When I was a younger writer, I devoured all sorts of "how to" books. As I've said before, I love interviews with writers. I still find those interesting, but it's rare these days to find a book on craft useful enough at this stage in my writing life to justify the purchase of the whole book. Most craft books are telling me what I already know. There's some value to repetition, but I'd prefer to spend my hard-earned money on a book with new information or inspiration.
I decided to take a risk with a recent edition from Tin House Books. I loved an earlier book of theirs, The World Within, a book of interviews, writers interviewing other writers. The latest book from Tin House is The Writer's Notebook, and I devoured it in one week-end.
Most of the essays are most useful for those of us who write fiction, or for those of us who are interested in how the fiction that we love comes to be written. I've often found these kind of essays useful not only as I write fiction (a rare event these days), but also as I teach fiction, the analyzing of it, not the writing of it. There are plenty of essays that would be useful for people who teach Literature, not just those lucky ones who get to teach Creative Writing classes (although these essays would be useful for those people too).
My two favorite essays are "Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale" by Kate Bernheimer and "Shakespeare for Writers: Sixteen Lessons" by Margot Livesey. I love essays by writers who consider older works, and these are much older works. If I judge solely by the writers referenced in most craft essays, most of us are reading only people who have written in the past twenty years.
Don't get me wrong. I was an English major back in the olden days when my Norton anthology included precisely 4 women writers and a few token blacks (before we used the term African American). I spent many years working to open up the canon. But I never suspected we throw out the good along with the boring. Judging by the notes I made in my complete Shakespeare, at one point as an undergraduate, I read all the plays. Now you can get a degree in English and never read Shakespeare at all.
But I digress. Here are some more nuggets from the book to whet your appetite:
"The story, I like to say and remember, is always smarter than you--there will be patterns of theme, image, and idea that are much savvier and more complex than you could have come up with on your own." in "Material" by Lucy Corin.
"Of the plays [Shakespeare's], perhaps half are performed and read frequently. Looking at several of those that aren't is instructive. . . . It is reassuring to know that he could be less than great and that it sometimes took him several attempts to find the right form for the material." in "Shakespeare for Writers" by Margot Livesey.
"Novels tend toward the restored and ordered world; they tend toward happiness, hard-earned and bittersweet as it may be, while short stories tend otherwise. They are less conclusive, less closed, less ordered and unchaotic." in "Lost in the Woods" by Antonya Nelson.
"As I've gone through life, I've found that your chances for happiness are increased if you wind up doing something that is a reflection of what you loved most when you were somewhere between nine and eleven years old." in "Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact" by Jim Shepard.
Those of us who once had travel budgets and professional development money as part of our jobs are likely to find them cut, and many of us never had them. Books like this one can give us the best of a writing workshop without ever leaving the house. And this book costs so much less than even the cheapest retreat. Plus, it comes with a CD that has two discussions: "Using Real Life in Fiction and Vice Versa" and "Crafting Character." I haven't had a chance to listen to those yet, but I look forward to it.
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