The Art of Description: World into Word

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No More Model Airplanes: Essential Writing about Writing

In his essay,  “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals,” Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own.  He asserts, and rightly, “The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction.”

I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period.  The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing.  In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply.  A good reader isn’t necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader.

In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique.  I’ve found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it’s when I’m having trouble with my work–or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision–that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I’ve dug myself into. I haven’t read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with “the aesthetics of task,” as he puts it.  I’ve read and enjoyed–and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with–such books.  I’ve also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics.  It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it’s the step that allows the dancer to do everything else.  One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won’t make one a spectacular dancer–or even a dancer.   There’s technique, but there’s also passion, soul, grace, daring.

There are a few books on writing that I’ve not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally.  They  have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that’s the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects.  Aside from the usual suspects–The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor–here are some of my favorite books on craft:

How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person.  The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood’s way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity.  I also love the short chapter breaks–often only a couple of sentences long.  They’re pleasurable to read.

Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn’t a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others.  I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students.  I’ve also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project.  A couple exercises a week–from “Why I Stole It” by Robert Anthony Siegel, to “The Photograph” by Jill McCorkle–will hone anyone’s powers of imagination and description.  I’ve done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained.  This kind of writing feels as fun as reading.

Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press.  In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective.  Baxter’s own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn’t make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules.  My class had a great time discussing Baxter’s analysis of the great J.F. Powers story “The Valiant Woman,” which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer.

I’ve recently been re-reading Joan Silber’s The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott.  One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students.  Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, “Five years passed”?  Is there nothing juicier than  crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters?  Silber’s discussion of “selected concreteness” in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely.

Lately, I’ve been reading the series’ books on poetry.  A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty’s The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction:

What descriptions–good ones, anyway–actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking

If that’s not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don’t know what is.

I’ve also found a few essays on writing online, which I’ve taught with great results:

Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue’s Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching.  The essay asks: What is voice and truth?  What does it take to write well?  How can one refine one’s consciousness?

William Boyd’s “Brief Encounters” is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners.  I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one.

Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: “What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.”).  The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold.  Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen’s confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here:  “Nothing can happen nowhere” (when she’s discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): “Speech is what characters do to each other.”

Now, I’d like to know–teachers, students, writers and readers–what are your favorite books on writing?

Surprise Me!

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