These essays aren’t the alpha and omega of good advice, but they aren’t the ABC’s either. Perhaps the first one is. “Dogma and Anti-dogma.” They contain some notions of my own and a lot of help from Aristotle to Zola.
Most of them were originally presented as “craft talks” at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over the last twenty years or so. A few of them were answers to specific requests. I’ve edited and in some cases rewritten them.
I remember Stanley Elkin starting one of his Sewanee craft talks by saying, “It’s . . . hard . . . to talk about . . . art.” He said this very very slowly. He paused for a while. Because Stanley was a man of many humors, most of them humorous, a few prankish, some people thought that first sentence might be all he was going to say.
I’ll bet he was tempted. He certainly milked the pause.
Of course he went on. With that first sentence he wasn’t apologizing or asking for indulgence. He was just setting the bar high. And then sailing over it. Crouched in his wheelchair he gave a funny, grouchy, instructive talk.
It’s hard to talk about art—so we should all be nervous. It’s hard to talk about art—but I’ve been around the block.
That’s Stanley I’m channeling. I’m not so sure I’d put it like that. I’d rather say I’ve been into the woods a lot. Sometimes I found the trail. Sometimes I lost it. Sometimes I had to spend the night in a pile of dead leaves.
These essays are suggestions about things to do, things to think about, when your writing has got you lost in the woods.
CHAPTER ONE: DOGMA AND ANTI-DOGMA
The dogma isn’t meant to crush your first draft. Think of these venerable sayings as hints from Tarot cards or the I Ching.
A common thing people ask me about writing classes is “Can you teach someone to write?”
I have two answers.
The first is no . . . but if someone is talented to begin with, I can save her a lot of time.
The second answer is also no . . . I can’t teach someone to write, but I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.
For a long time I taught the way I’d been taught. I’d been in classes taught by Peter Taylor, Kurt Vonnegut, Vance Bourjaily, José Donoso, and what they did—after you turned in a story—was to tell you what they thought you’d done. Basically they’d say, “Here is what all those marks on the pages meant to me.”
And then I could figure out if that’s what I’d wanted to do—or if there was now something else I could do that looked better.
This holding up the mirror is a good way to be helpful to a beginning writer. Writing a story or a novel is like finding your way around a strange room in the dark. When you get through the first draft you think the light will go on. But it often doesn’t. At first you need a reader you can trust to tell you what you’ve done . . . and that there is or isn’t hope for this particular effort.
I think this process is useful because the majority of good beginning writers are at first less in love with structure or pattern and more in love with the words in a foolish but sweet way.
Continue reading →