If You Want to Write (Brenda Ueland)

Because my copy of this is a reprint from the 1980s, purchased around the same time as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994), I expected something different. In truth, the first couple of times I started to read, I managed only a few pages and set Ueland aside.

Had I understood that it was first published in 1938, I would have adjusted my expectations. In spirit, it falls at the intersection of Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (1934) and John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983). Ueland’s style is removed and direct like Gardner’s but she shares specific and personal details like Brande does.

Her advice is startlingly relevant. That plain-speech which seemed over-simplified and off-putting on my first attempts was refreshing when I revisited it.

At first glance, one might mistake her as being too idealistic. She says, for instance:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first, — at least for some part of every day of your life.”

But she is not overlooking other basic needs. She is only asking that writers follow that principle for “some part of every day”. Every day in every way? That would be too much. But even for a few moments, anyone can strive for that.

Her directions are simple: “With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.”

One element that I appreciated was her spirit of inclusiveness. This, from a footnote, broadens her audience substantially:

“Whenever I say ‘writing’ in this book I also mean anything that you love and want to do or to make, It may be a six-act tragedy in blank verse. It may be dressmaking or acrobatics, or inventing a new system of double entry book-keeping. But you must be sure that your imagination and love are behind it, that you are not working just from grim resolution, i.e. to make money or impress people.”

I mean, come on: acrobatics is great fun to include here, right? (Not only because many writers lead such sedentary lives that a daily walk can be construed as serious exercise.) But what an act of generosity to afford creativity even in areas which are often presented as the antithesis of creative fields, like accounting. Not everyone is willing to acknowledge that creativity can take many forms.

Ueland’s approach is grounded and humble. She writes: “I think there is something necessary and life-giving about ‘creative work’ (forgive the term).” In a footnote, she writes: “To say the word ‘creative’ has always embarrassed me. So many unctuous people have over-used it. But I have to use it. It is what I mean.”

If You Want to Write is also the source of one of my favourite quotes about writing: “So you see the imagination needs moodling, –long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

When I first began to write, I had realized how essential this kind of moodling was to my work, but when I tried to describe it to other people it sounded too much like procrastination. Which it could be, if one never got around to writing writing.

Seeing the idea in print validated my experience and I still recall her words when I find myself forcing strings of words together, frustrated but unable to set aside the work, and eventually I get to moodling. “So never bother to grind. Just try to understand something for the time. If you don’t, go on to the next. For if you understand the second or third thing, you will suddenly understand the first.”

She is also a great reader. She loves and admires the Russian novelists for their truthfulness and lack of pretense, especially Chekhov, Tolstoi and Dostoevsky (also Ibsen, Blake, Goethe, Mann) but not Mencken, nor Lawrence, nor Lewis.

And she is something of a philosopher. Asking tough questions. Leaving us to answer them. “But how to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves? Yes. I know that is hard.” And, “…only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.”

As well as an egalitarian type of feminist: “In fact that is why the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves. […] But if women once learn to be something themselves, that the only way to teach is to be fine and shining examples, we will have in one generation the most remarkable and glorious children.”

One could sit and read this entire volume easily in a single afternoon. But even if you do not want to take that time, there are twelve points at the end of the book which she makes to summarize its contents. I especially love number 5: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories.” Her suggestion? To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.”

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. 1938. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1987.

Notes in July 2020

In reading about writing, I’ve been reading Barbara Ueland’s If You Want to Write (1938).

In writing about writing, I’m working on an essay about how women writers look back to the women writers who wrote before, how they find inspiration to counter cultural expectations and pursue creative work, despite discouragement.

In reading about reading, I’ve been dipping into an old favourite, Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night. Before I had my own copy, I’d just about copied out the whole thing because I found so many best-bits in it.

And, in writing about reading, I’m writing a piece about how nostalgia impacts the way we (or, maybe it’s just me?) read and the way we reread.

Winter is the middle of the year; spring the finale, and summer is free; in this climate, at least, summer is a special dispensation … 
Carol Shields Small Ceremonies

Murder Your Darlings (Roy Peter Clark)

Here is the sixth in a neatly designed set of reference and inspirational volumes by Roy Peter Clark. He is an accomplished writer on writing and what a catchy title—thanks to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s famous instruction to delete your most-show-off-y-ish bits.

Here marketability doesn’t equate with superficiality. Clark summarizes and lists some fine resources herein. And I’m more likely to seek out Ursula K. LeGuin’s writing advice than Aristotle’s, so I was content to read Clark’s condensed version of Poetics. (LeGuin is here too though: several of the resources I’ve chatted about here also matter to Clark.)

When Clark was struggling to condense his list of favourite resources, he came to organize them into sections which remain in the final manuscript as six parts: Language and Craft; Voice and Style; Confidence and Identity; Storyteling and Character; Rhetoric and Audience; and Mission and Purpose. And although this book is ideal for a beginning or emerging writer, more experienced writers who are grappling with a specific aspect of finishing a manuscript might find it worthwhile to browse that relevant section to see if something sparks.

Each segment begins with a “Toolbox” and ends with a set of “Lessons”. The Toolbox succinctly reworks the resource’s key idea (like Anne Lamott’s “shitty first drafts”, for instance) and the Lessons offer a handful of tips directly related to that premise. So if it’s not enough to condense an entire book into a half dozen pages, you can contemplate its essence, captured in a dozen lines or so.

For the self-taught writer, the bibliography alone would be worth the price of this volume. Although only about a quarter of Clark’s selections are works by women writers, most are classic rather than contemporary, and nearly all are Anglo-American.

Having already read more than half of the works that Clark discusses, this is a book I’m content to borrow from the library rather than house on my own shelves. Nonetheless, I did enjoy reading through these chapters, one – sometimes two – each day. Rather as I imagine some people might leaf through a volume of prayer in the early morning or late evening, as a reminder of basic tenets of storytelling and rhetoric. There’s an air of humility coupled with enthusiasm and I enjoy that.

Good stuff for writers.

Roy Peter Clark’s Murder Your Darlings: And other gentle writing advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. New York: Hachette – Little, Brown Spark, 2020.

The Business of Being a Writer (Jane Friedman)

Friedman’s book covers the “fundamental business principles that underlie writing and publishing success”. As advertised. Direct, accurate, and worthwhile.

One particularly valuable aspect of the work is her early introduction of – and regular references to – the concept of literary citizenship.

It’s not unusual for business books to emphasize the importance of networking and connections. And it only makes sense that good relationship building equals good literary citizenship. But something about the way that Friedman frames it? It makes it more about actually building and less about cashing-in or, even, less about tit-for-tat.

She cites, for example, emerging author Chris Guillebeau’s experience. He spent six months reading the work of authors with whom he identified and he wrote personal letters of admiration to them. He asked for nothing in return and spent about two hours every day talking them up to his small audience and sending personal messages of acknowledgement to new followers.

Other books on the business of writing suggest similar activities, but often in the context of an author’s having finished a manuscript, so that it feels like the idea of community is an after-thought, that the author is simply executing a series of actions to secure publicity for their work specifically rather than building a community generally.

Call it an investment or call it paying-it-forward, call it idealistic: this (possibly old-fashioned?) idea of putting time and energy into the literary-world-at-large rings true to me and because Friedman places it prominently (just a couple dozen pages into the work) I was predisposed to attend to her ideas and suggestions.

Against this backdrop, she clearly and methodically breaks down the key elements to finding, securing and executing the business of writing. She makes statements like this one about writing a synopsis: it “has an uncanny way of highlighting plot flaws, serious gaps in character motivation, or sweeping failures of story structure”. It’s an invitation for savvy writers to revisit their manuscripts to suss out such flaws, gaps and failures. But she remains stalwartly on-topic.

She also does not clutter the volume with material that anyone with an internet connection can source without her particular expertise. So, for instance, she does not include examples of a synopsis (or a query letter or a book proposal): she refers to specific websites online which house samples.

And, when she does include site addresses, she selects established (but niche) sites. Like visualHunt.com (an aggregator site which could be useful for locating images for noncommercial use) and canva.com (mostly-free templates for cloud-based design). She only occasionally dabbles in the obvious (stating, for instance, that one could use Windows Movie Maker to create a video to upload to YouTube) and this may actually still be useful to many writer-types, who are more focussed on words than technology.

Some of the advice Friedman offers is familiar and a matter of common sense. She does, however, add the kind of insider advice that can be overlooked by the ubiquitous click-here articles you find online. For example, in her discussion about the benefits of agent representation, she includes a reminder that agents have contacts in Hollywood, which afford the opportunity to sell a book project to a producer/studio.

In all, this volume could play an essential role on the shelf of an emerging writer whose romantic ideas of the writing life require some structure and direction, but also on the shelf of an established writer who is wrestling with some uncertainty about the technological opportunities and demands in the digital age.

Great stuff for writers.

Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2018.

Manuscript Makeover (Elizabeth Lyon)

Some of my favourite resources are devoted to revision, like Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision.

Nonetheless, at first glance this volume would not have made it into my stack: it’s ten years old now and the stock photo cover doesn’t do it any favours. (It was recommended as a resource in the back of another book on writing, one which was useful enough to inspire a bout of list-making.)

Elizabeth Lyon’s book is, however, still worth a look. Yes, it has a chapter on “marketing”, which doesn’t once refer to social media. And it extolls the power of the digital cut-and-paste, a feature most contemporary writers no longer admire, simply take for granted. And it refers to the “newcomer springing from authors of two generations, Gen X and the Millennial Generation (1977-1998)”, the “graphic novel”.

But the art of revision doesn’t change as quickly as terminology and Lyon’s two basic approaches to revision are solid: “inside-out” and “outside-in”. The imaginative and technical approaches to the act of revision are enduring.

Each chapter begins with a brief discussion of options, which includes a summary of the upcoming material and suggestions for engaging with related topics considered elsewhere. At the end of each chapter is a checklist (literally, although all the boxes are already checked!) which summarizes the content and the potential solutions, in statements and bullet-points.

The material is elementary and Lyon begins with overarching issues and moves into more intricate matters in later chapters. She suggests, for instance, beginning with a consideration of basic structure, before moving into detailed revision work.

There are five stages of structure in her model: “1. A character has a problem. 2. Complications arise and conflict intensifies. 3. Crises culminate in a climax. 4. The problem is resolved. 5. The hero or heroine learns something about self or life.”

This feels a little like high-school English class, but just a couple of chapters later, there is more detailed information. For instance, the discussion of the importance of movement and suspense. These elements are created, Lyon notes, by: “actions, outer and inner”, “raising questions”, reactions, emotions, reversals and subtext.

Taking two or three pages to explore each, and using examples from well-known stories (like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass), she takes things to sentence-level. (No spoiler warnings, but most examples are only the length of a paragraph.)

She selects areas of emphasis based on a couple of decades working as an independent editor and the bulk of her work centres on characterization (which fits with my experience – investing time in characters is never fruitless). She writes: “Almost every novel that is finished in the eyes of the writer still needs work on characterization.”

She also devotes time to the scenic level: “What I have observed in many published novels is that scenes tend to be more fully developed and longer at the beginning (minus the hook, which may be a very short chapter one) than later when all of the setup is done and the characters known.” The additional work on characterization fuels this developmental work.

For beginning and intermediate writers, this resource presents solid suggestions and philosophies about storytelling. For advanced writers, both Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit and the Sandra Scofield linked above spend less time on orienting the reader, fewer pages defining basic terms and outlining theories, and more time analyzing and querying.

This is still good stuff for beginning and intermediate writers.

Elizabeth Lyon’s Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore. NY: Penguin – Perigee, 2008.

The Story Cure (Dinty W. Moore)

There is a house call and a diagnosis, which is followed by a cure, and, next, an alternate cure: it’s a gimmick, sure, but accessible and playful.

There are even spaces, like worksheet lines, inserted into the book, so that you can fill in the spaces with, for instance, an imagined warning for your story, or your main character’s sharpest early memory, fears or desires.

So, yes, it’s that kind of writing book.

Between each chapter, there is a well-known quotation about writing and creativity (from writers like Stephen King, Salman Rushdie and J.D. Salinger).

You’ll hear from reliable and familiar sources, like Anne Lamott, Isabel Allende and Joan Didion on craft.

And you’ll read selections from works by Dickens and Fitzgerald for analysis. Classics and safe choices. There’s also an index with endnotes (and source details).

But even beyond the concept, there is a sense of fun lurking behind the prose. Like the subtitle “Is your writing out of touch?” in consideration of ways to bring the tactile world onto the pages of your manuscript. And in passages like this one: “And when you are done, revise accordingly. Revise as if someone will lock you away for five years in a world without books or puppies or chocolate or red wine (whatever your biggest weakness is) if your writing is not lighting and delighting every inch of the readers’ neural pathways.”

Useful and practical tips and advice like, for example, when it comes to characterization, to allow characters to be distracted on the page (because people do get distracted) but don’t overuse their names in dialogue (because people known to each other do not use each other’s names very often).

The exercises are straight-forward and clear. So that, for instance, a study in perspective recommends that you try to describe a schoolyard, first, from the perspective of a child on the first day of school and, then, on the last day of school, without identifying either day, only making the situation clear via style and content.

Occasionally there are stationery products required, as when, for example, working on characterization, Moore advises you to high-light passages from a story/chapter in yellow for things you tell your reader about your character, in pink for things you show your reader about your character, and in green for actions you present your character executing: finally, consider the patterns and quantities and adjust in favour of green. (Michelle Visage would not approve.)*

Mostly the advice here is basic. Like: “I prescribe trial and error, cutting and pasting, a heavy dose of the delete key, and lots of trying again.” (On beginnings.) And: “Thoughtful revision takes varied forms, from sentence level to story level, with different considerations and questions at every stage.”

But sometimes a basic statement can act as a reset. Consider: “A memoir is not everything that happened in your life; rather, it is those moments that tell the story best.”

For my taste, I prefer the volume I read first by Dinty W. Moore, which is arranged to be a more casual encounter.

But this is good stuff for beginning writers.

*Viewers of RuPaul’s Drag Race will appreciate that reference. Those who wish to get the joke now have the option of procrastinating for the time it takes to watch all eleven seasons.

Dinty W. Moore’s The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir. NY: Penguin Random House – Ten Speed Press, 2017.

Masterclass: Developing Characters (Irving Weinman)

This book is designed to mimic a traditional masterclass in which a student’s shared piece of writing is distributed among classmates and critiqued by the master (with some feedback from other students as well).

There are eight chapters which consider sources of character, flat characters and round ones (yes, Forster still counts), narration, action, dialogue, symbolism and satire, and, finally, voice and turning point.

Following each chapter, there is a workshop assignment, which includes a series of questions, which one is to imagine are questions from the teacher and the rest of the class. (This doesn’t bother me one bit: fiction writers make up people all the time, so why not have a bunch of them sit with you in an imaginary class.)

The only element of the book which rings false for me is the iconology; symbols marking short and long exercises (camera, for ‘snapshot’ and pencil, for ‘write’), editing work (scissors, for reworking), key ideas (key!), and central messages (magnifying glass). All the elements are in place, but the iconology feels like an overlay (but who among the overly wordy doesn’t appreciate an occasional graphic).

Illustrative quotations are sometimes lengthy (which is fine, as there is a list of resources for each chapter but not everyone will have these works readily available) – a couple of pages – and italicized. (The use of italics is one of the pet peeves Benjamin Dreyer discusses and it niggles me too, although I do understand the desire to set apart the examples from the text proper.)

The works selected for study are classic and contemporary, with the majority drawn from works by American and English writers (some women, a few writers of colour, an occasional short story and translation). Beginning with Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and ending with Richard Ford’s Independence Day, the representation is not expansive, although the consideration of Iain Banks’s novel The Quarry, with its autistic character, 18-year-old Kit, is welcome.

Although the work is designed with advanced writers in mind, the recommended resources would suit serious-but-not-particularly-advanced readers. Nonetheless, although works like the Graywolf series are more interesting in the attention paid to lesser-known writers (like Barbara Comyns Dezsö Kosztolányi in Maud Casey’s volume, for example), the advantage of these well-known authors is that they would be recognizable to students who might be using this volume in conjunction with other college and university texts which could contain the complete narratives.

The workshop questions balance specifics and generalizations and invite writers to query the manuscript (and themselves) and explore possibilities.

For instance, consider this single bullet-point in the workshop about action: “Action has nearly no limits in type. Do certain types of action tend to dominate the example of action in your writing? What are they? (This chapter has given some examples, but has had to leave out many important types, for example, actions connected with eating and lovemaking.) Do you think your fiction could improve if you ventured out of your ‘favourite’ areas of action?”

This work would be particularly valuable for a writer who seeks to address a noted failing in characterization (e.g. in a complete work with an identified weakness, which has been rewritten previously) and who is looking for a new way to engage.

Good stuff for experienced writers.

Irving Weinman’s Masterclass: Developing Characters. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (Jessica Brody)

In principle, it seemed like something I’d be in favour of: saving the cat. But when I spotted Jessica Brody’s book in the library catalogue, I wasn’t familiar with screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!®method.

Never mind: Brody clearly outlines each element –each ‘beat’ – that Snyder identifies. “Read it. Learn it. Love it! The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet is divided into three acts (or parts), which are further subdivided into fifteen total beats (or plot points).”

This is the stuff of a weekend seminar weekend designed to rev your creative engine: even just opening the book cover, you half expect to find a T-shirt, fridge magnet and logo-embossed bandanna inside.

Nonetheless, beneath the snazzy veneer are some key concepts designed to assist novelists and storytellers. For instance, consider the question of likeability, the cornerstone of Snyder’s method, which originated from the scenario that “you’ve got a douchebag of a hero, desperately in need of some de-douchbagging, walking around doing douchebaggy stuff when suddenly he sees a cat stuck up in a tree”. Doucebag saves cat.

At a certain point becomes ineffective of course, when there are so many douchebags saving cats that some of the douchbags will need to open cat sanctuaries to set themselves apart from the ordinary douchebag who simply chooses to save a single cat. (Some may even have to widen their base, invite donkeys or ducks.) But the concept running beneath remains valid: complicate your characterization.

Brody aims to expose the common tenets in storytelling. She identifies “ten universal lessons” in “almost every novel throughout time”:

  • FORGIVENESS: of self or of others
  • LOVE: includes self-love, family love, romantic love
  • ACCEPTANCE: of self, of circumstances, of reality
  • FAITH: in oneself, in others, in the world, in God
  • FEAR: overcoming it, conquering it, finding courage
  • TRUST: in oneself, in others, in the unknown
  • SURVIVAL: including the will to live
  • SELFLESSNESS: including sacrifice, altruism, heroism, and overcoming greed
  • RESPONSIBILITY: including duty, standing up for a cause, accepting one’s destiny
  • REDEMPTION: including atonement, accepting blame, remorse, and salvation.

The examples she provides to illustrate her theory are contemporary and recognizable. She outlines, for instance, Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.

Seventeen novels are discussed in detail, including children’s books and various genres with a couple of classics. Not dramatically diverse selections, but commercially successful titles. It’s a nice touch that, before undertaking any detailed discussion, there are spoiler warnings at the beginning of each chapter. Because, wow, the stories get spoiled quickly when each of the fifteen beats is discussed.

This technique resides in essentials. “In short, the first step to being a successful writer is being a reader. There’s just one teensy problem. There are quite a few novels out there. Like, tens of millions of them. There’s no possible way to read them all. But here’s the good news: you don’t have to.”

Instead of doing a lot of reading on a lot of weekends, you can, instead, read the ten chapters which consider one book from each of the ten genres that Brody identifies: WHYDUNIT, RITES OF PASSAGE, INSTITUTIONALIZED, SUPERHERO, DUDE WITH A PROBLEM, FOOL TRIUMPHANT, BUDDY LOVE, OUT OF THE BOTTLE, GOLDEN FLEECE, and MONSTER IN THE HOUSE.

One can imagine that, if only one opted for the Premium Weekend package, that there is a plastic bracelet emblazoned with the name of your favourite genre on it and a set of colour-coordinated metallic seals that will decorate your pitch. Diligently composed according to the instructions provided. 

So succinctly does Brody break down the process of creating loglines and summaries, that they almost write themselves.

The logline? “On the verge of a stasis=death moment, a flawed hero Breaks Into 2; but when the Midpoint happens, they must learn the Theme Stated before the All Is Lost.”

The synopsis? “Paragraph 1: Setup, flawed hero, and Catalyst (2-4 sentences)
Paragraph 2: Break Into 2 and/or Fun and Games (2-4 sentences)
Paragraph 3: Theme Stated, Midpoint hint and/or All Is Lost hint, ending in a cliffhanger (1 to 3 sentences).”

So, now you know everything. You should still attend the seminar, because you’ll want the fridge magnet and the sticker sheet. Even more importantly, you’ll want to tell your other writer-friends that you attended. But all that is just for show. Ultimately you have what you need to sit down and write.

For some beginning writers, the snazzy packaging and the sense of a formula to follow will be a seductive entrance into the possibility of writing a novel. For some experienced writers, the methodology will orchestrate a new perspective on a fledgling or stagnant project. Staycation seminar groupies will mourn the lack of accompanying merch.

Good stuff for some writers.

Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. NY: PRH – Ten Speed Press, 2018.

Dreyer’s English (Benjamin Dreyer)

He’s not the first. Karen Elizabeth Gordon did it. So did Lynn Truss. And, now, Benjamin Dreyer. He’s made it funny, this writing thing.

Sometimes it’s a subtle playful undertone. Parenthetical remarks, like whispered asides to the reader. Like: “(If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)”

Occasionally it’s a matter of snickering. Which often relies as much on the reader as what appears on the page. How many copyeditors and copywriters have been asked what makes them experts. Every single one of them, I’m guessing. And Dreyer is willing to poke fun at himself as an expert too. He often contradicts his own advice and points to his own subjective and baseless decisions: for instance, near the beginning of the book he issues that parenthetical remark above, and midway through he contemplates the necessity of parenthetical remarks. So, go ahead, snicker.

Do not use quotation marks after the term “so-called.” For instance, I’m not

  a so-called “expert” in matters copyeditorial

I’m simply a

  so-called expert in matters copyeditorial  

Every now and then, there’s some chortling. Say, after a passage like this one:

If you turn to p. 719 in your Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition, you will find, one atop the other:

  light-headed
  lighthearted

Which tells you pretty much everything you want to know about the use of hyphens, which is to say: It doesn’t make much sense, does it.”

Maybe even a snorty laugh in the mix, in response to such a note as this: “We won’t discuss the use of ?! or !? because you’d never do that.”

Perhaps a snorty chortle or two. For instance, during the discussion of British spellings, like ‘labour’ and ‘harbour’: “I will confess that I do like the looks of the Brit. ‘armour’ rather than our ‘armor’ – the u seems to add a bit of extra metallic clankiness – but one must follow the rules.”

And sometimes an out-and-out laugh erupts.

As, for instance and strictly speaking, you might do here, in quoting this piece of text I 100 percent made up out of thin air and didn’t find on, say, Twitter:

Their [sic] was no Collusion [sic] and there was no Obstruction [sic].

Which, however, only reminds us that there is a serious undertone to everything, and that is true here, too.

“And that’s often the problem, isn’t it? In writing and in so many things: that we accept things we’re taught without thinking about them at all.”

Benjamin Dreyer takes writing so seriously that he knows how to laugh with it, not at it. And it’s a pleasure to have company in that pastime.

Very fine stuff for all sorts of writers.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. NY: Penguin Random House – Random House, 2019.

The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions (Maud Casey)

This is the fourteenth book in Graywolf’s “Art of” series. Some I’ve found useful (like Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction and Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext) and others aroused my curiosity but not a compulsion to read straight through.*

These are collections of essays on themes; some are short and dreamy whereas others are carefully arranged like term papers. They are the type of writing book which might be best approached as a casual coffee date, so that you pull the book off the shelf when you have time to sit and sip and think and you can select the right piece for that moment in time.

Read straight through, like a text, some pieces are bound to feel more satisfying than others, in the way that many readers rush through collections of short stories and say they are uneven, because each piece requires and rewards a different kind of attention.

The opening piece in Maud Casey’s collection is “The Land of Un”, a short and tight meditation on mystery. Perfect introduction. And it contains tidy little snippets like this: “If mystery, the genre, is about finding the answers, then mystery, that elusive yet essential element of fiction, is about finding the questions.”

The next piece, “Unknowing, or the Construction of Innocence”, is three times as long and begins with 1873 and moves into a detailed consideration of Isaac Babel’s “Awakening” and Dezsö Kosztolányi’s novel Skylark, in which “the extraordinary relies on the ordinary for its existence”.

An unexpected layer to these slim volumes is the sense that one has, after finishing the final essay, of whether or not one would have much to discuss with this writer. About the writing and about the work – and often the answer to that is not very mysterious because Graywolf chooses smart people, musers and meanderers, with whom you would enjoy sharing a decanter of wine – but also about everything else, the wider goings-on of the world.

Which of Vivian Maier’s images most intrigue her and which authors’ characters’ secret lives keep her up at night: these are the bits which offer insight as to whether I would like to seek out Maud Casey’s fiction, too. But it was her admiration of and fondness for the work of Barbara Comyns that sealed the deal for me. Yes, indeed. More Maud Casey for me, please.

Great stuff for writers.

*I’ve already discussed here one of my favourites in the series.

Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2018.