Uncategorized | September 30, 2011

I’ve been stumped for a blog idea for a few weeks now—in the thick of teaching three creative writing workshops, I’m hard-pressed for ideas about anything other than pedagogy. Sitting here thinking about what I’ve been thinking about, I find there’s not much that’s ripe for public sharing. I’ve been thinking about the stories of the Wall Street protestors; I’ve been thinking about Friday Night Lights. In either case, I could provide you with a raw gush of emotions—not a coherent blog post.

So instead I offer you this: a craft book review. My favorite creative writing craft books—and honestly, there are many more on my “least favorite” list—are not conversational or cutesy; they don’t urge their readers to write “shitty first drafts” or to imagine the contents of their characters’ garbage cans. Instead, my favorite craft books unsettle some aspect of my writing habits, leading me into different imaginative territories than I typically tread. Among my favorites are Wendy Bishop’s Thirteen Way of Looking for a Poem, Brian Kitely’s two amazing books of fiction-writing exercises (The 3 A.M. Epiphany and The 4 A. M. Breakthrough) and, most recently, Catherine Brady’s Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction. Simply put, I love Brady’s book. I’ve adopted it for use in my graduate-level fiction workshop, and it’s just possible that I love it too well to teach with it effectively. Leading discussions on the book, I’m prone to telling anecdotes about how Brady’s insights have affected my own work. Let’s hope these rhapsodies serve their purpose: what I’m saying is, pay attention to this book.

With the term “story logic,” Brady gives name to the play of literal and figurative tensions at work in fiction. “Stories have a hold on our imaginations—as writers and as readers—because their particulars do not resolve in the form of unequivocal, exact statements. Their value lies in the richness of their implications, their capacity to shed meaning in many directions, not just one. Fiction is full of ideas, but they are the effluence thrown off by specific events, not a premise for which the story is proof” (3). And Brady notes that the richness, the inherent and artful messiness of story logic is a difficult thing to fully honor during the workshop process. When presented with a flawed story, a plot stuck in a “static equation”—in which the literal elements of the story map too neatly onto the figurative—members of a workshop are wont to respond with requests for more information. You’ve heard this, I’m sure—and perhaps responded with more about the mother, more of your protagonist’s backstory, more details with the goal of more depth. And yet such advice may not make the story “work”. Brady urges the writer to look for other means of shaking up the static equation, by “interrogating the sensory reality of the story” rather than weighing it down with more more more (11-12). I love both that advice and that phrasing—not “engage the five senses,” as somebody else might blandly advise you—interrogate the sensory reality. Question your work until it reveals its secrets; regard it as having a sensory reality, or what life can it have?

My use of creative writing craft books is eclectic. In teaching, I take an exercise from here, a diagram from there—sometimes I share whole chapters with my students. Brady’s book is one that strikes me as useful in its entirety, whether for an advanced fiction class or a lone writer, stumped. As I was working through it this summer, I found myself dropping the book and running to my computer, not once but many times, constantly arriving at new ideas. That’s without even glancing at the smart writing exercises Brady includes in her appendix. Story Logic is full of treasures (sentence diagrams! brilliant readings of published fiction! a Venn diagram!). It’s a book that makes me feel like a grateful student, learning—without the least urge to text my friends under the desktop.