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The Scariest Assignment…

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

Well, it’s been assigned: The Steeplechase, quite possibly the most polarizing assignment in my MFA program. It’s a requirement for completion of an advanced fiction class, and since this is my second advanced class, this is going to be my second attempt.

Before I actually tried the The Steeplechase, I’d heard talk of it in my earlier fiction classes. People whispered about it in hushed tones, complained about it in louder ones. But no one seemed to be able to quite describe it. Some people swore by it. Others loathed it. All I could gather, before I did it, was that it contained eleven steps. But sometimes twelve or ten or even fourteen.

I’ll try to explain The Steeplechase in brief: You take a scene or story that’s kind of hit a dead end. Your first step is that dead-end scene, and then, with each successive “step” (or “leap”, as my professor, Randy, calls it), you must push the story forward in a new way. But what makes it unique is that each of the steps must employ a different technique. For example, if you originally started the scene in, say, first person, you must jump, after a couple pages, to third. Then after a couple more pages you jump again to a new angle, maybe by telling the scene from the point of view of an unlikely character, then again to a scene of pure dialogue, then a mode of reality shift, then a parody of a writer whose style is very different from your own, and on and on and on. At the end, you’ll have a total of eleven leaps, give or take. The order and the forms vary slightly depending on who is teaching the class, but the one requirement is that you cannot keep retelling the same scene; you must push the story forward with each new step.

It’s really freaking hard.

Some people crank out their Steeplechases in one, Kerouac-esque frenzy of inspiration; others sweat it out over the larger part of a semester. Last semester, I turned in the work in three disastrous chunks. I hated turning in something to my professor that didn’t make any sense, that I didn’t feel was my best work.

But then something weird happened. My first ten steps were complete garbage. But the last step, step eleven, just sort of flowed—in that magical way that happens when you’re really seeing—not just imagining, but seeing—your scene and the words are just writing themselves and when you finish, you have something on the page and you don’t even know where it came from, but you really like it.

It was, I think, the best piece of writing I did all semester, and I don’t think I ever would have discovered it had it not been for those first ten miserable steps of the The Steeplechase. I realized that the function of the exercise was forcing yourself into experimentation, looking at your story in every way possible, and allowing yourself to be daring and messy. The goal is to help you find your strongest story. This week, as I begin to wrangle with The Steeplechase for the second time, I’m still nervous. But I know I don’t need to be perfect. I feel that if I can write ten horrendous nothings and even one strong something again, I will officially proclaim myself a Steeplechase fanatic.

What are some great writing assignments that you’ve had? How do you decide on the form your story is going to take?

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5 Responses to The Scariest Assignment…

  1. Jessie Morrison says:

    Thanks for the posts, everyone! Yes, I highly recommend trying it for yourself. It IS hardcore, but there’s a payoff. Christine, I would try John Schultze’s "Writing from Start to Finish". He is the originator of the Story Workshop Method we use at Columbia, and many of the techniques we use are in that book! Let me know if you guys Steeplechase!

  2. Wow, what an awesome writing assignment! Challenging, no doubt, and a terrific way to dig deep within yourself and see what you’re made of. I’m definitely giving the Steeplechase a try. Thanks for sharing! And I’m glad it worked out well for you! I’m tweeting this post! :)

  3. Dana says:

    Thanks for the post. I agree it sounds like a good exercise. I imagine it really makes the writer feel vulnerable to try all those different things and then gasp! show them to somebody.

    I agree it is difficult but important to embrace the parts of us that are less than perfect, the messy irrational parts, etc. And embracing the steps toward getting better, those steps are often uncomfortable. It is a problem in our education system that we are so closely monitored and graded for every step of our learning, and I believe we are conditioned to believe that we should be really great at everything we do, when, especially in art, it’s beautiful to mess around and up and out and down LOL.

    -dana

  4. Kristan says:

    WHOA, that sounds hardcore! Hahaha. Like exactly the kind of exercise I would hate to be assigned, but love to complete. I dealt with that a lot (the hate-love feeling) at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, but the growth that I experienced in that one week was incredible.

    Good luck!

  5. ChristineM says:

    This sounds like a great assignments for a new writer, like me, who still needs an enormous ammount of practice. Are there any books/websites you could recommend that would include a variation of The Steeplechase as an exercise?

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