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Book Review: The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House by Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, et al

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The Writer’s Notebook is a collection of essays on writing from the book publishing branch of Tin House, which also puts out a well regarded literary journal featuring many of today’s promising contemporary writers. And every summer since 2003, Tin House has put together a writer’s workshop at Reed College in Portland, Oregon featuring many of those writers. This collection of essays mostly comes from those workshops, though a few were written explicitly for the book or taken from lectures delivered elsewhere. Whatever their origin, the essays are a fascinating look at the writing process by an eclectic group of writers, with topics ranging from narrative theory to how to write sex scenes. If you are looking for an explicit “how to” manual which explains where you need to be in the plot by page five, this is not the book for you. But if you find it exciting to dip into the thoughts of writers grappling with the questions that arise from trying to bring a narrative to life, you will love this collection.

Lee Montgomery in the forward to the book lays out the premise: “The only real way to learn how to [write] is to read the work of authors who write well and to, well, write — a lot. Along the way, of course, it is always helpful — and interesting — to talk or listen to writers discuss their process and the work of other writers.” The Writer’s Notebook is meant to help with the discussion aspect for those not lucky enough to attend a workshop like Tin House’s summer Oregon retreat. The line up of authors is wonderful, with 17 different essays covering enough ground to offer something of interest to anyone fascinated by the process of writing.

Dorothy Allison writes about the definition of place, Steve Almond gives advice on writing sex scenes, Margot Livesey explains what Shakespeare teaches writers, Jim Shepard talks about writing fiction from history, and the list goes on. The tone of the essays ranges from conversational to somewhat academic, but all are beautifully written and together they give an insight into the current methods of teaching writing in workshops.

For example, Lucy Corin in “Material,” argues that “when form works, it is indistinguishable from content. Your material is your material.” She gives as an example Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which she contrasts with J.M. Coatzee’s Waiting For The Barbarians. Corin notes that McCarthy’s paragraphs are similar in shape to Coatzee’s, “but the size and the texture of the sentences and the words are less varied than they are in Coatzee’s work, and that makes the atmosphere much more stark, the rhythms more overt, more about repetition, the sense of day in, day out, in the skeletal landscape in which this novel is set.” From this critical look at writing patterns, the author then gives some practical advice on how to examine the structure of your own pieces, and this combination is typical of the essays, which I found a really useful approach.

In addition to the essays, the book also includes an audio CD with two discussions by writers on specific aspects of writing. The first panel is titled “Using Real Life in Fiction and Vice Versa,” with Sally Tisdale, Anthony Swofford, Chris Offutt, Charles D’Ambrosio and Scott Anderson. The second, “Crafting Character,” features Denis Johnson, Ron Carlson and Dorothy Allison. Both discussions are freewheeling exchanges of ideas and craft, without reaching any definitive conclusions. In the book and the CD, the discussion is the point. I found the discussions both illuminating and inspiring and I recommend the book to anyone interested in writing.

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About Gerry Weaver

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/a-geek-girl/ A Geek Girl

    Ooooh. I want this one. Sounds awesome.

  • Gerry

    Thanks to both of you for dropping by and commenting! The book is a great read, though it’s dense enough you need to give yourself time to get through it. It’s not a sit down and read through in one sitting type of book.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Gerry, I know the next book I’m going to read thanks to you. It sounds great. Thanks.

  • http://lucentdusk.com Gargantua

    It sounds like a book I would want to read in chunks. Read a chapter, think about it a bit, go do some writing – and then rinse and repeat. Thanks for this.

  • Gerry

    Gargantua, that is a great strategy for this book. Some chapters can be read through relatively quickly, others are quite dense and need some digesting. It’s not a quick read, but it’s worthwhile. I passed it along to my writing group and everyone tried to pounce on it at once.