The Whys and Wherefore of Craft Books

David B. Evans, MFA ‘18, is the guest blogger this week.

The mid-twentieth century Scottish novelist George Mackay Brown once said,

I believe in dedicated work rather than in “inspiration” . . . I believe writing to be a craft like carpentry, plumbing, or baking ... In “culture circles,” there is a tendency to look          upon artists as the new priesthood of some esoteric religion.  Nonsense—and dangerous nonsense moreover—we are all hewers of wood and drawers of water; only let us do it     as thoroughly and joyously as we can.

 I, too, am a hewer of wood as well as a writer.  I recently completed an arts and crafts-style desk and took as much pleasure in designing and building it as I did in writing an essay about the loss of my sweet old dog Abbie in early summer.  The furniture making and canine remembrance both came from the heart and were guided by experience and training.

Those writers who consistently write clear and beautiful prose, many from an earlier time such as Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and V. S. Prichett, are my great teachers.  More contemporary stylists who continue to guide me include Francine Prose (Reading Like a Writer), James Wood (How Fiction Works), Willian Zinsser (On Writing Well), Vivian Gornick (The Situation and the Story), John McPhee (Draft No. 4), Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones), Philip Lopate (To Show and to Tell), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), Sandra Scofield (The Scene Book), Verlyn Klinkenborg (Several Short Sentences about Writing), and Wallace Stegner (On the Teaching of Creative Writing).

As this summer drew to its end, I finished Francine Prose’s new book, What to Read and Why.  What struck me most was what Prose says about the classes she teaches.  They “are centered on close reading, on examining every word, every sentence, considering word choice, diction, tone, subtext . . . some fiction simply cannot be understood—on the simplest level of plot and character—unless you pay attention and concentrate on every sentence, every word.” 

I can hear Prose’s advice echoed in what my advisors at Wesleyan instilled in me—read, reread, and then read again the authors who are doing more than just putting black marks on the page.  Learn your craft from the masters.  If you want to be a good reader and a consistently good writer, you have to understand why an accomplished author chooses the right word and not the almost right one, how a stylist hears the rhythm and builds a heartbeat into sentences, how the novelist and essayist create scenes and avoid expository descriptions.  We must develop an ear for dialog and use it to reveal motivation and desire.  Nothing should be by accident.  The best writers are like composers.  They make you hear the music behind those marks, free you to gallop with the arpeggios, or slow down or pause when the mood changes.  Our job as readers and writers is to crack the code.

In Prose’s chapter on Mavis Gallant, a Canadian writer who spent much of her life and career in France and is best known as a short story writer, we are introduced to “Mlle. Dias de Corta.”  Gallant’s work, according to Prose, “cannot be reduced, summarized, or made to seem like anything but itself.”  In the story, Gallant introduces us to a unpleasant Parisienne, “xenophobic, passive-aggressive, self-involved, sly—a considerable range of unattractive personality traits.”  The tale is framed as a letter addressed by this woman to the eponymous young actress, Mlle. Dias de Corta, who boarded with the old woman and had a disastrous affair with her son decades earlier.  Gallant proceeds to perform magic by breaking our hearts for this unpleasant woman with whom, in all likelihood, we would prefer not to spend five minutes.

Prose then tells us that the magic is in reading the story closely, to understanding what this woman is saying underneath what she appears to be saying on the surface: “what she wants and needs to say, what she cannot say, and why she so often chooses to say something else entirely.”

Within the full range of the many craft books I have next to my writing desk, I believe Prose’s is the one that gives me the clearest insight into writing.  She says she wrote the collection of essays to show us “why books can transport and entertain and teach us, why books can give us pleasure and make us think.”  She teaches me to stop, to regroup, to take the time to reread the passage and to understand how it is written.

So I keep her close to my side and as I move back and forth from hewing lumber for tables to trying to write good sentences.  The beauty and pleasure are in both crafts which we should practice as thoroughly and as joyously as we can.

 

David is an active septuagenarian who graduated from West Virginia Wesleyan College's MFA program in creative writing (nonfiction) earlier this year.  He lives in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with his muse Jody. He enjoys writing portrait essays and composing narratives based on his rich life experiences.

 His essay "Farewell, My Lovely" about the passing of his Golden Retriever Abbie was a finalist in Still's writing contest earlier this month.