August 19th, 2008

me w/z-z

Wallace Stegner Saves Rapunzel!

            I don’t know about the rest of you, but I find it harder to write during the summer than at other times of the year. I’m sure it’s because I’d rather be at the ocean. Even if I was sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin on the edge of a deep, cold lake somewhere in the mountains, inspiration would find me more easily. As it stands, when I sit in my tiny office, day after day, with the windows sealed tight and the air-conditioning humming expensively, I feel like Rapunzel with no Prince Charming in sight.


            I can’t leap up and take an impromptu walk (aka: run away), the way I do in other seasons; not in North Carolina. I did get a brief respite a few weeks ago when my agent told me I should, “put your feet up until Labor Day. You writers are all workaholics.” I was mawkishly grateful to her for that; for any legitimate reason to take a break. I tried putting them up. It didn’t last. We’re not workaholics, we’re guilt-ridden.


            All this is by way of saying that when it was my turn to review a craft book, I thought: great. A legitimate distraction. I hadn’t looked at a craft book in quite a while. Sometimes I skim through one to jog something in my brain. Much of the time, when I refer back to one of several I was introduced to at Vermont College, they remind me of the textbooks I studied for finals in college: more highlighted sentences than un-highlighted. The thought of all those bright yellow pages still fills me with dread. 


            Anything would be better than that, I thought, so I looked around to see if maybe my office could use some straightening up. And there, buried beneath countless bits of paper on my cork bulletin board, written on the ragged piece of yellow lined paper I wrote it on years ago, was what have to be two of my all-time favorite inspirational writing quotes by one of the most elegant of writers and writing teachers, Wallace Stegner. In his book ON TEACHING AND WRITING FICTION, Stegner says:


                        “It begins in the senses, it is done with words, its end is communicated insight. And when it

               is truly successful the insight is communicated to the reader with a pang, a heightened

               awareness, a sharpening of feeling, a sense of personal exposure, danger, involvement,



                        That one, and:

                       “Learn to see straight; practice, with endless patience, “stating purely” what you find to say;

            and see it and state it with the aim of communicating not only its meaning but its quintessential

            emotion, the thing that made it important to you in the first place.”


             The thing that made it important to you in the first place.” Isn’t that what it’s all about?


               Something made every story we attempt to write “important to us in the first place.” Our job is to communicate that, not tell it. Getting in touch with our senses, stating it clearly, evoking a heightened awareness in the heart of a young reader that, here, at last, is someone who understands what they’re all about.


            When read at the opportune time, a craft book can state a thought so perfectly that it unlocks whatever door was closed to the story a writer is trying to tell. There are craft books you’ll read and appreciate merely for the nuts & bolts skills they present. At times, you may underline or highlight until a page is covered with marks. Then there are the craft books that’ll cause you to tear off a corner of a nearby newspaper or the bottom of a yellow-lined pad so you can quickly jot down a particular set of words that have just sent a chill down your spine.


            What it invariably comes down to – for me – when I’m failing to execute an idea to my satisfaction is that while I may understand the “how to,” I have failed to fully grasped and assimilate the “where from.”


            As Stegner said, “The job of a writer … is to create a world.” Tomorrow, I’ll pass along some other things he wrote in his very good book. I’d also like to talk about the “down side” of reading craft books based on a conversation I had, and continue to have, with a young woman I met in Oregon this summer who’s applying to an adult MFA program. (I know, I know …).

            Wallace Stegner to Rapunzel: Open the window and take a deep breath. It may be humid, but it’s still air.