The Steeple Chase – part I

Photo by Phil Hodkinson on Unsplash

I’m going to share the best thing I learned in graduate school. It’s an exercise called the Steeple Chase and and it’s tailor-made for dilettantes. It’s a literary tactic to jumpstart a stalled narrative, and all it requires is the capricious attention span that is the hallmark of amateurs everywhere and a penchant for dabbling in different literary forms.

There’s a debate that’s been raging for quite some time on the efficacy of MFA programs. Some people think they’re a powerful force for shaping the future of the literary tradition and others think they’re a massive waste of money. I feel good about my MFA experience. It did cost about as much as a luxury car, but I also wrote a whole lot, figured a few things out and made some friends and mentors who I’m still in touch with twenty years later. Even luxury cars don’t last that long. I don’t think I would have published my novel Vintage without the things I learned in grad school, this exercise in particular.

But that being said you certainly don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a successful writer. Most of the best writers I know don’t have advanced writing degrees, and some of the MFA grads I’ve met regret their time in academia, where certain genres were eschewed and some workshops encourage nasty competition by design. So it’s a personal choice. But no matter your preference, you can use this exercise…all for free! (Though you could join my email list if you’re feeling grateful.)

I first experienced the Steeple Chase exercise as a semester-long activity that was the foundation of the advanced fiction workshops I took at Columbia College Chicago. I had the good fortune of going through the process there with the late, legendary Betty Shiflett that sly and brilliant story wizard who seemed to have the ability to trick you into becoming a better writer despite your myriad flaws and inhibitions. But I’ve since learned that there’s no magic involved, just a lot of work and some practical processes that build your fundamental storytelling skills, and the Steeple Chase is precisely such a process.

I’ve since adapted the Steeple Chase to my own process and I tend to do it naturally now, without even thinking about it. I’m going to offer some suggestions for how you can do this as a solo activity to reanimate your own stalled narratives, and I’m even going to throw in a fancy set of official Dilettante playing cards to help out. But we’ll get to that soon enough.

The Steeple Chase is an exercise that solves literary problems. It gets you unstuck from sticky story situations and it breathes fresh air into stale narratives. This will be a three-part series of posts, and next I’ll be giving you an overview of how it works in a classroom setting, along with some context and history from instructors who use this exercise in their workshops. Then finally I’ll give you some idea on how the process has evolved for me once I left those workshops behind. After all, most of us who tack toward the dilettante end of the artistic spectrum are working solo in the margins of our days and lives.

The Steeple Chase principles can be applied to the film world and also to the visual arts, and I’ve also found that the concepts help me in my documentary work as well. And I’ll address those things in posts down the road. But for now I’ll be concentrating mostly on writing.

So let’s get started.

Has this ever happened to you:

You’re writing a story, novel or screenplay. It’s long or short. But it started with an image or idea that hits you like a lightning. You’re smitten as the fragment blossomed into a full-fledged narrative. This is it…the one you’d been waiting for all of your life! You can’t wait to write it. You scribble notes on index cards. You stop in the middle of a crosswalk to email yourself ideas. You steal minutes away from your lover, children, day job or all of the above to scribble in a notebook. You wake up early, stay up late or arise in the middle of the night to pin sticky notes to your monitor. It’s going great. Magnificent. Brilliantly.

But then, all of a sudden…

…it stops.

You wake up one morning and this idea, this incipient narrative that was one so compelling is a deflated, lifeless, unorganized holy mess of cliches and insipid prose. You can’t remember what was once so compelling about it. Eventually, you stick it in a drawer or drag it into a folder way down in the bowls of your computer where it will languish and eventually fade into memory.

Sound familiar? If this has ever happened to a project of yours, it’s time to dust that sucker off and prepare put it through its equestrian paces. That failed work, that imploded narrative, that lost literary soul…that’s the story you need for a proper Steeple Chase exercise.

One of the big secrets of writing that I eventually learned long after graduate school is that every story is like this. Every project eventually feels dead and lifeless. Writing has a truly tidal movement, swinging from breathless inspiration to a churning slog. A Steeple Chase is just a formalized way of braking through this routine problem. But for now, when selecting a work to run through this exercise, don’t automatically go for your current project, stalled though it may be…look for something that is completely stuck, a story or section of a novel on which you’ve already given up hope.

Anything come to mind?

If so, buckle up and scoot your chair up to the old Remington Rand and get ready to ride that sucker over the gates or puddles or stone walls, or whatever it is that those equestrians in this metaphor actually do in their high boots and funny little hats.

In part II, we’ll start to dig into the exercise.


Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive a note every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.

2 thoughts on “The Steeple Chase – part I

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