Every semester students propose three to five craft books for study. Craft books vary, from comprehensive treatments in textbook format, complete with exercises and examples, to books that focus specific craft elements, to works that express the accrued insights of successful writers on craft and the writing life.
Over time we develop favorites, books that address issues masterfully or that remind us of craft elements to address.
In that spirit, I invited various members of the MFA community to describe craft books they valued.
Semein Washington, Poetry ‘19
The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism by T.S. Eliot is a craft book determining the best ways to talk about poetry and the correct format of criticism. Jane Hirschfield’s Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry examines the craft of poetry from cognitive and spiritual perspectives. Both have something to say about the importance of poetry to humanity at large.
Larry Thacker, Poetry ‘18.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, a collection of creative flash essays, is like poetic Zen instruction for a writer. Whether the essay is a prompt or inspiration to get to work, Goldberg gives examples of awareness in her creative tongue. She doesn't just offer general statements; she follows up with her own creative direction. For example, in the essay "A Tourist in Your Own Town," Goldberg notes that "Writers write about things that other people don't pay much attention to. For instance, our tongues, elbows, water coming out of a water faucet, the kind of garbage trucks New York City has, the color purple of a faded sign in a small town." She is constantly picking beautiful randomness from the ether and showing us how to do the same in our work, but without hesitating to insist: "Now, please, go. Write your asses off."
Sharon Waters, CNF ‘19
One of my favorite craft books is Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. I particularly appreciate the chapters on researching the history and background of one’s subject matter. The information on how to effectively critique another writer’s work proved invaluable. I keep it close when I have work to critique. If I have the privilege of teaching creative writing someday, I will require this text.
Ryland Swain, Fiction ‘20
I grew up on self-help books and advice columns, and now I'm addicted to books on the craft of writing. Just throw me in that briar patch and I'm a happy bunny. For starter books, I read Natalie Goldberg and filled notebooks with my flowing pen. Stephen King taught me that a good writer could be made from a competent one, while John Gardner cautioned me not to break the dreamscape in my prose.
I’ve taken up new craft books with good advice on characterization. The first essay of A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft edited by Andrea Barrett and Peter Turchi dug right into a big problem of mine: the author-narrator-character merge. Frederick Reiken asserts that this merger is "why many first-time novelists wind up with flat, uninteresting protagonists." Margo Livesey, in Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing, advises endowing the character with an "attitude." She also has a zesty section on Jane Austen.
Sean Price, Fiction ‘19
One of my first craft books, to which I return from time to time, is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. Swain focuses on things a writer should do to make their work more marketable so that they will appeal to a wider audience. Most folks might take that to mean genre writing. Personally, good writing and good storytelling is interesting regardless of its station. The advice in this book is, above all else, concerned with entertaining the reader. And isn't that one of the main things we want from fiction−to be entertained?
The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd Ed.) by Chistopher Vogler details all the aspects of the Hero's Journey proposed by Carl Jung and studied by Joseph Campbell. Patterns are everywhere in nature. So too, the Hero's Journey is a pattern, one that comes up time and again in ancient storytelling, a pattern that seems to resonate with readers. In my mind, doing what's natural is a compelling way to enable my work to reverberate with the reader. Who wants to write something that's forgotten tomorrow? I want my work to stand the test of time. I want my words to reach the hearts and minds of others across an expanse of time. It's not about fame; it's about connecting on deep level at a great distance−−a subspace communication−−where, somehow, the magic in the pattern will register with those readers not yet born and make them feel the same chills and heartaches I felt from a few scribbles on a page−−long after I'm gone.
Karen Bryant, Fiction ‘20
I became part of the WVWC MFA in Creative Writing program to learn the craft of writing. I welcomed the hefty reading list to illustrate craft and inspire me. I also embraced the concept of craft books, good craft books, as a logical tool.
But how to determine which one is “good” and will be the most effective tool? My advisor recommended John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers but also warned me that I’d have to overlook his style issues. It didn’t take me long to see what he meant. First of all, I’m not young, so perhaps I wasn’t Gardner’s target audience. Also, his continued reference to the writer as “he” was a hill I didn’t want to climb on each page. I found his style to be arrogant, pejorative and cumbersome. That said, I highlighted passages, took notes and admitted to seeing why my advisor said that everything I have to learn about craft is in that one book, if I could get passed his style. I could not. I learned from that experience that “good” does not just encompass content, but also the connection the author bothers to develop with the reader. I suspect many of my colleagues may have a different take on Gardner.
But, although not young, I’m a big girl and got over it. I was hungry to better grasp point of view, so I sucked it up and focused on that section of Gardner’s book. I explored How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II by James N. Frey, and I went online for additional voices for more descriptions of POV to use as I read and dissected each story. And finally, in my own writing, I compared my natural inclination to the “book learning” and welcomed my advisor’s notes.
In the end, learning the craft of writing has been and will continue to be a holistic experience that requires craft books from many voices as a scaffolding. I mean, would Michelangelo have been able to paint the Sistine Chapel without adequate undergirding?
The editor invite readers to add comments describing craft books that they value.