Where would a stingray look for its lost gleam of a smile?
This idea prompted a young Matthew Salesses to construct a picture book. Fourth grade Salesses would take the stingray (who donned a top hat and carried around a cane) about on an adventure for that missing sparkle. This would spark the desire for writing in Salesses.
Professor Salesses, a first-year professor at Coe College, has published several times and had it pay off–he is the author of The Hundred Year Flood and I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, both well-received novels that received positive acclaim from many reviewers. Salesses, now a member of the English and Creative Writing department at Coe, hopes that he can re-shape the undergraduate experience that Creative Writing Coe students receive, turning the tropes on their heads, so to speak.
In his newest class, Reading Like a Writer, Salesses tests out student’s ideas about how the reader should approach a written piece of work.
“The hope is that [I] can plant the seeds for someone to read from a writerly perspective–what you can get from quality of the air, a trip to the beach, the latest TV show,” he states. He steers his students to think about not just who they are writing for, but why they are writing for that audience in the first place.
One of his favorite exercises in the class he calls “the levels of hell”. He prompts students to think about the three circles of who they are writing for: the audience they want to engage with, the audience they will reach, and the audience they will affect.
Another topic he tries to get students to understand is the influence of word choice.
An author can only benefit from their writing if they use words in a manner that to reflects the dynamics of the story itself. Suddenly actions are no longer just words on a page–they reveal how the narrator of the story views their actions and their world, and how their characterization shows through word choice. His example: if a character sprinted to the store, as opposed to walked, ran, or even ambled, what can that say about their character? If making similar substitutions across a manuscript in the same fashion, suddenly the entire story can take on a different feeling and shift.
These story shifts can be for better or worse. In a four-part series of blog posts Salesses wrote for the Pleiades magazine blog, he explores the idea of “pure craft” in literature; how certain word choices take on separate meanings for different writers.
A striking example in the second post stands out. Salesses takes a metaphorical workshop class, where all students are writing literary style, and one student writes in fantasy style. The instructor assigns a story where characters must not follow archetypes of tropes. For the fantasy writer archetypes are normal and conventional, used often and not a bad thing. For the literary writer, types will kill a piece, turn it boring, conventional, and tropish.
Salesses hopes to instill in his students that there is no best way to approach writing, no matter your style or genre. Even with the knowledge that writers gain in workshops, Salesses warns that this may not work in their favor.
“Knowledge is a kind of death,” he warns. “The curiosity and the desire are much more important.”