the drama at the end of the work in a neat little bow. “Resolution is facing the truth of what you’ve created,” he said: “It can be satisfying and messy.” The key is that the narrative lines you’ve woven come together at the end. That doesn’t mean all of the answers are there as well.

He began his lecture by predicting that many in the audience who have worked with him will think he was talking about them when he discussed writers wanting not to face the drama in their own lives. No disrespect to the many others in the room who in fact did think he was talking about them, but the exactitude as I understand it is that he was talking about me. I worked with Larry in my second semester. He critiques by hand, and when my work arrived the phrase “go deeper” was written about four times a page in the side columns. Midway through the semester I arranged a call with him because I was struggling so much with writing about others. In my first semester I had started writing about my own vulnerabilities, but you can only do that so much without writing about others in your life as well. Larry gently but firmly forced me to face my fears in my writing, and I did so. I was describing his process the other day to a student who will be working with him this fall. I said it was like Larry immediately saw that one part of my flesh that was open and he shoved his thumb into it. I meant that as an expression of admiration of Larry as an instructor, and fortunately the student who will be working with him took it that way as well. By the time I reached the third semester, I still had much work to do on writing about others in my life–it was the topic of my third-semester critical thesis–but my memoir would not be what it is without Larry’s guidance. Do you find your own fears to be a source of drama in your own writing? (It is obviously true for creative nonfiction writers but can be true for fiction writers as well.) Do you find yourself holding back when writing about others in your life? How do you deal with that?

6 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: The Secret to Including Drama in Your Creative Writing

  1. Yes, well, I wonder if Larry would consider coming to my remote village on the west coast of British Columbia… to push his thumb deeply into the unguarded fragments of my manuscript. I’m already screaming just thinking about it! I remember receiving the advice, once upon a time during a rewrite of a novel, that I should find what’s frightening about the trajectory of my fictional protagonist. I hit upon a very painful bit of personal history… something to do with having failed as a father. Does it get any more painful than that? And there I had the fuel to rewrite that blessed manuscript. Cheers. PJ


  2. Oh, my gosh! When I saw this, I was delighted that you got to work with Larry Sutin. I’m an alum of the MFA program at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, and Larry was on my thesis committee (a long time ago – I finished in 1998). It was a wonderful experience and you did a nice job with the bits of Larry wisdom you condensed here. Sharing is good! And I remember that admonishment to “go deeper”. I use it now when I critique poetry for Every Day Poets.


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