At this past residency in Vermont, a few faculty members were sitting around before a meeting, talking about nothing in particular, and then one of us, for whatever reason that made sense in the moment, was describing a scene in a Martin Scorsese movie.
Maybe Casino; maybe Goodfellas. Doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens in the scene.
Robert De Niro has told an acquaintance to meet him at a remote location. (Parking lot; warehouse: Doesn’t matter.) Why? she says. It’s a surprise, he says. She shows up, because what else can she do? And there is De Niro, waiting for her, at a distance.
At this point the camera enters her point of view. It/she approaches De Niro. He smiles. He gives a little playful encouragement—a cupped-palm, four-fingered Come on, you can do it.
“Scorsese and De Niro play it for laughs!” the faculty member said.
A quick discussion ensued among the three or four of us about the utility of pitting comedy against tragedy: how humor releases tension but adds suspense. Then we bent back to our work and our lunches.
The conversation would have ended there, but half a minute later I had a realization. “You know you’re in a roomful of writers,” I said, “when you can describe that scene and nobody goes, ‘So—what happened to her?’”
Nobody went What happened to her? because the answer didn’t matter. Because the topic of our discussion wasn’t the plot but the technique: the effect, and the craft that created it.
We were talking in annotations, I realized, and then I said it: “We’re talking in annotations.” And then everybody said we’re talking in annotations, and then everybody said: Well, that’s what writers do, when they talk to other writers: They talk in annotations.
When I started teaching at Goddard, in 2003, the concept of annotations was new to me. I’ve since discovered that it is new to nearly all students, too. I’ve also discovered that the critical writing component of a Goddard MFA in Writing presents an extraordinary opportunity to students: to become better writers by learning to think like writers.
If the same faculty members having the discussion about Scorsese and De Niro in the Clockhouse were watching the movie—if we were in-the-moment immersing ourselves in its what’s-next? exigencies—we would be just like anyone else: suckers for suspense, dying to know whether she survives. Because we’re human. Because by that point in the story we would be investing our emotions in the outcome of the meeting.
Because her survival would matter.
As would parking lot or warehouse. As would Casino or Goodfellas.
But because we’re writers, a part of our brains also would be appreciating the craft—not necessarily the framing of the character’s point of view or the contrast between humor and horror, but something. And not only would that something matter, but it would continue to matter, whether we’re talking with friends or, more likely, talking to ourselves. Either way, we would be talking in annotations: What was the effect?; What was the element of craft that caused it?; and, perhaps most important of all, What can I steal?