Thursday, January 22, 2009

Books read in 2009: Two books on writing

"Hear him, ye gods!" returned his companion. "I assure you, Mr. Pattieson, you will hardly visit this learned gentleman, but you are likely to find the new novel most in repute lying on his table,--snugly intrenched, however, beneath Stair's Institutes, or an open volume of Morrison's Decisions."

"Do I deny it?" said the hopeful jurisconsult, "or wherefore should I....may they not be found lurking amidst the multiplied memorials of our most distinguished counsel, and even peeping from under the cushion of a judge's arm-chair? Our seniors at the bar, within the bar, and even on the bench, read novels; and, if not belied, some of them have written novels into the bargain...."--Sir Walter Scott, The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818)

In the last month I've read two books on writing: The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, and How to Grow a Novel, by "editor, novelist, and award-winning teacher of writers" Sol Stein. (Stein edited books by Elia Kazan and Jacques Barzun, among others.)

In relationship to each other, they kind of remind me of Karen Andreola and Catherine Levison writing about Charlotte Mason. CM homeschoolers will understand that reference right away; I know nobody else will.

Annie Dillard writes about the poetry of writing; exploding typewriters (I hope that one was just a metaphor), how writing is like stunt flying, what it's like hiding out in a cabin in the woods or in a college library at night, getting a few workable sentences down and then and starting again when you get up at noon the next day.

Sol Stein explains how to maintain point of view even if your character is being murdered during the scene.

Annie Dillard says, "The art must enter the body, too. A painter cannot use paint like glue or screws to fasten down the world. The tubes of paint are like fingers; they work only if, inside the painter, the neural pathways are wide and clear to the brain....part of the brain changes physical shape to accommodate and fit paint." She quotes sculptor Anne Truitt: "The most demanding part of living a lifetime as an artist is the strict discipline of forcing oneself to work steadfastly along the nerve of one's own most intimate sensitivity," and also her favourite Thoreau: "Know your own bone."

Stein explains, in detail, the changes that he suggested when editing the first draft of a particular novel; the same sort of changes that he might suggest if he was working with you on your book. One of his major themes is revision, as much revision as necessary. I got the impression that Annie Dillard's method of writing is something like: get just to the right state, just the right amount of coffee but not too much, just the right amount of scenery but not too much, possibly cut off a chunk of your flesh (one of her metaphors), and the right words will magically come. Stein's method is more like: write it, grow it, "let your imagination go"; but then be prepared to chop the whole first half of the book if it's not working.

I would have liked to have had Stein's book around when I was struggling with university writing courses, particularly the chapter "Our Native Language is Not Dialogue." I like his advice about putting things in a "writerly" way. I love, love, love the pitching-baseball analogies for dialogue: fastballs, knuckleballs, sinkers. If you're not following this, here's his example of "an outstanding sinker by Ross MacDonald: 'Thalassa, the sea, the Homeric sea. We could build another Athens. I used to think we could do it in San Francisco, build a new city of man on the great hills. A city measured with forgiveness. Oh, well.'"

Annie Dillard might give you the inspiration to go out and find your "own bone" to chew on: "A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all." The Writing Life isn't a very long book; you can read it fairly quickly, and then take awhile to let the metaphors sink in.

And Sol Stein can give you the nuts and bolts to turn it into something readable. You might want your own copy of this one to keep handy, underline, circle and otherwise mutilate.

If I were teaching creative writing--I think I'd use both books together.


Birdie said...

Thanks for the reviews. You DO realize that you are probably helping to add to my already incredibly long "gotta read" list, don't you? ;)

Mama Squirrel said...