Monday, October 10, 2005

Reading about Writing 3

Each of these books was written by a successful author. Each was recommended to me by at least one person whose judgement I trust. I gave up on each one about fifty pages in. There are, of course, good books and bad books about writing. But when it comes to the question of how useful a particular book about writing is to an individual reader, there’s more to it than a straightforward good-bad dichotomy. Much depends on who the book is aimed at and whether or not that meshes with what sort of writing the reader does and with the stage that the reader is at in his or her writing career. None of these books was a good match for me.

Robert Olen Butler, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction (Grove Press, 2005).

This book is comprised of transcripts of Butler’s lectures to the students in his graduate fiction course (recorded and edited by Janet Burroway). I’ve never heard Butler speak, but I get the impression that he's a very charismatic lecturer. It may be that I would have found his message more powerful had I heard it live rather than reading it in this form.

Butler characterizes his class as writing “boot camp.” He begins by telling his students that everything they have written up to that point is likely hopelessly flawed. They’ve been going about writing the wrong way and he can help them to change.

But you’ve got to open up and listen to me about this. If you’re not prepared to do that, if you’re not prepared to open your sensibilities -- and, incidentally, your minds -- to what I’m going to tell you and to the implications for the work you have done and will do, then it is best that you and I part ways now.

This is a very crafty opening. The logic of it lays any failure at the feet of the students. If Butler’s method doesn’t work for them, it’s their fault for not being sufficiently open. I immediately felt myself becoming recalcitrant. I should have accepted Butler’s invitation to part ways then and there.

Here are a few excerpts that get at the heart of Butler’s method:

Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.


The crucial awareness you must keep is this: do not will the work. Do not write until it’s coming from your unconscious. If you have the itch to write before inspiration has visited you, spend that time meditating in your unconscious.


A word about writer’s block here. I think writer’s block probably suggests that you have an artist’s instinct. Bad writers never get blocked. Writers who write from their heads and are comfortable doing that -- they always have some garbage to put down. […] I think most writers who get blocked do so because some important part of them knows that they’ve got to get to the unconscious. But they’re not getting there; they’re thinking too much, so there’s nothing there.

I agree that good writing doesn’t come purely from the intellect. But I'm not prepared to abandon the intellect altogether in favour of emotion. I want the two working in tandem. I get the part about daring to go places that scare you. But I’m not interested in writing exclusively from a trance state. Frankly, Butler’s new age rhetoric about writing from the white-hot core of my being is like fingernails on a blackboard to me.

This stuff might be gold for a writer with a different sensibility and a different writing practice, but it’s not for me.

Lawrence Block, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit: A Manual for Fiction Writers (Quill, 1994).

This book is based on a series of Writer’s Digest columns and consequently has a rather scattered quality. Perhaps I should have given in to that and just dipped in anywhere that seemed interesting. Instead, I began at the beginning with part one which is titled “Fiction as a Profession.” Given the prominent mention of profit in the title of Block’s book, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the emphasis here is on making money through writing. Still, this seems the wrong place to begin. Surely the quest to write well should precede the quest to sell one’s writing? I’m sure that Block would answer “yes” to that question, but the structure of his book gives a contrary impression with the opening section given over to discussion of market analysis and the slanting of work to meet editors’ tastes.

The book also comes across as very dated. The most recent edition was published in 1994, but it was originally published in 1981 and I don’t get the sense the content was updated in the interim. For example, in the first chapter, Block writes about the confessions magazines which were known to be the “best and most receptive market” for new writers when he was starting out. I’m pretty sure that those days are long gone. The last time I encountered a confessions magazine was in a dusty stack hidden in the closet of a friend’s cabin circa 1977. Obviously I don’t expect Block to update his experience, but if he’s going to emphasize the importance of researching the market, the inclusion of more current examples would render the book more relevant to contemporary aspiring writers.

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, 2000).

King managed to completely alienate me in the second foreword. Yes, there are three forewords all penned by King himself. And yes, this did make me wonder about his capacity to organize a book. Surely the three forewords could have been rolled into one introduction? But that’s not what alienated me. It was this pronouncement:

This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit. Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do -- not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.

King’s book, at 288 pages, is longer than every other writing book in my collection. (Here’s a sampling: John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, 240 pages; Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 238 pages; Renni Browne & Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, 226 pages; Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, 179 pages; Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, 128 pages.) What long, bullshit-filled books about writing constitute King’s “most”? It doesn’t appear that King has done even a preliminary survey of the field that he’s entering into, yet (his self-deprecating “present company included” aside) he's clearly convinced that he can do better than anyone else. King talks bullshit in the guise of eschewing bullshit. This is not an auspicious beginning.

Nevertheless, I persevered a little longer. The book is subtitled “a memoir of the craft” but it isn’t so much that as a memoir followed by a discussion of craft. I haven’t read any of King’s novels because I’m too squeamish for horror fiction. It seems I’m too squeamish for King’s memoir as well. I only got as far as his high school years but there was plenty of blood, vomit and pus in his childhood. Given that King writes horror, I have no trouble imagining the relevance of the experiences that he recounts to his work. But I wish that he had made some of the connections explicit. He simply describes his childhood experiences without analyzing how these experiences influenced his development as a writer. Perhaps King wasn’t being self-deprecating in the second foreword and he really doesn’t understand very much about why he does what he does. I got frustrated with the whole enterprise and gave up before reaching the toolbox section where I’m told that he addresses the nuts and bolts of sentence construction.

Happily, I didn’t spend my hard-earned cash on any of these books. Back to the library they went, unfinished.


Anonymous said...

I very much like your weblog, having found it through Dan Green's, and am going to take a look at that Craig Rice biographer's work thanks to your blog's having called it to my attention.

Lawrence Block has put together at least three volumes of how-to writers' guides: I think the more recent ones would, naturally, contain less dated material.

Stephen King will, on occasion, make the sort of pseudopopulist remark that really grates, as when he wrote that anyone taking more than a couple of years to write a novel is just being lazy. But he's pretty good at analyzing the workings and style of horror and suspense fiction.

Samuel Delany's 416-page book assembling essays on the sorts of things he tells his creative writing students, About Writing, is slated for release at the end of this year. It's uneven: you can see him getting grouchier and more impatient with his students as he ages. But it's unique and contains much good material on the craft, status, and life of a writer.


patricia said...

Well, I thought King's book was just a silly mess. I did enjoy it when he talked about his youth, but yes, I do agree it would have been much more useful if he had tied it into his writing more. The 'nuts and bolts' section seemed pretty barebones to me.

I highly recommend Margaret Atwood's 'Negotiating With The Dead: A Writing On Writing'. She doesn't get into the 'nuts and bolts', but her subjects are delicious. Pretty much about what it's like to be a female writer. Very intelligent, insightful and funny, of course. Not too long. Pithy.

Kate S. said...


Thanks for your kind words about my blog. Perhaps I'll give some more recent Block a try, and I will definitely keep an eye out for the Delany. I rather like grouchy and impatient as a narrative voice for an instructional book about writing.


I've put the Atwood on hold at the library. I've been reading her essays (recently collected in Moving Targets) and enjoying them. I suspect that a more sustained work by her on writing will be right up my alley.

Razovsky said...

I love your series about books on writing, Kate!

Here are a few interesting ones you may or may not know about:

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner (amazing study of style)

On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner (more of an inspirational, chatty kinda book)

Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, by Patricia Highsmith (she, along with Samuel Beckett, is my favourite fiction writer; this is a very weird little book)

The Stephen King book -- I couldn't get through that sucker, I'll tell ya. The Delaney one sounds great.