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Write it Like Tin House

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Every year Tin House, a literary journal and independent publishing house, coordinates a Summer Writer’s Workshop, a “weeklong intensive of workshops, seminars, panels, and readings.” Together with today’s most respected American authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, Tin House editors teach a small group the ins and outs of writing and publishing.

This year’s instructors include Steve Almond, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, Dana Spiotta, Jess Walter, Cheryl Strayed and D.A. Powell–a dream lineup if you love independent presses and literary imprints.

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House is a collection that stems from these yearly meetings; essays on character development, pace, editing, and other elements of storytelling offer those who can’t attend a glimpse inside the classroom walls.

Steve Almond explains good and bad sex writing; Kate Bernheimer discusses the four elements of fairy tales and “the reductive spectrum of mainstream and avant-garde writing;” Dorothy Allison describes “place” as it relates to “All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see;” and Chris Offutt talks about revising, a skill that “requires a cruel and ruthless objectivity” and, to him, is akin to performing “surgery on yourself without anesthesia.”

Instead of a “how-to” guide, The Writer’s Notebook is as Lee Montgomery, Associate Publisher and Editorial Director of Tin House Books and Executive Editor of the magazine, describes it in her introduction: “like intimate conversations, like a notebook.” She further explains:

I suppose there are those who find prescriptive advice about writing helpful, writers who can look at a project, identify a structure, use an outline, and get to writing One, two, threepoof! But I cannot imagine a world where this is true, a world where one creates great characters in five steps, a world in which one pops books out like laying eggs. In my world, writing is difficult and short cuts are few. The only real way to learn how to do it 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.

In his essay, “The Telling that Shows,” Peter Rock says:

I very rarely understand talking about writing or writing about writing as discourses that intersect with writing itself. I don’t believe that wisdom can be dispensed to writers in this way. How lovely if it were so, and how boring. Instead, I’m always hoping to provoke, to let writers weigh my assertions or learn from my mistakes.

It’s this philosophy–or honesty–that sets The Writer’s Notebook apart from all others on the writing reference shelf. Here are a few excerpts that resonated with me.

Rick Bass, “When to Keep it Simple”

In “When to Keep it Simple,” Rick Bass explains what to do “when you get too wrapped up in a lofty thought and you can’t quite make the ends of a sentence or paragraph hook back up”.

Try cleaning up the words and diction first … and if that doesn’t work, then begin breaking apart the truths, or purported truths, which are probably shrouded in windiness … Say it straight … as if in conversation … Lay that much-simpler and less-ambitious sentence down like a tiny placeholder.

Susan Bell, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”

Susan Bell’s essay, “Revisioning the Great Gatsby,” looks at the relationship between author and editor. While writing “The Artful Edit,” Bell read the biography of legendary editor Max Perkins, the man who worked with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe. She also reread The Great Gatsby, this time as a “tour de force of revision.”

She starts off, “Gatsby is what Michael Ondaatje called ‘that seemingly uncrossable gulf between an early draft of a book … and a finished product’–in other words, editing.”

The writer had gone far enough on his own with Gatsby and was ready for the latest editorial push–one he freely admitted he was incapable of envisioning alone … It helped to have an editor as astute and courtly as Perkins and who knew how to balance general commentary with specific suggestions. …

Many consider editing as either the correction of punctuation (copyediting) or the overhaul of a book such as Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. The editing of The Great Gatsby sits between these extremes–a testimony to a writer’s discipline to edit himself and his wisdom to let himself be edited by someone worthy: that is how he crossed the gulf.

Lucy Corin,“Material”

Generally, we are taught to value content over form, to have something to say and then “find a form for it” as if one part of what we produce is our stuff and the other is a suitcase we bought to put the stuff in. You find the form to “suit” your content, your material. This is not an unhelpful way to think about things, but it is not the only way.

Jim Krusoe, “Le Mot Incorrect”

According to Wikipedia, Gustave Flaubert “believed in, and pursued, the principle of finding ‘le mot juste’ (‘the right word’), which he considered the key [to achieving] quality in literary art.”

While Krusoe “understand[s] the great magnetism of ‘le mot juste,’” he says that there are advantages to using the wrong word:

Wrong words help us stray off the path, not by producing a new path, but by throwing us into the thicket … in writing, correctness not only stops the conversation between the writer and the reader, it also stops it between the writer and her or himself. To have no questions is to cease to explore. A poor piece with all the right words has nowhere to turn. Wrong words, however, put us into a different relationship with our sentences and our work.

Margot Livesey, “Shakespeare for Writers”

A more straightforward lesson to be learned from Shakespeare’s plots is the virtue of having subplots … a successful subplot is one that is interesting and compelling in its own right, resonates with the main plot appropriately, and intersects with it at the perfect moment.

I fear I can no longer avoid the most obvious and the most impossible lesson we can learn from Shakespeare: namely, what can be accomplished by the magnificent, melodious, rigorous, energetic, boisterous, vivid, inventive use of language.

The notion of a painter who isn’t interested in paint is baffling, but many writers (I exclude poets) don’t actually seem that interested in language. They are convinced that the interest of their work lies in characterization, plot, and theme. But the plays I’m discussing have survived, in large measure, due to the language Shakespeare invented and put in the mouths of his characters.

The Writer’s Notebook II is out this month and Tin House will be accepting applications for their 2013 workshop starting January 1st.

::[Links]::
Buy The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Buy The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House
Apply for the 2013 Workshop (applications accepted starting January 1, 2013)
Tin House Podcast: Listen to authors discuss writing
Tin House website

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Written by Gabrielle

November 6, 2012 at 6:07 am

2 Responses

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