Writing Instructionals: A Confession

I ducked into the reference bookshelves at Barnes & Noble the other day, and I came across a book on writing called Novelist’s Boot Camp, written by Todd A. Stone. I’m embarrassed to say that it intrigued me, felt great in my hands, looked packed with information that could help me. But then I put it down, looked around to see if anyone saw me in the writing reference section, much less with my meaty paws wrapped around the latest in amateur writers’ gimmicry. I shoved it back on the shelf because I think I’m better than a book like this one. I have a completed manuscript, am pretending to work on a novel…I used to have an agent for chrissake. Why should someone like me even think of buying something like this?

No, my angle toward satisfying my appetite for writing instructional is getting it from books written by teaching gods or from novels doubling as a writers’ instructional. That way, I can continue to pretend I am above all the cheesy instructional manuals that start with lame writing exercises like: “Write about your greatest fear…” or “Write about a fight you had with someone. It can be a physical fight or an argument or both…” I’m better than these right?

Actually, I love writing exercises, and I’m going to make it a point always to love writing exercises, even if I tell all of you, in the future, after I’ve published my first novel, but only with a house that’s also agreed to take on my collection, too, that I loathe writing exercises, that they’re the work of those who make excuses not to write anything of substance, and that they’re written by has-beens or never-wases.

I’m glad I can admit this, even on this blog that ten people read, because a month or so ago, my literary obsession, McSweeney’s, published a spoof on writing exercises, called “Thirteen Writing Prompts,”by Dan Wiencek. It’s a hilarious set of exercises meant to toy, probably lightly, with the idea of doing writing exercises. I, ridiculously, was mildly offended by it in my own personal, Yeah-I-Have-Problems way. I was so put off by it that I tried to have a little Thirteen Prompts writing party, inviting others to share in the hilarity I dug up from the Internet.

“Hey, look at what I stumbled upon on the McSweeney’s site…The site I check eight or nine times every day? God, Isn’t this so fucking funny? Let’s get together and laugh at the world of beginning writers by tackling this Thirteen Prompts challenge head on…”

To hide the fact that I love writing prompts and endless writers’ instructional, I borrow instructionals from my writing center, Word Street, and shove them into my bag, my man-bag the students at Lee, the high school where I teach, call it. I shoved a book called Get That Novel Started! into my man-bag and savored the first 55 pages like I was licking a Tootsie Roll Pop, rubbing the buds on my tongue raw to get to the center, but resolving not to cheat by skipping the first pages and jumping right to the good stuff: the step-by-step process that will get my novel written for me.

Plus, this book was published by Writer’s Digest Books. If you’re pretending to be a writing instructional snob, like I am, you hate anything published by Writer’s Digest Books, think that anyone who reads anything published by Writer’s Digest Books is obviously a hack and you’ll never have to worry about competition from these people.Writer’s Digest, the magazine, is another piece of hackwork, too…you’d think.

Books on writing have been a procrastination tool for me. Combine this with my desire always to learn new things, to be a lifelong student, and you have, at times, an unhealthy attraction to these books. How easy it’s been to put off the actual writing in favor of making sure I had my mind wrapped around proper technique, that I was writing dialogue that moved the story forward, that I was approaching structure correctly, not using gimmicry and trendy forms to communicate my story. Here’s a selection of titles I use to avoid writing, in no significant order:

Turning Life into Fiction, by Robin Hemley (Graywolf Press, 2006) is a reprint of Story Press’ 1999 release. This edition, revised and updated, is a well organized beginner’s manual. This book introduced me to the man who would later become my teacher and mentor at Vermont College, and the voice in the book is similar to the voice of the man in person. The books is divided into nice, neat chapters, addressing issues the beginning writer cares about, including a section beginners care about too much: legal and ethical concerns. It always amazes me how “being sued” can stop someone from writing real-life events. I mean, why not wait until someone actually shows interest in the book before you worry about being sued for millions in court by a disgruntled uncle. I mean, please.

Something else I like about this book, though, is the way Hemley includes excerpts of the stories he focuses on in the instructional. Readers can go to the stories at the end of the book to see how the different principles may have been applied.

Call if You Need Me, by Raymond Carver (Vintage, 2001) isn’t a conventional writer’s manual, but it contains essays and meditations that the young writer can absorb and use as inspiration. Actually, the instructionals I find most useful are the works themselves, and you could pick up any of Carver’s collections and learn everything you needed to know about short story writing. In this book, though, the essays all turn into craft talk on the writing process at some point, and the book includes some previously unreleased stories by the author. Other fascinations and writing tools include a section called “Introductions,” a collection of the author’s introductions to several different works. I’ve grown to love introductions lately because they seem to be taken more and more seriously by those who are writing them. Then there’s a section “Book Reviews,” which includes Carver’s opinion and analysis of twelve books by authors such as Donald Barthleme, Richard Ford, and Lynne Sharon Schwartz.


The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky
, by Ken Dornstein (Random House, 2006). I cannot believe I’m not seeing this book featured on bookshelves everywhere. I stumbled onto this book in the form of an advance reader’s copy from The Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza, and it’s the best book I’ve read this year, by far. It’s a memoir, first off, about Ken’s brother, David, who was murdered in the Pan-Am terrorist bombing over Lockerbee, Scotland in 1988. David Dornstein studied at Brown with Robert Coover, and the author found hundreds of pages of his brother’s writing: stories, novel beginnings, travel journals, etc. The author tries to come to an understanding on how to negotiate the feelings of his brother’s death while examining David’s life and work through his writing. David Dornstein struggled a lot as a writer, and this book will get inside you if you struggle as a writer, too. Pair that with the author’s journey of hunting down answers to his brother’s death, and you have a dynamic and unforgettable book.

The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis (Picador, 2004) is another book that unintentionally educated me about the writing process. It’s a story about a writer who uses the process of writing fiction to make sense of her relationship with a former lover. The narrator takes the reader through the experience of using life to create words that accurately and truthfully reflect that life. In many ways, it’s a fictional essay, because the narrator is constantly refocusing her word lens on different angles of the relationship and how it is recorded. I’ve never read another American novel like this one.

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner (Vintage, 1991) is the most worn book I own. It’s highlighted, the binding is split, the cover is curled, and I’ve written all over its pages. A lot of people are put off by his tone and some of his philosophy, but I argue that he’s uncovering a lot of truths that are difficult for some young writers to hear. Gardner gets inside your head, but if you can get over that discomfort, the book will open up for you in ways no other writing instructional will. The book contains college-level instruction and eleven pages of writing exercises, many of which are useful. The binding broke for me at the chapter titled, “Technique,” containing, perhaps, the two most important pages (125 and 126) in the history of books on writing.

 

On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner (W.W. Norton, 1999) is a wonderful companion to The Art of Fiction in that it approaches its teachings in a more holistic way. Some information is rehashed in this one, but the focus on the novel, and what makes an effective one, is the treasure in this book. The book has four chapters, the most useful for me, someone who is trudging through an attempt at a novel, is the one titled “The Writer’s Nature.” Gardner’s swipes at how high school teachers and college professors blindly and incorrectly focus their students’ attention on theme was particularly eye-opening to me.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Seventh Edition, by Janet Burroway (Addison, Wesley, Longman, 2006) is set up and delivered like a textbook, and since it’s available in ring-bound form, I imagine it is used as a textbook, its pages copied endlessly. In many ways it’s the most comprehensive book on writing, and it’s an instructional both beginners and advanced writers can benefit from. The format is clean and organized and covers everything from keeping a writer’s journal to the process of revision. Each of the eleven chapters is followed by useful writing exercises. If you’re thinking about an MFA, and you want to speak the same language everyone else is speaking (I’m not saying it’s a good thing, believe me.) then get this book.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, by The New York Writers Workshop (Writer’s Digest Books, 2006). Damn you, Writer’s Digest Books. This book is flat out cool. It takes on a notion I’ve had about the possibility, and admitting this is admitting a $30K mistake in judgment, that the concept of the Master in Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a scam, that it’s so uniform and destructive to the evolution of the literary world, that its principles can be captured in a single volume and bought for $17. The book is divided into genres (fiction, personal essay and memoir, magazine writing, poetry, and playwriting), and some of the most interesting information is footnoted throughout the book. The chapter titled “Fiction” contains seven pages devoted to the novel, and I found it so useful that I wished there were ten or fifteen more pages. It does a great job in delineating the short story from the novel, and since there are many similarities between these two forms of fiction, the rest of the chapter can be applied to novel writing. It does the whole MFA thing right down to the reading lists at the end of each chapter. So you get the whole experience, minus the unhealthy love affairs, gut-wrenching competition, and the paranoia.

There are a ton of others I could write about, but I’ll list them instead, as sort of an honorable mention:

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott; Stranger Than Fiction, by Chuck Palahniuk; On the Road, by Jack Kerouac; Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg; S/Z, by Roland Barthes; Letters of Anton Chekhov, edited by Simon Karlinsky and Michael Henry Hein; Fiction Writers Workshop, by Josip Novakovich…

No, not an honorable mention, because I could’ve written a lot about each one of the titles listed above. It’s out of a desire to get this piece on the web that makes me list…

The Paris Review…all of them. The “Art of Fiction” interviews are unbelievable…

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov; Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, by Douglas Glover.

What I found, in reading through all of these texts and others, is that there are tons of contradictions from book to book, which I think is the best part about self-educating yourself as a writer. Reading the conflicting points of view will help a writer find his or her own place among the differing philosophy and know that he or she is not crazy, that there isn’t one approach, one technique, one style that will help communicate the infinite ways to express the same ideas that have been written about for centuries.

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