The Storytelling Lab: Interview with Robert Anthony Siegel
by Writing Workshops Staff
A month ago
Dive into the world of storytelling with accomplished author and instructor, Robert Anthony Siegel. In this interview, we explore the story behind Robert's new class, The Storytelling Lab.
Robert is the author of a memoir, Criminals (Counterpoint,) and two novels. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian Magazine, The Paris Review, The Drift, The Oxford American, and Ploughshares, and has been anthologized in Best American Essays 2023, O. Henry Stories 2014, and Pushcart Prize XXXVI. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop.
As an accomplished writer and avid reader, he understands the link between dissecting stories and honing one's narrative skills. His new course follows an engaging format, where participants will explore five carefully chosen short stories over five weeks, each week uncovering a different aspect of storytelling. From examining character dynamics in Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Interpreter of Maladies" to delving into the realm of magical realism in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Robert's class promises to spark creativity in both new and seasoned writers.
WW: What inspired you to create The Storytelling Lab?
RAS: Writers begin as readers—passionate, obsessive readers. The idea of the Storytelling Lab is to connect back to that original inspiration and channel the excitement of reading something truly wonderful, but with an eye to craft and construction. In the Lab, students learn how to take mystifyingly beautiful stories apart, figure out how they work, and then apply those same techniques to their own writing.
WW: How do you believe the act of dissecting and analyzing stories can enhance a writer's craft?
RAS: So many ways! It demonstrates specific techniques. Are you trying to write the kind of story that says more by saying less? Read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”
It helps us think about subject matter. Want to write a story about loss without a speck of sentimentality? Look at Amy Hemphill’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.”
It alerts us to options we never even imagined. Can you write a story without characters? Without scenes? Take a look at Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.”
Most important, it shows us that the seemingly impossible is possible in our writing—that all we must do is read more closely, more openly, to learn how it’s done.
WW: Your course covers a range of themes and techniques, from first-person retrospective narration to magical realism. How do you plan to guide students through such diverse aspects of storytelling?
RAS: We begin each class with an open discussion, whatever the class members want to highlight about the week’s story. After that, we move to a specific craft lesson, emphasizing one important thing the story has to teach about storytelling. We end with an exercise keyed to the craft lesson, which we share. It’s one basic structure, but it feels new every time because the stories are so different and pose such different challenges.
WW: The selection of stories for your class is intriguing, to say the least. How did you choose these specific stories?
RAS: I try to skew my picks toward the contemporary, but inevitably add in older work that has valuable things to teach us about storytelling. I try to capture the amazing diversity of voices in American writing today, while also making space for great writing in translation from all over the globe. More than anything, I’m looking for a surprising mix of stories offering an interesting variety of craft problems to explore.
WW: In each class session, you've included an in-class writing exercise. How do you envision these exercises helping students develop their own creative skills?
RAS: In-class exercises allow us to practice what we’ve just learned and make it our own—to begin the process of assimilating new techniques into our repertoire. The exercises are timed sprints, which means they short circuit the anxiety that can sometimes get in the way of creative exploration. Often, they become the seeds of a new story that students can then squirrel away for later development.
WW: As writers complete The Storytelling Lab, what do you hope they will take away from the experience? How might their approach to reading, writing, and storytelling evolve because of participating in your class?
RAS: The point of the Storytelling Lab is to teach students how to read like writers, able to take apart stories to see how they work, and then assimilate those lessons into their own writing. Once students learn how to read for craft, they can do it on their own.
Nevertheless, I envision the Storytelling Lab as open-ended, an ongoing series of five-week classes that students can take whenever they feel the need for more guided reading. Hungry to learn new ways of telling a story? Feeling a little hemmed in by the limits of your current knowledge? Or just in need of a creative boost? Join another Storytelling Lab with new stories to read.
The Storytelling Lab with Robert Anthony Siegel starts soon. Join us in discovering the art behind the craft through the eyes of a true literary expert.
Instructor Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of a memoir, Criminals (Counterpoint,) and two novels. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian Magazine, The Paris Review, The Drift, The Oxford American, and Ploughshares, and has been anthologized in Best American Essays 2023, O. Henry Stories 2014, and Pushcart Prize XXXVI. He has been a Fulbright Scholar in Taiwan, a Mombukagakusho Fellow in Japan, a Writing Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Paul Engle Fellow at the Iowa Writers Workshop. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and a BA from Harvard.