Award-winning author Jane Hamilton came to Culver Academies to share the secrets of story-telling with students in classes, a workshop, and informal discussions.
March 10, 2015

Over two days there was plenty of talk about beginnings, plot, characters, middles, locations, names, conflicts, and endings.

The takeaway Hamilton wanted for students was that “with writing, and with making art, at the heart of it is a sense of play. I want students to approach their writing with lightheartedness and discipline.”

Hamilton, 57, is the author of The Book of Ruth and Map of the World, both of which were selected for Oprah’s Book Club, helping them to attain best-seller status and adaptation for film and/or TV. She also has written a host of short stories and magazine articles which have garnered critical acclaim. Her March 3-4 visit to Culver was co-sponsored by the Montgomery Lecture Series and the Humanities and Fine Arts departments.

Wednesday morning in the Legion Lounge there was plenty of lightheartedness as Hamilton held a writing workshop with 15 students interested in Honors in Creative Writing. Separating them into three groups of five students, their assignment was to develop a plot. The only ground rules were no supernatural beings and no dream sequences. Lively, laughter-filled discussions abounded, as did enthusiasm.

Visiting author Jane Hamilton

Visiting author Jane Hamilton

Earlier, Hamilton had shared a personal remembrance with the students, providing an example of the framework for a story in which the middle was open to options.

Beginning, middle, and end; “as simple as the basics of story-telling sound, it is really difficult,” she said.

Hamilton likened the middle to “a long, hot afternoon that you have to fill.” . . . And then “a stranger comes to town” – the conflict and crises. Life goes on but stories have to end, and “endings are very difficult to get right.”

When she writes, Hamilton says she is thinking about the story and the characters, not the plot pyramid.

Once the smaller groups commenced, Hamilton added a twist by asking each to also write the first paragraph of their story. Hamilton shared that “certain problems bubble-up” as the process begins and they discover the limitations they’ve created.

The newest aspect of the assignment sparked renewed activity among each group, resulting in a flurry of ideas and exchanges before they reconvened to share their results and reactions. The feedback and observations included:

  • One group determining location and time period of their story first, and it couldn’t be Culver. The time of year is also important and “weather still matters,” Hamilton observed.
  • One group creating a dysfunctional family complete with a family tree.
  • One plot involving pirates and a robotic parrot.
  • Working collaboratively, “there was never a shortage of ideas,” offers one cadet. (Hamilton noted this generation is accustomed to working together, but authors prefer to work alone.)
  • Finding the right name for a character was challenging. One group needed a name for a boring individual to be countered by one for a strong character. “By our own logic, names have personalities,” said Hamilton, who admitted to picking names from the phone book for her stories.

The intent of the simulation was “to catch ourselves in the art of writing,” Hamilton said.

During her visit, the questions asked of Hamilton ranged from the general (“What’s your favorite metaphor?”) to the specific (“What kind of printer do you have?”). In between were questions about how she manages her writing life and specific questions about Rehearsing “The Firebird,” a short story she wrote in 1990 that students read prior to her visit.


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Posted in Academic Alumni Culver Academies Fine Arts Parents
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