(This interview originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, September 2006.)
Delving Into the Toolbox: An Interview with Sands Hall
by Erika Dreifus
It’s a true joy for me to present this interview with Sands Hall, one of my first fiction teachers (and one of the finest writing teachers out there today). Sands is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and holds a second MFA in Acting; her experience as a director, actor, and playwright gives her a unique perspective on the writing process. In addition to her work as a freelance editor, she facilitates private workshops; she is also on the staff of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley and teaches for conferences such as the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, as well as for the University of California, Davis, Extension Programs, where she was recently honored with an Excellence in Teaching and Outstanding Service Award.
Sands is the author of the novel, Catching Heaven (a Ballantine Reader’s Circle selection and a Willa Award Finalist, Best Contemporary Fiction). Her produced plays include an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and the drama Fair Use. She is an Affiliate Artist with The Foothill Theatre Company and lives in Nevada City, a historic mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California.
Recently Sands “talked” with your editor via e-mail about her latest book, Tools of the Writer’s Craft (Moving Finger Press, 2005):
Erika Dreifus: What inspired you to write and publish Tools of the Writer’s Craft?
Sands Hall: I’d been teaching and editing for a number of years and found that I was scribbling similar comments, again and again, in the margins of student and client manuscripts. I decided to put those thoughts into organized form, and the essays became a sort of shorthand, as in, “see my thoughts about this in the attached.” Then I began to include them in course packs of various classes, as a way to ensure that everyone in a given class would share a sensibility and nomenclature. I was often told they were useful, but thought that getting them officially published would be an arduous task–until my blessed editor, Steve Susoyev, and Moving Finger Press decided to see them into print.
The book also includes exercises. These started as assignments I gave myself, to try and solve particular writing problems, and at some point I began to assign them to students. (Editor’s Note: For a sample exercise, click here.) As a teacher I find them extremely useful: when an entire workshop is working on the same exercise, with the same focus and objectives, the discussion is similarly focused, on a specific and particular craft problem. The result is that what is learned in the writing (and critiquing) of, say, 300 words, can be applied by the writer to a whole manuscript, the larger endeavor. It is exciting and gratifying to see the leap in ability and understanding that the exercises create in a workshop of diligent and generous writers.
In most other art forms an artist practices every day: a dancer does pliés, a painter takes on “studies,” someone longing to get better on the mandolin plays scales. The exercises in the book offer a way to practice writing. As often as not the pieces generated wind up as part of a larger piece, although that needn’t be the reason for tackling them.
ED: How do you see readers integrating these two parts of the book, “The Essays,” and “The Exercises”?
SH: The section of the book that contains the exercises is called “Put It to Work,” and that pretty much explains the idea. The essays offer theory and the exercises offer a way to put that theory into practice.
In my experience, one gets better–more effective–as a writer by reading, writing, critiquing writing (by which I mean, reading with a discerning eye as to what particular writers, published or unpublished, are doing); then reading and writing and discerning some more.
ED: As it happens, the book opens with an extensive discussion of “Making Workshops Work.” In my experience, this is an often-underemphasized aspect of writing instruction. What has led you to place such importance on it?
SH: Not long after Tools was published a (discerning) reader wondered why “Making Workshops Work” is the first of the essays in the book, rather than, as she thought it should be, the final one. I thought it a fair question, as it’s true that the essay assumes some knowledge of the craft issues discussed in the rest of the volume. It says a lot about my own passions that I lead off with that essay.
In the last five decades workshops have tended to focus on what a writer is doing that does not work rather than what does, with the result that the “learning process” and environment are ones that can humiliate and demean rather than encourage and support. Of course this rests largely on the shoulders of the facilitator of a given workshop, the tone and the system–the “workshop methodology” if you will–he or she sets or insists upon.
I think workshops, for a long while, were a bit like that image we have of a ballet class painted by Degas, where the ballet master has a long stick with which to rap or pummel a ballerina’s unaesthetic or unruly calves and arms, accompanied by words of degradation; this was intended to improve technique, and certainly created legendary dancers. I have come to believe that this kind of teaching, teaching with abuse and fear, is simply old-fashioned, patriarchic, but it still goes on. (I’ve had students, inculcated in this tradition, tell me they don’t feel they’ve had a “good” workshop if they don’t feel shredded at the end of class.) Yet there have always been masters and choreographers who work more, dare I say, lovingly, enthusiastically, positively, and the result is just as lovely and “correct”–and certainly more pleasurable for the artists involved. The essay is an effort to encourage another way to participate in a workshop, although these are certainly not new notions.
In addition, it took me such a long time, when I was in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to figure out just what a workshop was supposed to accomplish, and I wish I’d known some of that when I started the program, rather than just beginning to get the point of it at the end of those two years. So the essay is also an effort to pull these ideas together, and intended to help students get a jump start on the workshop process; above all, I hope they will examine and own the idea that the more they put in to critiquing the writing of others, the more they will take back to their own
ED: Some of the material in this book was happily familiar to me as your former student. How has your vision/definition of “tools of the writer’s craft” evolved over the years you’ve been teaching and writing?
SH: It has to do with that idea of “a dancer does plies” articulated above. There are some things one cannot be in control of: basic talent, luck, timing. But there are things a writer can control, and one of those is to be the best writer he or she can be. In the end, art is largely a matter of the craft it takes to create that art: one can write one great song by accident, or shape clay into something brilliant once or twice without “knowledge,” but those artists that endure, whose work stays with us, at some point grew into or grasped elements of what it is that created–sustained and improved–what they did before. That’s craft, and it seems to me by attempting to pinpoint and discuss various components of artful storytelling–vivid writing, who is telling the story, rendering life into art–one might grasp some tools that can be manipulate with *purpose*–a very important word to me–to create effective writing.
ED: You have experience as an actor, director, playwright, novelist, and, obviously, essayist. How do you see the “tools of the writer’s craft” crossing and/or overlapping genres?
SH: Well, I certainly hope your readers will be inspired to buy the book and find out. Seriously, the essays do describe elements of my theater experience that have proven useful to me as a writer, and I’ve had any number of students who have said that it is some theatrical metaphor or image that allowed them to grasp some aspect of writing that had otherwise eluded them: turning down the sound on a scene to underscore the idea of show versus tell; the idea of what a reader “sees” as the curtain goes up, or a camera fades in, to illustrate character; the idea of point of view as a camera; to name a few.
ED: What are you working on now?
SH: My new novel, Xie, is currently in New York. Like my previous novel, Catching Heaven, Xie has three narrators, but this novel also dances across a lot of history: one narrator is a playwright, living now, who is writing a play based on a trove of letters written between 1869 and 1920 by a woman who gets inspired by the women’s suffrage movement. Of course I’ve had to write those letters, and even some portions of the play, so it’s required a lot of research. I’ve had a wonderful time and hope my readers will too.
ED: Thank you, Sands!
Tools of the Writer’s Craft
by Sands Hall
Moving Finger Press, 298 pages.
(c) Copyright 2006 Erika Dreifus