Go into almost any bookstore, and you’ll likely see an entire section dedicated to books about writing. These self-help—or “reference”— guides for writers, though not a new phenomenon, have become an increasingly popular genre (just count the number of shelves dedicated to these books, or do a Google search for “craft of writing,” and you’ll see what I mean).
There is a good reason for the popularity of writing craft books: writing is hard, and good writing is even harder. We want to know, whether we are writers ourselves or simply curious readers, how our favorite authors work their magic. But how do we choose among the many available titles?
Luckily, five amazing and generous writers (essayists, memoirists, novelists, and short-story writers) have recently written helpful guides that are great places to start or continue your study of the craft of writing.
Christopher Castellani, The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (Graywolf Press, 2016)
The Art of Perspective is part of an “Art of” series on various aspects of the craft of writing, edited by Charles Baxter, great for diving deeply into a single aspect of writing that can be applied to any number of goals, including fiction and non-fiction writing.
Castellani’s book is much like a pocket textbook, thin and small enough to tuck into a large coat pocket, a handy reference guide to thumb through between subway stations. Broken down into five sections with titles like “Toward a Narrative Strategy” and “Try To See Things My Way,” The Art of Perspective draws both on examples of great literature and Castellani’s own experiences (writing and otherwise) to clarify the points he makes.
I especially enjoyed a chapter that dissected the power of Lorrie Moore’s stories, regular favorites in creative-writing classes and often blamed for an abundance of imitators writing in the second person, though often not with Moore’s skill. Castellani spends a lot of time on Moore’s second story collection, Like Life, demonstrating a pattern through many of the stories (“Moore’s narrators have trained readers to expect a collision with the main character in the first lines”) and then showing that Moore subverts these expectations in the title story. As Castellani explains, finding the correct perspective is a new task for each project, as the form must always fit the content. An in-depth look at two books by E.M. Forster (Howards End and A Passage to India), each with a very different approach to perspective, demonstrates Castellani’s argument, as well.
The Art of Perspective also addresses a hot-button topic—can an author write from the perspective of a narrator who is very different from the author herself?—in a chapter that dives into the work of Grace Paley, Tim O’Brien, and Tony Kushner, ultimately arguing that the reader must be convinced by the details, and that the writer must be respectful of the power of her perspective, careful not to fall into stereotypes. The key here, and in other parts of the writing process, argues Castellani, almost always lies in pulling the camera lens wider, at least during the earlier stages of composing, as the writer assesses and develops the story and slowly reveals and builds character—even if that expansive aperture doesn’t remain as wide to the reader in the final product.
Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015)
Often credited with the memoir boom in the 1990s, Mary Karr, a master of the form, has written a long-awaited book on the craft of memoir-writing, distilling the wisdom she’s gleaned from writing her best-sellers The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit, and from the graduate course on memoir writing she teaches at Syracuse University.
Despite her importance in the field, Karr begins with some self-deprecation (“No one elected me the boss of memoir”) and continues to point out her notable predecessors in subsequent chapters. She is especially impressed with a memoir that is quite different from her own: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Like every example Karr cites, Nabokov impressed her because he “shaped the book to highlight his own magnificent way of viewing the world.”
I have long been a fan of Karr’s memoirs myself—they are full of the harrowing scenes that many people have come to expect from contemporary “confessional” memoirs, such as children witnessing their mother’s psychotic breakdown, or a young woman hitting rock bottom as an alcoholic, but what sets them apart from dozens of others with similar themes is the highly engaging dry wit and Texas drawl of Karr’s diction.
Not surprisingly, Karr spends a great deal of time in The Art of Memoir emphasizing the importance of voice in writing a successful memoir. Karr’s own trademark irreverence and humor are peppered throughout, giving the reader the feeling that Karr is a close friend sitting by her side, telling stories. We learn a lot about Karr’s struggle to accept her own voice, which she long believed to be too low-brow, as the most genuine way for her writing to ring true.
While Karr is best known for her memoirs, she is a poet first and also an accomplished essayist, and many of the teachings in The Art of Memoir can be applied to any writing form. Good writing, whether memoir or fiction, is good storytelling, and good storytelling happens, as Karr explains, through a series of choices—mainly, what to reveal, and when. She writes, “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing […] from the second you choose one event over another, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.”
We learn through Karr that creating the art of memoir is often a struggle and a process that ends up challenging the writer’s own beliefs about her past. “Any time you try to collapse the distance between your delusions about the past and what really happened, there’s suffering involved,” writes Karr. When considering her own first memoir, The Liars’ Club, Karr writes, “I felt compelled to write it, yet broke a sweat when I realized how easy it would be to do it wrong.” She has a great respect for writers who struggle to get it right, and emphasizes again and again the importance of risking something for the page. I found the following piece of advice especially helpful in trying to get to the truth of one’s past: “I often interview myself about how I came to an opinion. Then, rather than present an abstract judgment, […] I try to re-create how I came to that opinion.” Karr also gives some encouragement to the hard-working memoirist, stating, “A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free.”
Like the great teacher she is, Karr ends The Art of Memoir with a thorough six-page list of books, all memoirs, that she considers required reading for any writer studying the form.
John Casey, Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014)
Beyond the First Draft is a collection of essays written by John Casey over twenty years, most of them originally presented as craft talks at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. These essays cover a wide variety of subject matter, from perspective to the importance of reading to how to write about sex and violence. Even though the word “fiction” is in the title of the book, the lessons that Casey teaches can be applied to all kinds of writing. As the author states in the book’s Preamble, “These essays are suggestions about things to do, things to think about, when your writing has got you lost in the woods.”
Perhaps to address the concept of a “craft of writing” book from the start, Casey opens Beyond the First Draft with a list of well-known writing maxims by various authors and his thoughts on these maxims. This opening chapter, called “Dogma and Anti-dogma,” breaks down Casey’s thoughts on everything from “Write for yourself” to “Tell the truth” to “Culture is local.” In general, he shows us how each of these statements, like many pieces of writing advice, are sometimes true and sometimes less true, or perhaps could use a little tweaking. For the author, “write for yourself” might be a more useful piece of advice if phrased “find your own demon, your own angel.”
Casey uses examples not only from notable works in his discussions on craft (including, like Karr, multiple references to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory), but anecdotes from his own life as well. Much of the book is an opportunity to peek into an accomplished writer’s life by hearing his most formative experiences in the form of well-crafted stories.
The stories from Casey’s own life include an essay of his reading habits from childhood through adulthood. He writes, “I’m rarely happily conscious of being a writer […] But I’m happily conscious of being a reader.” As writers, we are told (and believe) again and again the importance of reading voraciously. It’s a treat to get a glimpse of the reading habits of another writer to see how the reading impacts the writing.
I found two aspects of Casey’s book to be especially helpful. The first is his repeated reference to Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares. Casey argues that, like a good writer with his writing, an actor must learn the tools of acting and become proficient to the point where his acting ceases to be acting: “Do it over and over until the discipline and advice and the written lines are all part of the dirt you’re getting dirty in.” The second is the lesson of an essay on first person perspective, entitled “Me Me Gab,” in which Casey makes an argument for the strength of writing in the first person, breaking down the possibilities of an “I” narrator into four types. Interestingly, the parallel between acting and writing is mentioned again in this essay on perspective, as Casey explains that using a first person narrator, more so than third person narration (which he believes is how many writers first approach autobiographically inspired writing), allows him “to build a character, the way an actor does.”
Beyond the First Draft is the work of a writer who is deeply interested in the history and impact of writing and reading, and Casey is a generous guide through all of his writing obsessions, offering wisdom from his deep research to the reader.
Peter Turchi, A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic (Trinity University Press, 2014)
In A Muse and a Maze, Peter Turchi skillfully draws the reader through some of the most fundamental and challenging questions that writers face, tricking us into learning more about ourselves and our writing process by making us think we are learning about something unrelated to writing: games and puzzles. But herein lies the brilliance of his approach—we drop our writerly defenses and open ourselves to receiving information via a new angle, and before we know it, revelations about writing and process become apparent.
Turchi writes, “We all practice for life by solving puzzles of one kind or another nearly from birth,” so why would we not approach our writing the same way? He gives examples of writing from Anton Chekhov to Georges Perec, along with quotes by Emily Dickinson, Vladimir Nabokov, and others to show us how each of these writers was actually solving particular puzzles in their writing. Along the way, Turchi makes a point of saying that there is room for enjoyment of all kinds of literary puzzles, and that every genre, from mysteries to high literary fiction, has its specific problems to solve. The lack of elitism here is refreshing.
In his introduction, entitled “The Contemplation of Recurring Patterns,” Turchi laments, “Art is often discussed as a form of play—and yet that playfulness, that sense of delight, is frequently absent from discussions of the writing process.” A Muse and a Maze remedies this situation by discussing writing problems side by side with riddles and games, including actual puzzles interspersed with the text (with solutions at the back of the book), should the reader choose to take a break from the business of writing and have a little fun.
Turchi offers some advice that may seem familiar (e.g., that the trick of good writing is knowing what information to reveal, and when), but explaining this information via the history of Sudoku or the tricks of Houdini puts it all in a brand-new light.
While a discussion of puzzles and riddles and their history dominates the beginning of the book, Turchi steadily and slowly directs more of his focus on the writing process as the book progresses. It’s a masterful way to help writers confront their biggest blocks and fears and be presented with possible solutions before they even realize what’s happening (i.e., that they’re having fun and learning at the same time). A fine magic trick, Mr. Turchi!
Dinty W. Moore, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals (Ten Speed Press, 2015)
Speaking of doling out the writing advice with a spoonful of sugar, Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy can be read entirely as a humor piece or light bedside reading—it’s a quick read, and Moore seems intent on the reader having some fun. As I read my way through the book, however, I realized lessons were being learned.
The book is set up like an advice column, much like the “Dear Sugar” column of one of the writers featured in the book, Cheryl Strayed. Moore fields sometimes serious, but often silly, questions about writing from a series of his writer friends (among them Strayed), providing brief and funny replies. The humor in these replies often comes from their digressions from the direct question at hand (such as, “Should I limit my use of the em dash?,” or, “Do I type one or two spaces after a period?”), and, most of the time, the digression itself provides an important point about successful essay writing.
Moore also follows each of his “advice column” answers with an essay that is in response to the theme of the question, and herein lie some of the greatest lessons that this book offers. Each of Moore’s essays takes a distinct form—some are lists, while another is written entirely on cocktail napkins and another takes the form of a chart—giving this reader, at least, the hope that I could attempt to write a successful essay on even the seemingly smallest of topics, and that the approach to the essay can be wide open.
Of course, Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy is not without its tongue-in-cheek moments, and this willingness to poke fun at the writing process and the genre of the writing advice book adds much to its appeal. In one essay, entitled “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” Moore offers the following awesome writing prompt: “Score some medical marijuana, regress to a fetus-like twenty-two years old, score an ancient typewriter on eBay, and connect with your pain.”