Books on Writing Fiction

When I first began writing poetry as a teenager, I could not get enough of books like John Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean? I was interested in the technical nuts and bolts of writing and at the time the Ciardi book and a couple of others were the only things available. As my competence increased, I got more interested in theory. The theory that was available in the 1960s to a suburban kid with a library card was almost exclusively the New Critics: I remember reading big swathes of Patriotic Gore and The World’s Body — even though I was reading Eliot’s poems, I didn’t get around tho the predecessor texts, Eliot’s essays, until I got to college. Such were my obsessions and fascianations as a young poet; over the last few months I have returned to my youthful state of obsession, but this time with the writing of fiction. I never thought I could do it until a few months ago, but now I have written a handful of stories and I find myself interested in technique more than in theory, though the two form a kind of moibus strip, or course. Following, then, are a few notes on some of the books I have found most useful as a beginning fiction writer (though one in the unusual position of not being a beginning writer, as such.)

The Art of Subtext — Charles Baxter: This was the first “how-to” book on fiction I read and it’s not really a how-to at all, but a meditation on what makes literary fiction literary. Fiction that has a subtext and is overdetermined operates in a different way from commercial fiction.

Method and Madness — Alice LaPlante: This is the most gracefully written textbook I’ve ever encountered in any field. LaPlante’s sensible dissection of the “show don’t tell” rule, for instance, is the essence of clarity. The choice of examples and the explanation of techniques is virtually perfect.

The Practice of Creative Writing — Heather Sellers: Another good textbook. I bought this originally on Joshua Corey’s recommendation and I probably will use the book next time I teach my introductory creative writing class. In the meantime, I’ve found it chock full of useful advice for a beginning fiction writer such as myself.

Note: Subtext is part of a very sweet little series of books on writing from Graywolf Press that also includes Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention, with which I have many disagreements but is nevertheless an elegant and useful book, as well as James Longenbach’s very useful The Art of the Poetic Line.

Getting it Right by Breaking the Rules

All the books on how to write fiction tell you not to get hung up editing and polishing before you get to the end of the story. I’ve been working on a story for a month now that I don’t really have an ending for and the last couple of days I have been going obsessively over the beginning trying to get it exactly right — down to the sentence rhythms and punctuation, probably because I can’t make progress at the other end of the piece, where it matters. And I’m not willing to just put it away. There is something about this story — the fifth in my nascent fiction-writing career! — that feels like I need to finish before I can go back to the other stories I’m working on or have planned or sketched in my notebook.

This particular story is a rule breaker in anumber of ways, actually. I began it, thinking it would be very short — I’d just finished drafts of two really short stories, a thousand and three thousand words each, and this one seemed similar in feeling and heft. But that’s not the way it has worked out. At this point it’s around four thousand words and still growing. Also, I kill the main character in the first paragraphs, so the whole thing is retrospective. And for a bit of magic realism — very unlike me — this character’s “soul” is still floating around making observations. Well, I’ve created a fine mess and I’ve honestly been having a hard time making myself sit down to work on it, but I’ve now gotten to the point where I’m not going to let the thing defeat me. I went and bought a bottle of multivitamins the other day. Really. I need the strength.

Jean Stafford’s Rocky Mountain Stories

I’ve been reading the stories that fall in the middle of Jean Stafford’s Collected Stories, most of which are set in the Rocky Mountains. When I first began reading Stafford, I saw her as a specialist in the grim, a chronicler of the unloved or insufficiently loved. Those impressions are not untrue, but they fail to describe Stafford’s emotional range. As her story, “The Mountain Day” demonstrates, she is a writer with a deep understanding of love and of — for lack of a better way of putting it — maturity. She catches very precisely the personality on the edge between childhood and adulthood. She is also — this came as a surprise to me — a deeply class-conscious writer able to describe the self-delusion and self-hatred of the working class. See in particular, “The Tea Time of Stouthearted Ladies” and “The Healthiest Girl in Town,” for examples of this class consciousness.

Technically, the stories are so limpid that I never notice how they are put together. As someone trying to teach myself about writing fiction, I have to consciously backtrack over the texts and ask myself, “No, how the hell did she do that?”

Note: Good essay here by Jonathan Yardly about one of Stafford’s novels, The Mountain Lion, which I have not yet read.

Open Questions

In Vietnam, literary disputes are public disputes in a way that seems impossible in American literary culture. They show up in the newspaper. Literary questions remain open in a way that they do not in American public discourse, which largely ignores literary questions.  In Vietnam, the stakes are higher. In the US, literary questions are, by definition, of only peripheral interest, attracting the notice only of a narrow & marginalized class of alienated readers for whom literature still signifies. In Vietnam, that is, it still seems possible to have an avant garde that can still piss people off. One of the things I find appealing about Vietnam is that it is just a much more literary culture than my own. Or am I being hopelessly romantic?

Later: When I was younger I used to imagine that literary questions could matter in American culture, but I don’t think they have, perhaps since the sixties. Conservative social critics like to present the sixties as a kind of cultural nadir from which the country needs to recover; but I think the sixties were actually a high water mark for expression & freedom — those values of openness & democracy have been steadily rolled back since then. What I like about going to Vietnam is that it has a little of that feel I remember from so long ago — possibilites remain open, questions unanswered, literary culture unsettled.

New Poem in The Sun

I have a new poem, “Ballad of Crows & God,” in The Sun, a magazine I rediscovered last summer & have been enjoying since subscribing. In many ways it’s an old-fashioned magazine, with its emphasis on autobiography, first person point of view, and direct expression of feeling; all of these characteristics are tempered with a certain reserve, or elegance, however, that makes for an attractive editorial voice. If you see this issue (February) be sure to check out Ellen McCullough Moore’s short story, “Final Dispositions,” as well as my poem. I haven’t finished reading the issue, but there are no doubt a lot of other things worth reading, too. (Note: well, actually it’s an old poem I completely rewrote last summer at the Blue Mountain Center, whre the resident murder of crows kept me entertained — & woke me early.)