Saundra’s previous post helped me reflect on my current writing process. (Thanks, Saundra!) I’ve been feeling more than a little lost in the maze of revision lately. In contrast, Saundra made the experience of shaping a book look so natural, gliding through her labyrinth, confident that the twisting path will lead somewhere. I'll remember this next time I get whacked by my own personal box hedge. Stay upright. Keep walking. There just might be a sunlit chair, waiting around the corner. Or if there’s a Minotaur: fight the bull! So to speak.
All that to say, this humble summer, I’m pretending I don’t know anything about writing. I’m exploring the bare bones of the craft, reading everything I can about how-to and why—and this includes appreciating the posts here, of course.
I want to celebrate a few other guides, as well. Back to that labyrinth metaphor—I feel like these writers-on-writing have generously shared golden threads of logic and heart with me.
Right now I’m reading How Fiction Works, by James Wood. This book takes my breath away on a daily basis. I’m savoring it in little morsels, as Wood has parsed out his text, the better to live in the material and look around. Wood reflects on narrating, detail, character, sympathy and complexity—in short he makes his own unique sense of the elements of fiction, and literary culture, in general. He’s poetic. He’s having fun, I think, writing about stuff that is too often presented as ponderous. And hey, I love his use of asides.
Am I gushing? What the heck. I’ll gush again about Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer—A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them. She seems to me a goddess of reason and good sense, as she guides me through “classics” I’d read, and those I hadn’t. Most of all she inspired me to read even more deeply. I love it that Prose is concerned about the finger bone level of the sentence—all the potential in that small unit for agility and grace. Along with Wood, Prose has taught me how a sentence's shape can embody its meaning. I’m working on that.
And then there’s William Maxwell. I have always cherished his fiction—So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of my favorite books. But this spring, someone gave me a book of essays ABOUT Maxwell, A William Maxwell Portrait. Now not only do I love his fiction, but I’m missing a man I’ve never even met. His life reveals so much about life-giving art-making, as does his relationship as an editor to his authors. You might like to read Maxwell's essays, collected in The Outermost Dream, if you enjoy the occasional New Yorker bio. Colette, Isak Dinesen, Robert Frost—they’re all there, maintaining their lives and art.
Soon I’ll probably turn back to my old friends John Gardner and Anne Lamott. But how great it’s been to find other guides as well, as I work my way through the labyrinth of this work we do.