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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Details of the Writer’s Craft, or, A Call to Duty

Joseph Conrad said his duty to readers was, “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel… before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything.” John Gardner claimed it was a writer’s duty to make stories that had positive endings (“moral fiction”). While Flaubert was a perfectionist writer who wanted to write “harmonious sentences, avoiding assonances.” Think what you will on each of these writers, good or bad, but understand that their influence on story and writing spawned legions of new writers. Think what you will, and understand that each had his champions and detractors.

Craft and story-invention are the writer’s essential tools to create lasting characters and the “plots” through which they live out a portion of their lives — beginning, middle, or end. Yet how every writer carves out his own craft “style” and story invention “approach” are about as unique as the fingerprint. Not so the finished story, however. This is because story has its essential needs: character, setting, action, dialogue.

As a reader I’ve always demanded the writer give me his view of the world, for better or worse. I don’t want to add my details, or in fact do the writer’s job by having to add the details or “sights” of people, place, characterization &etc that are supposed to be his focus. I recently began “How the Dead Live” by Will Self and fired that book after 28 pages because (1) I didn’t know where the fuck I was, (2) what time of day or night it was, (3) who was speaking to whom, (4) or any semblance of characterization other than a stream of dialogue shot back & forth like urban warfare (for what it’s worth, I’m not sure Will Self did either; however I do hope he had something of story in mind). That sort of writing/story is a mash, to me. And yet he is widely popular. I don’t get it, given that readers today are as distracted as they are. You’d think people would want a fictional world that is specific and detailed as much as jolting from their little world in which they live day by day.

Details and specificity are part of the craft of being a writer, as I’ve understood it and have seen it done by those whom I’ve read and will extol (Tolstoy and Flaubert, Joyce & Woolf, Fitz & Hem, Bellow & Faulkner, Roth & Atwood & Rush & Theroux & Murdoch & Ford &etc) — they all give me that complete world. It’s an all-at-onceness act, that gives us the visual-imaginative experience. Without the details (and this is the writer’s main task: which to include and which to leave out) the story is simply an internalized hash of “talking” between the character and the writer or the narrator and himself.

Likewise, a writer’s job is to give the reader the view of a world in which he sees it, not how I might see it or a fourth or fifth party. I understand that you (and everyone else) has a specific sight and understanding of a bag lady. But then there is this bag lady that I have imagined and present. This is a specific bag lady that you have not seen, or have not taken the time to notice among all the bag ladies you’ve watched. Who among us focuses on bag ladies anyway? And when we do, what do we see? Do we ask the questions that the narrator asks?

And finally a word on Criticism: Criticism is as ephemeral as stories themselves. Should I listen to the negatives, the positives, make stories the way “they” would like stories, or employ the techniques of the major authors (and major prize/award winners)? It’s not even a toss-up Q/A, because I’ve always been drawn to story that gives it all to me, not minimalistically or with opaque veils of talking maelstroms from the writer’s mind.

These are short thoughts on a grand subject — more a philosophy, I suppose, than a methodology. However, from philosophy we make method to do as is needed. This is true for all the arts.

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