‘Back to school’ reading about writing

In grade school, I felt like a prisoner most of the time, and I’ve chosen to homeschool my own two children. And yet… each fall, as the leaves turn, I still remember the excitement of new backpacks, pencils, erasers and glue, and the promise of new beginnings.

Maybe that’s why I went on a book-buying spree about two weeks ago, in search of writing craft inspiration. My shelves are loaded with craft books already, and for every good one there are five duds. But this time, I scored. Every book I bought has wowed me so much that I want to spread the word.

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber and The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts are both titles in a series by Graywolf Press that also includes examinations of syntax, subtext, and more. I was pleased by the highly focused nature of these books, allowing a different author to focus on a singular (“but often neglected”) literary issue — so much better than the books that aim to teach us, all over again, the basic definitions of plot or characterization, for example.

“Time draws the shape of stories,” begins Joan Silber in The Art of Time in Fiction, an extended essay of just over 100 pages. She looks at how authors depict time passing (and use time itself as subject), labeling some basic approaches “classic time,” “switchback time,” “slowed time,” and “fabulous time,” with examples from Flaubert, Alice Munro, Proust, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Having written one novel that covered 70+ years and a current novel-in-progress that takes place mostly over three days, I am obsessed by the topics of compression, transition, and all the ways one can handle time and memory. I finished Silber’s slim book wanting more, but that’s not a bad feeling, necessarily.

Anyway, I had Birkerts book to read next, and though I write fiction — not memoir — I found his analysis of how time is treated in memoir a perfect companion to Silber’s book. Birkerts looks not only at chronology — in particular, the blending of present and past perspectives and insights that is essential to memoir — but also at loose categories of memoir, with chapters on mother-daughter memoirs, father-son memoirs, trauma narratives, coming-of-age stories, and “paradises lost” (with some interesting distinctions on the lyrical writings of, say, Nabokov and Annie Dillard). By the end, I felt like Birkerts had showed me how to look beyond content to form in memoir, while prodding me with a list of great future reads. Having read two worthy books in this series, I feel ready to trust the series editor, Charles Baxter, with whatever Graywolf puts out next.

Alone With All That Could Happen by David Jauss was my third happy find. Each chapter is a stand-alone essay. Less focused than the Graywolf series, Jauss nonetheless manages to pinpoint fascinating issues, including the use of present tense in fiction (did you know that the publication of Updike’s Rabbit, Run in 1960 created a vogue for the present tense? I didn’t…), his own position on the use of epiphanies (instead of being “against them,” a fashionable position, Jauss shares less successful and more successful examples), “flow” as it is created by syntax, and more. Every one of these chapters is so good that I want to share them with members of my writers’ group and friends working on books of their own. Jauss comes across as a wise and caring teacher, less interesting in prescribing than describing, using examples from successful fiction rather than abstract thoughts about how fiction should (supposedly) be written. I still have two chapters to read and yet I feel like I’ve already gotten a semester worth of learning from this insightful and generous book.

I’ll return to my reading now, but if you have any of your own “back-to-school” favorites, feel free to share!

2 thoughts on “‘Back to school’ reading about writing”

  1. "Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose," by Constance Hale and "Spunk and Bite: A Writer's Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style," by Arthur Plotnik are two of my favorites — for their humor and lack of dog-ma.

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