Tim Tomlinson's Talks on Writing & Life under Water

The 20th and 21st book club events of Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing were presented by Tim Tomlinson, co-founder of New York Writers Workshop, writer of different genres, and professor of New York University’s Global Liberal Studies program. Tim gave two lectures, one about the craft and vision in prose fiction and nonfiction through which he showed some models of effective writing, and the other about the representation of water in literature from a writer’s perspective.


In the first session about craft, Tim close-read part of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog”, which showcased how the master, with restraint, applied the classical 3-act structure, “selected and focused on very limited set of details to suggest a whole world” at the beginning, he explained, thus provided “clues” for the readers to wonder as they read, and “reversed the plot” at the end. He also made some distinctions about the vocabulary of crafts. For example, there are two kinds of dialogue that writers use in different situations: the dramatic, real life dialogue where characters speak directly on the page; the indirect, reported dialogue, where the narrator maintains more control. Another example is the primary information and secondary information. Primary information is about the action of characters which propels the plot forward, and secondary information relates to the context and background of the action. As writers, we need to strike a balance between them. Readers like primary information but without secondary information, they lose track of the context, while too much secondary information might be boring. The first session ended with the students’ sharing their own writing after a short exercise.


In the evening, Tim’s talk focused on the representation of water in American literature, pop culture, films, paintings and his own poetry. In Walt Whitman’s “Facing West from California’s Shores”, water is represented both as a limitation and a vehicle to the next station. In pop culture, the Beach Boys represented the “dialectic of the sea”, with an “undercurrent of sadness”. In Franscois Truffaut’s 1959 film The 400 Blows, the sea, so much longed for by the hero, “turned out to be another boundary, another cage”.


For Tim himself, the sea is not the boundary, not a cage. Winslow Homer’s painting “The Gulf Stream (1899)” carries symbolic meaning in his eyes. In the painting,  a slave is sailing on his own, with great fierce current approaching, sharks circling, and slave owners pursuing. But this wouldn’t stop him from fighting for his freedom. The sea is hazardous and emancipating all at once. As an experienced scuba diver, Tim has experienced a stunningly different world under water. When he pierced through the skin of the sea, he entered the unconscious, the irrational, the shadow/dream world, which would never be encountered on land. As Professor DAI Fan, the director of the Sun Yat-sen University Center for English-language Creative Writing, commented at the end, “You made us feel we are living just half of our life.”





        2月28日,中山大学英语创意写作研究中心第20、21期读书俱乐部活动于外国语学院301室举行,主讲人Tim Tomlinson为纽约作家工作室的创办人之一,也是多体裁作家及纽约大学全球文学研究项目副教授。Tim共做两场讲座,一场是关于散文与纪实写作的技巧,另一场是从作家视角解读文学作品中水的形象。


        首场讲座中,Tim细读了Anton Chekhov的短篇故事《养狗的女人》节选部分,展示了作者是如何以有节制的态度来应用经典的三幕结构:故事开始时作者“有选择性地专注于数量有限的细节,以此来表现整个世界”,在阅读过程中给读者提供思考的线索,最后情节发生逆转。他也对有有关写作技巧的词汇作了区分。例如,作家在不同情境下使用两种对话:一种是戏剧中的、生活化的对话,角色的对话直接呈现在纸上;另一种是间接性的对话,叙述者对话语有着更多的控制。另外一个例子是主要信息与次要信息。主要信息是指角色能对情节起推动作用的行为,而次要信息则涉及该行为的语境及背景。身为作家,需要努力平衡这两者。读者喜爱主要信息,但如果没有次要信息,就会与上下文失去联系,而太多次要信息则会变得无趣。首场讲座以学生分享各自的练习作品收尾。


        第二场讲座中,Tim则聚焦于水,探讨了海洋在美国文学、流行文化、电影、油画及其诗歌中的形象。在惠特曼的《从加尼福尼亚海岸面向西方》,水既是限制,亦是通往更高层次的途径。流行文化里,海滩男孩代表“海的辩证法”,带着“悲伤的暗涌”。在Franscois Truffaut1959年的电影《四百击》中,主人公无限向往的大海,却成了另一种界限,另一个囚笼。


        对于Tim本人来说,大海绝非界限或围笼。Winslow Homer的画作《墨西哥湾流》(1899)有着象征性意义。画中一位奴隶独自在海上航行,巨浪汹涌,群鲨环绕,奴隶主在身后追赶。这一切都不能阻止他为了自己的自由而斗争。大海既充满危险,也令人解脱。Tim作为一名经验丰富的深潜者,见识了水下截然不同的世界。当他穿过海的皮肤后,他进入到一个在陆地上无法体验的世界。正如中山大学英语创意写作研究中心主任戴凡教授在讲座结束时所言,“您让我们感觉自己只活了人生的一半”。

李菱 黄冠文 章静 供稿