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September 23, 2017

5/18/2016 3:08:00 PM
Getting the Words Right
Fred Shafer aspired to be a political journalist but became intrigued by the processes and techniques of fiction writing.Submitted photo
Fred Shafer aspired to be a political journalist but became intrigued by the processes and techniques of fiction writing.
Submitted photo
By Tom Benz


Literary workshops come and go but Fred Shafer’s fiction writing sessions have been generating excellent prose since the mid 1980s. The successes have been manifold.

Members have published more than two dozen novels and story collections with major publishers. They have appeared in such prestigious journals as Tin House, Ploughshares, the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and Glimmer Train.

Pieces presented in the class have also been showcased in such acclaimed anthologies as the “Best American Short Stories” and the “Pushcart Prizes Stories of the South,” and one novel won the prestigious Association of Writer & Writing Programs award. Authors who have emerged from the workshop include Joyce Zeiss, Peter Levine, Goldie Goldbloom, John Twohey, Katie Shonk, Billy Lombardo, Lynn Sloan, and Jan Leary.

Mr. Shafer began in a journalism program at Columbia, thinking he would be a political reporter, but he took a detour after becoming intrigued by the processes and techniques of writing fiction. For decades now, he has been teaching in the school of professional studies at Northwestern University, and has served as an advisory editor to the internationally recognized StoryQuarterly literary magazine.  

When he decided to branch out and offer workshops out of his Evanston home, these proved to be highly popular. In contrast to his university classes where students finish and move on to the next curriculum, Mr. Shafer likes to work continuously with writers, sometimes for several years, watching them mature and grow as artists.

The approaches to studying and making fiction are almost limitless; from how to handle time on the page, to building tension, to the importance of rendering place and creating characters readers can fall in love with or passionately root against. “It is about building a body of knowledge to draw from,” he said. “And once certain principles are understood, you can keep raising the bar.”  

Part seminar and part workshop – Mr. Shafer wants to change the way students read fiction, with a keen focus on how it is put together. A special emphasis is placed on the interplay between planning and discovery, both of which are essential to varying degrees. He delves into how far ahead to look and how structure and spontaneity can affect one another.  

“You’ll know that you’ve formed too much of a plan if you aren’t making discoveries or being surprised by what you are writing,” he said. “The best planning usually involves raising questions for which you seek answers through imagining.”

The workshop is careful to set the right tone for fruitful interaction, ensuring a safe zone for honest but tactful critiques, and never losing sight of what has been done well. It is well recognized that many aspects of great writing won’t be discovered until the revision process, and that this is a journey even the most famous writers have had to take. Further, it is always optional to take suggestions from other members of the group, but the high level of the commentary is such that some ideas are bound to resonate.   

Although the workshop is definitely not a book club, about half the time is generally spent  discussing the work of a particular author over the course of a term. Yet this is done strictly from the standpoint of how the book was imagined and put together.

Usually at the end of the Spring term, the writer who has been studied is invited to come for a master class, where he or she can field very specific questions about the  books involved. Russell Banks, Jeffrey Eugenides, Yiyun Li, Francine Prose, Tobias Wolff, and Charles Baxter are among the writers who have who have appeared since 1997. Still, the intensive analysis doesn’t generally lead students to mimic such tremendous talent as to glean some of what has helped them along the way.

“Years ago, I’d see trends develop when several people in a workshop would be caught up in imitating the work of an author whose work was popular at the time,” he said. “Now the members of my groups seem to be more interested in finding their own voices, and I try to encourage that by using examples from a diverse group of authors.”

Mr. Shafer cautions that many kinds of fiction often do not have mass market appeal and that the competition for juried publishing at every level has probably never been more fierce. He said that literary fiction in particular is by its nature countercultural and tends to run against the grain of commerce. He stressed that it is often best to simply focus on attempting to create an impeccable work of art, and developing the narrative side of oneself, allowing the rest to take its course.   

Beyond this, participants find colleagues from different walks of life who share a passion for expressing something well, drawn from one’s memory or venturing very far away from it, seeing where the imagination can lead or be directed. Mr. Shafer’s classes draw from a wide spectrum of people. They are comprised of doctrs, lawyers, professors, students, and business people. Most live relatively nearby but as Mr. Shafer’s reputation has spread, some students have come from as far away as Indianapolis, Ann Arbor, Milwaukee, Madison, and even Los Angeles.  

If one seeks a sample of Mr. Shafer’s approach, he has appeared as the regular kickoff lecturer at Off Campus Writers Workshop in Winnetka, usually offering a four-week series on a single aspect of fiction each September. He has 43 students currently and is sometimes available for personal consultation on manuscripts.

There will always be a fascination with the joys and perils of making things up, recording them in a coherent and meaningful narrative. Some simply need to tell the stories that have welled up inside them, while others are after the beauty of language itself. Mr. Shafer’s local workshops on the craft of fiction can help one find both.





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