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.

Teaching the Political Poem

I’m going to be teaching a workshop on the political poem at the University of Minnesota’s Split Rock Arts Program this summer. As I prepare, I’ve become aware of a presumption in my own thinking that a radical poetics equals a radical politics, but this is clearly not the case. Teasing out the relationship between poetics and politics is not nearly so simple as one might wish. To be honest, I’ve often thought of the New Formalists as a group of conservative poets, with the word conservative covering both their poetics and their politics, but that’s not a fair assessment of the range of political positions espoused by members of the group. Conversely, I’ve pretty often thought of the Language poets and their progeny as leftists and I think most of them are, but there is no necessary connection between the poetics of this group and their liberal or radical politics.

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.

Twanging the Plumbline

As noted in a couple of previous posts, I have been participating in a discussion of poetics initiated by Henry Gould at a new blog, The Plumbline School, cross-posting a few of my comments here as well when they seemed detachable from their Plumbline context. There are, at last count, four participants in the project, which has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which has been undergoing a few modifications, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)

The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he’s reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called “School of Quietude” and the so called “Post Avant.”  I’m already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson’s ecology as a starting point. On of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I’ve said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry – our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.

Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that’s how I read — and continue to read — the intentions of the Plumbline. If there are poets out there who would like to join the conversation, email me or follow the How to Join link at the Plumbline blog.

Hippies, Fascists, and a State of Play

Years ago, walking across a beautiful wooded college campus in the Northwest, I had a conversation with a friend about Yeats’ notions of will and imagination. My friend suggested that imagination was a middle term and that will represented one extreme, which left us missing a term. (This was long enough ago that one might make structuralist arguments, not post-structuralist ones!) We came up with a sort of jokey formulation: will we represented in our system as a “fascist” for whom control was paramount and the opposite of will as a “hippie,” for whom any control was anathema. In the middle, we decided, there was playfulness–what Yeats called “imagination.”

The plumbline, even when it is perfectly still, only does its job because it is free to move; conversely, it is constrained by the laws of physics to come to rest over a point of equilibrium, drawing a line straight through the center of the earth. In a physical or mechanical system, we say there is “play” if there is a bit of slack or looseness, enough to allow some unpredictable motion without becoming completely random; if there is no play in the system, it locks up. So this is just one more metaphor for the middle way, but a useful one for me. At my best, such an approach governs my approach to daily life, as well as to poetry. The state of play is akin to what a Buddhist might simply call being awake.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.

Dream, Prayer, Chart

I’m still getting my bearings in this discussion so I’m going to indulge in just a bit more terminological meandering before I get down to looking at some actual poems.

In Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form, there is an otherwise unremarkable essay on using Freud as a guide to interpreting poetry, in which Burke deploys three terms, each naming an aspect of a poetic text on which the critic might want to focus. By implication, it’s possible to suggest that different poets might display more interest in one or another of these aspects, or modes.

Burke writes that the critic can look at the dream, the prayer, and the chart aspects of any particular poem. Dream corresponds roughly to the Freudian unconscious presented more or less raw. In my earlier discussion of amateur and professional poets, the amateurs would exhibit a predominance of dream discourse: self-expression. In Burke’s telling, prayer stands for the desire to communicate and brings in technique: rhetoric, rhyme, meter, all the canons of “professionalism” I was talking about earlier. In prayer, then, the poet turns toward the audience. Chart is the term Burke develops the least in this system and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I had assumed, based on my previous reading of this essay (years ago), that the chart aspect of the poem embodied the reality-testing function, that it aspired to describe states of affairs; but going back to the essay yesterday, it appears that Burke may have something more linguistic in mind: “As to the poem as chart: the Freudian emphasis upon the pun brings it about that something can only be in so far as it is something else. But aside from ambiguities, there is also a statement’s value as being exactly what it is. Perhaps we would best indicate what we mean by speaking of the poem as char if we called it the poet’s contribution to an informal dictionary. Burke goes on to describe what has been variously called by others the poet’s personal “mythmaking,” or perhaps even the poet’s “voice.” It ammounts to the creation of an idiosyncratic constellation of meanings more or less unique to a particular poet–his or her “vision” of the world, if you will.

In writing this up just now I began to wonder whether Burke’s terms can be mapped onto Seth Abramson’s pragmatic, syntactic, and cognitive-symantic types of poetry. On second thought, I’m not sure that the exercise would lead anywhere productive.

Note: Cross-posted to The Plumbline School. Please comment there.