Writers, like other artists, generally need help to develop and refine their craft. Various “schools” of writers have formed around particular styles or ideas and inspired one another through communicating comments and observations on each other’s work. The collaborations–some loose, some close–of such communities as the English romantics, the Bloomsbury group, the German Expressionists and many others produced a quality and kind of work that would have been impossible had the likes of Shelley or Woolf labored in isolation. At least since Aristotle, critics have responded with treatises analyzing what makes the best art work. Only lately, I believe, have these analysts begun producing their treatises not only as critiques but as self-help manuals, and apparently they’re selling. The industry will certainly publish anything that sells, and writers will write whatever they’re paid to, and who can blame them? God knows, we write reams for which no one pays us a cent. The question is, who’s buying?
It’s hard to imagine Hemingway or Joyce trotting down to Barnes and Noble for the latest edition of Janice Burroway so they’d be sure the final manuscript of Portrait of the Artist or For Whom the Bell Tolls gets polished to a luster. Yet, I think that of us aspiring scribblers do just that. We’re almost none of us Faulkners or Steinbecks nor were meant to be, but we all want to get as close as possible, so we seek the help of those who say they can light a candle in the dark cave of the creative gods and show us what lies in the psychic depths of the masters.
But surely we’re not numerous enough to explain the whole of this craze. Or maybe we are. A friend commenting on the miles of print-filled shelves in a Borders the other day asked “Am I the only one in the world who hasn’t written a book?” He was surprised when I told him that while more people may be writing than ever before, that writers’ conferences were springing up like toadstools, and that the creative writing MFA had become a veritable industry, it was getting harder and harder to get into print and that readers are a diminishing audience. Despite the plethora of shiny covers and full-page promotions in the The New York Times, publishers are becoming conglomerates, so that ten houses might in fact feed the balance sheet of only three companies. As size of the audience shrinks, the number of manuscripts grows. I guess we’ll all be reading each other before long.
Perhaps some people read craft books for entertainment, but it’s hard for me to imagine that as a life. Others perhaps look to them for authority as they plan their next opus, but that seems strange also. Should I give my character a dream? No, writer X warns against that. What about a murder? Uh-uh. Writer Y cautions about works that are too action-driven. Pretty soon there’s so much yellow tape strung around the scene you don’t dare set foot in your own creation. Perhaps craft books are a fad, like blackberries and ipods–seemingly useful and life-enriching, yet in reality devices for increasing speed and volume by which useless information circulates. Not to mention money.
Still, who am I to say that no good can come out of the prodigious labors of so many bright and skillful minds? But I feel queasy about using them. If I were a real writer, I wouldn’t, shouldn’t have the need. I could just show my manuscript to John Keats or perhaps Maxwell Perkins, who would make a few trenchant suggestions, and I’d be off to the presses. Romantic, delusional, self-destructive? Or maybe testosterone poisoning akin to the reluctance to ask for directions?
Most of the books use illustrations from high-quality writers. Nothing wrong with that. But the illustrations seldom apply specifically to my manuscripts, my characters, in the situations I’ve created. And too many of the authors love useless taxonomies, never better satirized than by Shakespeare in the words he gives Polonius trying to describe the work of the traveling players–tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical. Or they make up silly rules such as the ones I alluded to earlier. Or they carry good principles to absurd lengths. Aristotle proposed a theory of dramatic unities based on his look at Oedipus Rex. Some centuries later, scholars were arguing whether the day he spoke of should be twelve hours or twenty-four hours long. In the meantime, artists kept writing delightful stuff that paid little or no attention to the scholars. And that’s what I intend to do. With a little occasional help from:
Writing Fiction–Janice Burroway
Finding Your Voice–Les Edgerton
Revision–David Michael Kaplan
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop–Stephen Koch