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Rethinking the Craft of Fiction Writing: Resources on Teaching and Learning Creative Writing (January 2022): Creativity and the Writing Life

By Thomas Dodson

Creativity and the Writing Life

Since its first appearance thirty-five years ago, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within has provided aspiring authors with guidance and encouragement. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Goldberg’s method emphasizes unconscious processes over logic and rumination, spontaneity over planning, process over product, and messiness (in art and life) over perfection. Goldberg begins by suggesting the novice practice regular, timed exercises, during which the most important instruction is to “keep [the] hand moving” and resist any impulse to impose order, conform to the rules of grammar, turn away from confusing or painful topics, or otherwise exert conscious control over the writing process. Those put off by Goldberg’s free-spirited zaniness might consider Anne Lamott’s sharp-tongued, straight-talking Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Lamott’s guide provides much of the now standard advice: schedule a daily time to write and stick to it, break down intimidating tasks into small assignments (write a description or a scene rather than a whole story or chapter), and give oneself permission to write “shitty first drafts” (as she titles chapter 3). Lamott offers instructions on characters (they should be flawed—perfect people are dull), plot (it should be driven by and reveal character), and dialogue (read it aloud to ensure characters do not all sound alike). Later in the book she considers the psychological and ethical challenges writers face, including participating in writing groups and getting published.

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is more poetic and aphoristic, mixing stories from her life with anecdotes about the habits of other writers. (Dante and Emerson, she reports, both took long walks for inspiration.) Dillard delivers most of her writing advice through metaphors: a work-in-progress, if neglected, may become “feral”; a line of words is a “fiber optic cable” (“flexible as wire … delicate as a worm”).

In the first chapter of Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, Margaret Atwood provides a succinct account of her life and what it meant to her to be a Canadian writer aware that her country’s literature was regarded as largely peripheral by the rest of the world. The rest of the book is an erudite and deeply considered reflection on “writing as an art” and “the writer as the inheritor and bearer of a set of social assumptions about art.” Atwood draws from classic works of literature to reflect on such issues as the persistence of the Romantic-era conception of the writer as a person possessing a “double nature” (the author of the work and the living person); the question of art’s purpose and utility; the literary artist’s moral and social responsibility; and the uneasy relationship between art, money, and power.

Many literary writers have benefitted from Gardner’s encouragement and instruction in his On Becoming a Novelist (mentioned above). Prospective writers unsure of their calling, or their ability to sustain a career writing novels, will profit from Gardner’s principles for self-evaluation. A writer ought to love language (but not so much that it gets in the way of telling a story), be able to see the world in a fresh and original way, have an interest in people unlike one’s self and “a sense of life’s strangeness,” and have a drive to work very hard for little external reward. Gardner also offers sensible general advice about the value of formal education and MFA programs, and about the world of editors, agents, and publishing.

However, his book was published some forty years ago, so the reader would do well to look elsewhere for up-to-date information about specifics.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry Phillips, draws from a variety of sources—interviews, letters, journals. Individual passages are brief but present Hemingway’s answers to the kinds of questions of interest to novice writers: Is it better to write what you know or be guided by curiosity and imagination? “You ought to write, invent, out of what you know.” Whom should I read? “The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That’s not the order they’re good in. There is no order for good writers.” How much should I write each day? “Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.”

Fans of The Shining, Misery, and The Stand may want to turn for writing advice to “the master of horror” himself, Stephen King. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, King devotes the first section to the story of his writing life, from hand-crafting comic books as a boy to the car crash that nearly killed him while he was composing On Writing. Most of the treatment of writing craft comes in the later sections, “Toolbox” and “On Writing.” The writer’s toolkit, King advises, ought to include a good (though not necessarily fancy) vocabulary; a serviceable understanding of grammar; and a facility with making paragraphs, which King considers to be “the basic unit of writing.” His key prescription to the writer, however, is this: “Read a lot, write a lot.”  He is not shy about putting a number to this injunction: strive to write 2,000 words a day, six or seven days a week. Writers seeking some cues to kick off these regular scribbling sessions and teachers in need of in-class exercises will appreciate collections like Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, which gathers ideas from such revered authors such as Richard Bausch, Joyce Carol Oates, and Elizabeth McCracken. More prompts can be found in Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter’s What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers and Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises That Transform Your Fiction.

Many aspiring writers will admit to needing some guidance in the “read a lot” arena. They’ll find help in Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose. Prose argues that writers wishing to learn their craft ought to dedicate themselves to close readings of classic works of literature, and she provides a list of “books to be read immediately” to help readers on their way. Prose demonstrates her method with craft-based, sentence-by-sentence—sometimes word-by-word—analyses of passages from writers such as Chekhov, Hemingway, and Flannery O’Connor. Some readers will find Prose’s reliance on traditional ideas about literary genius, objective quality, and the timeless universality of canonical works by mostly white authors to be out of step with contemporary conversations about fiction. Those seeking a more diverse set of literary models might well start with Free within Ourselves: Fiction Lessons for Black Authors, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, who encourages the reader to explore the particular storytelling resources offered by African American literature and culture, such as the richness of its “oral and folk legacy tradition.”  In addition to exercises, advice, and illustrative short stories by Black authors, Rhodes provides a reading list of some hundred books “historically significant to the development of African American fiction.” Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life focuses on the psychological dimension of the writing process. Friedman addresses the two main varieties of writer’s block: the problem of perfectionism, i.e., “being afraid to touch the half-finished piece for fear of messing it up,” and the fear that one has nothing significant to say in the first place. She also talks the reader through concerns over writing about taboo and touchy subjects.

Robert Olen Butler shares Friedman’s interest in the psychological aspect of the writing process, but he focuses on the role of the unconscious. In From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, a collection of his lectures edited by Janet Burroway, Butler contends that “there is no intellect in the world powerful enough to create a great work of novelistic art. Only the unconscious can fit together the stuff of fiction; the conscious mind cannot.” Butler advocates for a daily writing practice during which the writer enters into a kind of trance. 

Works Cited