Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Beyond the reverent-but-not-too-reverent tone of Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, something else that sets this volume apart is the combination of specific advice and the suggestions offered for wider reflection on the issues she considers. The segment which most impressed me and which urged me to procure a copy for myself, was the section on POV and Voice, and it cleared up some confusion for me at the time and serves as a succinct refresher even now.

Le Guin’s text is clean and tidy; the book is relatively short (under 200 pages) but the topics she considers are presented in a most useful manner; this section is one of the longer ones because she claims it is the issue that most frequently challenges her students and other young writers.

In the 22 pages that comprise this chapter, she describes five principal points of view, gives very short creative examples, provides longer literary examples, suggests specific exercises which involve writing short pieces (from 250 to a maximum of 1,000 words), and offers recommendations for longer readings in each POV. Certainly entire books could be devoted to consideration of even one of these points of view, but this chapter covers the bases and offers a terrific balance of content and encouragement to pursue additional resources.

And now I must say something about Le Guin’s reading recommendations. Because I read obsessively, such lists and suggestions are often my favourite part of books for writers, and those in Steering the Craft stand out.

Yes, they include the classic writers whose work you’d expect to see referenced; if you read a lot in this area you become accustomed to the mentions of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Woolf, and Proust. You’re not surprised by discussion of works by García Márquez, Twain, Hardy and Dickens.

But what you don’t see as often are references to Margaret Atwood, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Esmeralda Santiago, Vonda McIntyre and J.R.R. Tolkien. Le Guin looks at the work of writers whose work is often overlooked and encourages her readers to look at it themselves. 

Good stuff for writers (and readers).

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

“Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit” (Anna Keesey)

Keesey credits Seymour Chatman, Mieke Bal and H. Porter Abbot as the narrative theorists who have contributed the concepts on which her essay is based, in terms of providing the terms and distinctions between the terms ‘story’ and ‘discourse’. 

No, wait: this is actually really interesting! 

Herein ‘story’ is defined as “what happens to your unfortunate characters; discourse is the way you, the writer, present it to your reader” (136). 

Haven’t you always struggled to distinguish between these two elements and felt that you lacked the language to do so properly? 

We need to know this so that we can understand st > dt, which means that story time is greater than discourse time, which is what happens when things are summarized, so that a lot of what happens — maybe even years’ worth of events — to your unfortunate characters is squeezed into a single paragraph. 

Summary can be very involving, Keesey reminds us, but it does create an extra layer of distance between the reader and the action because the reader doesn’t observe the action directly, only hears it summarized, filtered, reduced. 

And we need to know this to appreciate its contrast with dt > st, wherein discourse time is greater than story time, which Keesey illustrates using Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

According to Keesey, writers like Woolf (and Proust) emphasize “infolding”, a “tremendous deepening / and reflection and rhetorical flight in which she is characterizing the people, recalling their pasts, capturing their fleeting physical experiences, illuminating their mental processes and emotions, following the glittering floss of consciousness as it weaves through the action”.

And then there are writers like Hemingway who emphasize unfolding. Keesey uses “Hills Like White Elephants”, which “consists essentially of one long scene” in which everything we read “constitutes a beat of story time”.

What I love most about Keesey’s essay is that there is no judgement attached to either, simply the suggestion that you identify and use the skills you have because most writers have a combination of these predispositions.

“Most of us are just groping toward something that feels right and doesn’t feel wrong.”

Good stuff for writers.

Tin House. The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2009)

“Place” (Dorothy Allison)

I discovered Dorothy Allison’s fiction through browsing in a women’s bookstore in London, Ontario: my introduction was her book of essays Two or Three Things I Know For Sure (1995).

Reading “Place” reminded me that I should return to that collection and to Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (1994), which I picked up shortly afterwards.

Allison’s style is straightforward and passionate and, for me, it has the perfect mix of subjective experience and instruction; she tells me enough about herself that I feel I have a context for what she’s saying, and she leaves enough space for me to move into the text alongside her, with all the bulk and heft of my own experiences.

She begins this piece by mentioning that there are certain places we North American readers all recognize as being easy to capture on the printed page: the American South (with porches, pick-up trucks and Southern grandmothers), Boston (city of blizzards), Chicago (the Projects), and boroughs of New York City (with Jews eating pickles and having their own grandmothers). Of course her tongue is wedged solidly in her cheek because she is pointing out the exceptions to these “rules”, even as she is saying that “Their place is a given”. (6) 

And immediately I think of writers like Linda Hogan and Rebecca Wells, novels like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski mysteries, and Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: stories rooted in the South, Boston, Chicago and NYC.  And, indeed, some grandmothers come to mind!

But before I can settle into that, Allison is speaking about how she could not find the places she knew in the pages of American fiction, that she had to create the world of truck stops and grocery stores and diners, to invent it on the page. “Place is often something you don’t see because you’re so familiar with it that you devalue it or dismiss it or ignore it. But in fact it is the information your reader most wants to know.” (7)

There are a lot of great observations in this essay (and I’ll mention another one of them in a minute) but what I loved most was her admission that she used to sneak into other people’s dorm rooms, not to pilfer, but to see what they had (and didn’t have). I’ve never done anything like that (but only because I never stayed in residence in school, not out of moral compunction) but I know that, at open houses, I spend far more time inspecting the current residents’ belongings than I spend examining floorplans and room dimensions (and that it’s more fun than it “should” be).

I appreciate that kind of honesty. Even though I understand that it might make for squirmy moments had I been her dorm mate.

It’s not as though what Allison is saying here is breaking news. We all know that place is important. But Allison’s essay is a worthwhile variation on that theme. “What I have is the landscape in which I grew up and the landscapes that I have adapted from every damned book I’ve ever read, and every damned book I’ve ever read is in the back of my head while I’m reading yours. Every place every other writer has taken me is in me. Can you take me somewhere no one else has?”

Good stuff for writers.

Tin House The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2009)

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House)

I grabbed this up at Type Books, one of my favourite local bookshops, partly because I think “Tin House” is terrific, and partly because my writing shelves have been hankering for someone new in town, someone to start the flow of gossip afresh.

The collection has had the desired affect all around: intensifying my appreciation of “Tin House” and giving the writing shelves a jolt of new energy while bringing to mind the strengths of the stalwart texts therein. You can expect to see some attention paid to the classics and old favourites in coming months. But, for May’s Writing Resource Snippet, here’s a taste of the newcomer. 

The first essay that I read was Susan Bell’s “Revisioning The Great Gatsby”, which is an odd choice to be sure, not only because it’s a few essays into the collection (and usually I am methodical about these things, doncha know) but because I’ve not only never read The Great Gatsby, but have miraculously avoided all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, despite his popularity on school curricula (although I think this is more characteristic of American than Canadian syllabi. [Note: I corrected this oversight years later.]

In fact that was part of the reason behind my choice (I always eat the food that I least enjoy first from my plate as well) but I also appreciated the tone of Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit and was interested in her approach here, even on a novel I’ve never read, an author I’ve never read.

:: Insert tremendous writerly guilt at public admission of never having read any of Fitzgerald, except perhaps a short story in an anthology at some point which, let’s face it, doesn’t count if it cannot be recalled and, in fact, the latter admission is likely only heaping embarrassment upon shame. ::

:: Insert admittedly weak defense predicated on the fact that he lifted passages from Zelda’s diaries and letters and never admitted it, cheeky boy ::

So I read this essay sitting on a bench in the foyer of the Reference Library, a bench I was sharing with a man who clearly had had too many cigarettes that morning or not enough, a man who was one big jitter on legs, fidgeting more than a toddler in line at an amusement park. So even though I haven’t read any Fitzgerald novels, the passages I’ve read from The Great Gatsby in Susan Bell’s essay, I’ve read aloud multiple times, with my lips moving through each pass: surely that counts for something.

(Did you know that people line up for the TRL? I thought they opened at 9, so I had a little more than a half hour to wait that morning, but I couldn’t believe how many other people were waiting there too: standing room only. Which is why I stayed with my seatmate and pulled out my iPod to distract myself further, but just because I couldn’t hear the tapping and patting and squeaking and knocking didn’t mean that I couldn’t feel it through the bench, the vibrations even moving through the floor.)

I felt out of place at first: “We all know The Great Gatsby.” But then as the essay moved along I was in familiar territory: basically Bell is looking at the transformation of passages as this novel moved through the editing process.

It is, she says, “a tour de force of revision”. She goes into detail with some passages (like Madison Smartt Bell does in Narrative Design: another favourite writerly book) and speaks, in more general terms, about the overall process and the wider context of the novel’s construction.

I think it would have been even more effective if I had read the novel myself, and even more so if I had the sort of admiration for it that I do have for the classics I studied in high school (when so many other students are reading Fitzgerald’s novels), so that I, too, could have read this essay and felt more keenly the reminder that even “the greats” had to edit their work. Still, it was an interesting essay and I was pleased to have picked up the collection.

More about this collection soon. Look for chat about Dorothy Allison’s “Place” and Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit”

Good stuff for writers.

Tin House. The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2009)