Dangerous Territory: Reflection on Master Class with William Lychack

By M.A.W.P. student Shane Zimmer

Last Thursday I took part in a Master Class with author William Lychack as part of the Visiting Writers Program at DePaul. I was one of three fortunate M.A.W.P. students who had their stories selected for the hour-and-a-half workshop. Along with Javaria Afghani and Amanda Gibson, I had the opportunity to talk shop with the author of The Wasp Eater and The Architect of Flowers.

Lychack took time to respond to each of our stories candidly. Though he had comments for each individual piece, he shared one particularly memorable insight that applied to all three of us. Our stories, he said, seemed to stop short of crossing into dangerous territory.

What exactly is dangerous territory?

If I understood Lychack correctly, it’s the place where characters get themselves in the most trouble. It’s where they confront their deepest fears and desires, where they cannot hide from their vulnerabilities and they are forced to view themselves and their relationships in the most revealing light.

Rather than being abstract, Lychack identified specific scenes (or lack of scenes) in all of our stories that could have crossed into dangerous territory. I can’t speak for Javaria or Amanda, but in my story I missed a few opportunities to get my protagonist in trouble. He went through the gestures of transformation without showing proof that his change was real.

Speaking generally, it was a great help just to be reminded how important it is to keep a lookout for dangerous territory and to reveal my characters by propelling them directly into its heart.

Lychack also shared five questions he learned from the writer Charles Baxter. These are the first questions he asks himself and his students when responding to a story:

  1. What’s the story about?
  2. What does the main character want?
  3. What is he/she afraid of?
  4. What do you remember most from a story? Or, as the writer, what are you trying to hand over to the reader?
  5. What is idiosyncratic about the story? What in the story is yours?

DePaul’s Professors Miles Harvey, Richard Jones and Michele Morano, plus several students, contributed their own questions and insights. All together their input made for a fruitful discussion on narrative craft. Such conversations are why I enrolled in this program. It is always a humbling experience to present a piece of writing in a workshop, thinking it’s near to finished, and then discovering how many ways the piece can be improved. The workshop is dangerous territory in itself, and one I am always glad to have entered.

Thanks to Professor Harvey and the Department of English for arranging the Master Class and thanks to William Lychack for taking the time to share his wisdom.

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3 comments on “Dangerous Territory: Reflection on Master Class with William Lychack

  1. Trudie Gauerke says:

    Thanks for the recap, Shane. I was sorry to have to miss this.

  2. Home says:

    Thanks, Trudie.
    If the Visiting Writers Program offers another Master Class, I recommend submitting a story for consideration.
    Also, nice job reading your poems last Friday.

  3. Mary Parisoe says:

    Interesting! Thanks.

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