I took one fiction workshop when I was an undergraduate. It was taught by a man who imagined himself to be Ernest Hemingway. He was a blustery, macho man who had published a book of short stories when he was 20 and no fiction since, though he did write articles for Esquire. He had a reputation for sleeping with young women students, and his office was equipped with a twin mattress covered by a paisley Indian print bedspread, the requisite Hendrix and Grateful Dead posters, and other hip paraphernalia of the late 60's and early 70's. The only thing that I learned about my writing was that he thought I wrote good dialogue. Given his reputation, it was hard to know if he meant it or if it was some kind of come on. But we were required to write 15 pages a week. To do that I had to spend a lot of time tapping away in front of my little green Smith Corona typewriter with its bright white keys. I developed the habit of writing daily, which is a valuable outcome.
It would be almost 30 years before I took another fiction workshop. A colleague at UC Berkeley recommended Thaisa Frank's class at UC Extension. She was teaching a course in flash fiction one summer, so I submitted a couple of stories-one published, the other not-as my application to the course and was accepted. I learned more about the craft of writing fiction in a couple of classes with Thaisa than I had in all my years of writing (learning by doing) and reading "how-to" kinds of books and articles. Thaisa is an inventive, spontaneous teacher with keen insight and a great sense of humor. You can see these qualities in her fiction, and she uses them in Finding Your Writer's Voice, the book she co-authored with Dorothy Wall, as well. Though I don't teach fiction, I find that a lot of the students in my advanced composition course, where students do write narrative and creative nonfiction, are interested in writing fiction, so I often recommend this book to them. (I actually recommend it all the time to anyone who tells me they write.) And all writers, regardless of what they are writing, need a voice so many of the exercises work no matter what you are writing.
In my opinion, Finding Your Writer's Voice is one of the few books containing exercises that are not only fun to do but that can also lead finished stories. The book worked for me for all kinds of reasons, the fact that its voice is playful and encouraging among them.
One day during class, when Thaisa was making the distinction between anecdote and story (a topic covered in the book), she gave us a homework assignment that would require us to work this out in writing. I thought the following exercise was in the book, but having just looked back through it, I couldn't find it. So I'll do my best to reproduce it here. Thaisa told us to write a story of no more than 500 words in which half of the story was true and the rest was a "lie." We were to do it in the voice of a child or adolescent. Warning, the story I wrote, was about 250 words. I revised it a couple of times using Thaisa's in-class feedback. It was published by Alaska Quarterly Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael Kimball, author of The Way the Family Got Away and most recently Dear Everybody, read Warning in AQR and, as fiction editor of taint magazine, solicited a story from me. The following year I received a "tainty for supreme fiction" for News of the Day, a story published in taint.
I don't know how people feel about doing exercises, but I find that they can be inspiring, especially if I'm blocked with something I'm working on or just fishing around for ideas. I have never been able to keep a journal-though I do carry a small notepad at all times for jotting down ideas-so I think doing exercises that appeal to me is my substitute for that.