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Writing for change, and Matthew Shepard

I recently led a workshop called Fiction for Social Change, as part of the Writing the Counter Narrative program at World Fellowship Center. If you’re not familiar with World Fellowship, check it out. It’s an amazing community in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, sort of a progressive summer camp for adults and families. Their motto is “where social justice meets nature,” and that’s a pretty good description.

World Fellowship was a perfect venue for this workshop. Although I’ve taught it before (at the San Miguel Writers Conference in Mexico last year and as a panelist at the 2012 AWP Conference), I continue tinkering with the content – refining the exercises and looking for new examples of exemplary politically-themed work.

Because the thing is, writing stories and novels that dramatize injustice in the world is terribly risky business. It’s easy to fall prey to didactic language or cardboard characters or simplistic black-and-white conflicts. It’s challenging to figure out ways to avoid these pitfalls using craft devices like clashing multiple narrators, surprising point of view choice, fractured, nonlinear plot, and comic or hyperbolic tone. I find this all very exciting to think about, especially sharing with other writers who care about the topic, and I expected that would be the case at World Fellowship.

And it was. Except … that I had a difficult time speaking through the ache of sorrow and admiration in my throat. A few minutes before workshop, I finished reading an advanced copy of Lesléa Newman’s forthcoming poetry collection, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. In poems ranging in form from haiku to villanelle, from found poem to rhymed couplets, Newman tells the story of the beating and murder of Matthew Shepard near Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998. The poems take inspiration from newspaper coverage and interviews and from the poet’s imagined perspectives of multiple players in the real-life drama – from an officer of the court to a pregnant doe and the fence Matthew was tied to.

Don’t you love it when serendipity offers up a perfect illustration? That’s what October Mourning felt like – a perfect example of passionate writing, writing that teaches and illuminates, that educates and moves the reader profoundly. The workshop students were terrific and the exercises worked well, and thank you, Lesléa Newman, for the inspiration of October Mourning.

By the way, if you’re interested in the Fiction for Social Change workshop, I’ll be offering it this fall at Writers in Progress in Florence, MA on Saturday, September 29 and at Grub Street in Boston on Friday, November 9.

And if you'd like more information about October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, see Quick Link to the right.
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