A great book on craft

Another book I’m considering for my advanced fiction course this fall is Debra Spark’s Curious Attractions, another book connected to the Warren Wilson MFA Program. She’s hitting on a lot of issues I’ve been thinking about lately (and that she had thought of a decade before me; the book was published in 2005) like the goofy but earnest question of where our stories come from, how we work to develop our voice and style, the question of what makes a happy or unhappy story, and how to make a story emotional without falling into sentimentality or melodrama or ironic coolness or feeling like an ass. She says of this last issue in the essay “Cry, Cry, Cry: Handling Emotion in Fiction”:

“Artists need to be true to their intentions. But whatever their intentions are, they also need to be emotionally honest. In part, this simply means that they need to depict their characters’ emotional lives accurately. Without an explanation of some sort, we won’t for instance, accept a character’s joy at the untimely death of a child. As a writer, you must have a sense of how people are and then depict it. You must feel truly and then find an appropriate container for your emotions. This doesn’t sound so complicated, but it turns out there are lots of ways to be emotional dishonest as a writer, to slight what you know to be true about people, because you’re trying so hard to write a good story. Sentimentality and coldness are falsehoods, two extremes of dishonesty. Sentimentality gives a moment more than it has earned, coldness less. But there’s plenty of middle ground as well. When it comes to emotion, you can be imprecise, inauthentic, and manipulative . . . all without really trying. Writing is difficult, and a little dishonesty makes it easier. Say not quite what you mean, or genuinely believe to be true, and you’ll be able to finish your paragraph. Get your exact thought down, and you may have to wait and wait for your brain to make a connection; for your imagination to come up with the right word, image, or idea. Your inexact thought won’t produce as good a book, but it will come faster. Reason #322 that writing sucks.”

The more I read of this book, the more I like it. A lot of the essays seem to grapple with this idea of being honest to who we are as writers and to not be embarrassed by what we write, worrying if it’s too this or too that. When I first started writing I think I spent some time hand-wringing that I was writing only boring, Midwestern characters and I tried to overcome this by a) writing about what I thought were New Yorker types, ie, based on every stereotype I’d ever seen in the movies and b) not giving the Midwesterners their due and instead turning them into the hicks I thought readers expected. It was my way — wink, wink — of saying to people I thought were cooler than me that I was in on the joke. Joke was on me. When I started seeing my characters for who they were — not emotionally-stunted rural folk but stoic people who grappled with emotions in a different, but no less emotional, way — I got some where.

I think this book is helpful from a craft stand point and also as a way to deal with some of the more philosophical issues behind writing itself. I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any Spark’s fiction yet, but after this book of essays, I’m putting her at the top of my list.

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