Kenneth Burchfiel, WSTFTHS
Within every story lies a literary “sweet spot”: a point where the theme clicks, the writing flows and the ideas presented resonate with the reader. In many stories—well-written ones, at least—that center point happens to be the climax or thesis of the piece, exactly where the writer wants it.
Many stories, however, are written off-center. The composer sets out with a given agenda and types out their ideas; and yet, an unimportant, extraneous paragraph turns out to be even more promising than the climatic or pithy ones. The writer might be satisfied with the story as it stands, but the real heart of the piece—that which could form the base of an even better story—goes underutilized and underappreciated.
This situation can be called “Off Center Writing.” To cure it, I prescribe a simple, yet effective writing exercise.
“Sourdough Workshopping,” not surprisingly, derives its name from the baking process used for that kind of bread. To make sourdough, one takes a small amount of “mother” yeast—the most flavorful and filling section of the bread—and mixes it in with a new batch. That transplanted yeast spreads to the very end of the loaf and creates a newer, better-tasting bread.
When applied to the workshop format, this process can be just as beneficial for compositions with hidden potential as it is for loaves with especially good yeast.
To start, each writer produces a piece—be it fiction or nonfiction. If desired, everyone shares their product with the class. class. The fun begins when every story is traded with another writer.
The recipient of a piece can be considered the “baker.” Their job is to read what they receive and locate that aforementioned center of the story: one paragraph (and only one paragraph) which they find to be the most engaging, thought-provoking, exciting or innovative. All the “editors” do is select that paragraph and hand it back to the writer.
This chosen clipping of the story then becomes the “mother yeast” on which the original writer bases a new composition. There are no rules for this second piece, except that the selected passage must form the basis for the piece’s theme and plot. (in other words, it has to be the pith of the story.)
The writer, once finished with this second composition, has conquered their initial dilemma: their story is now centered and focused on the very best paragraph they could have picked.
There is no limit on the Sourdough Writing process. The writer could give this new piece to another editor, have them pick out the best paragraph from it and generate a third story; or a fourth story; or a tenth story, if they’re really enjoying themselves. The whole point is to build a new story using the best part of an older one.