-James P. McDaniel
“The Art of Writing”
Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Assistant Professor Stephen Schottenfeld from the University of Rochester. He joined the faculty in 2008, leaving behind Rhodes College. “I felt like I was leaving a really good situation for another good situation,” said Shottenfeld.
At the University of Rochester he teaches courses in modern and contemporary literature. Schottenfeld’s stories tend to focus on people who live on the edges of society. For example, his story “Trick or Treat” is a depressing tale of a 31-year-old who lives with his parents and has an immature mind. At one point it’s revealed that the main character “accidentally” killed his third grade teacher. Reading the story was interesting, and showed me people who aren’t written about as much.
Schottenfeld took his influence for the up-coming novel Bluff City Pawn from a novella Summer Avenue, where it is situated in a commercial strip in Memphis. He took a journalistic approach to fiction writing; he notices the abundance of pawnshops in Memphis and was interested in their function/purpose. He wanted to understand the lives of the people in the pawnshops and what the focal point of them is.
I was curious if Bluff City Pawn was influenced by TV shows. Ironically Steven was told in a pawnshop about the reality TV show Pawn Stars. He didn’t want to use any media depictions for his novel or use those types of characters due to manipulation of the show and its characters.
Instead of using a fabricated reality TV show for his setting, he used a real one. “You know the story is real when you stop doing research and focus on the character, rather then following real life.” He examined the pawnshops in Memphis and looked at what was on the shelves; he also talked to the people who worked there to understand what they know about the various items in the store and the significance of them. The shop in Bluff City Pawn is drawn from 2 or 3 of the ones he looked at; he even used some of the layouts of the stores. “I would bring in a pad to stores and take notes,” said Schottenfeld. To make a story believable it helps to have research. Research will make setting, plot, and characters seem real. He amassed research before writing Bluff City Pawn, yet the main story takes on a life of its own.
During the interview Mr. Schottenfeld gave me some good advice on writing.
The first is the fear of the white blank page or better known as writers block. He told me there are two kinds for him. The first is, “Once I have finished something and I have no clue what the next piece is.” The second is more common; “I’m in the middle of something and I have no clue where to take it.” It can be less of a problem when you already have something; the problem is when you don’t have a subject and where to go next. Reading a lot and staying grounded to what you’re working on can help in overcoming the white blank page. “Sometimes you have to seek out narratives and explore life, explore other mediums (art, literature, films), work harder and look around more,” said Schottenfeld.
“A good storyteller is one who can take you into an unfamiliar world or a subject that you might know in a new way,” says Schottenfeld. In addition having concrete details allows for movement and change, and a story doesn’t always have to end at a change.
Good stories are told because something is wrong or some problem is occurring. You can’t have a story with flat language; language is what moves a story and makes it flow. It can make something commonplace seem believable if a writer uses the right words.