the writer’s notebook

IMG_2027The Writer’s Notebook, with its title taken from the journals of Somerset Maugham, consists of 17 essays on the craft of writing. Some, but not all, are based on craft seminars given at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. I did not read them in order, but read the ones first that I thought might help me with a story I was working on called “Hidden Tracks.”

I’ve been working on this story off and on for years. The language is dream-like and more complicated than my normal writing. So the first essay that jumped off the Table of Contents was “When to Keep it Simple” by Rick Bass. “Your ideas can so easily become tangled in your words….begin breaking apart the truths…What is the one thing, the main thought, the simplest thought?” So I went through the story, breaking down sentences and deleting. Keep it simple, I told myself.


the front of my t-shirt from 2004

People who’ve read this story in workshops kept saying, Why would she do this? So the next essay I read was “Character Motivation” by Aimee Bender. “I don’t always know what a character wants. I know some things about the character, but to know what he or she wants feels like the final answer, why I’m writing in the first place.” When I began writing the story, I didn’t know where it was going, but after I wrote the ending, I knew. What I had neglected to do was then to go back and set up the beginning.

I also have to admit that this is a weird story, as in doesn’t exactly follow the rules of this world, also unusual for me. Readers complained they didn’t know how to read the story. So, I thought Kate Bernheimer’s essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” might be useful. In a fairy tale, she wrote, “The day to day is collapsed with the wondrous.” The trick, it came to me while I was reading, was to somehow signal the reader that they were reading a sort of fairy tale where the rules would be different.


the awesome back of my t-shirt from 2004

In “Performing Surgery Without Anesthesia,” Chris Offutt wrote, “I have one story with drafts that run back eighteen years–but it’s getting better.” Well, that certainly made me feel better about having such a hard time with my weird story.

I put off Susan Bell’s “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” because well, I loved The Great Gatsby, but what does that have to do with my writing in general or this story in particular. Wrong. Best essay of the bunch. Listen. “Although Gatsby needed to be enigmatic, his mysteriousness had to suggest something precise behind it, and Fitzgerald had to figure out what that was.”

This was the problem with my story. I was leaving it up to the reader to figure out something that I myself had not yet figured out. Which was precisely why the readers couldn’t figure it out. Well, I took my story, and I took a stand. I took hold of it, and we’ll see. I just sent it out to my writing group for yet another critique.

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11 thoughts on “the writer’s notebook

  1. Looks like a book I’ll have to pick up. And I love the way you introduced it in stages by referencing your own work. I can’t wait to read your story.


  2. I agree with Barb about how you used excerpts from the book. I’ll have to read this one. You’ve already given me some things to think about in my own failed stories.


  3. Barb-I did find The Writer’s Notebook to be very user friendly. I got something out of almost every essay. I love this from Dorothy Allison’s chapter on place: “For a year I took a picture of every motel I stayed in.” That’s place.

    -Failed story?
    –Who is she calling a failed story?
    -She hasn’t even tried to throw us away yet.
    –Even if she did, it wouldn’t work.
    -That’s right. We’d rise like the smoke of a genie and circle her head until she wrote us out again.

    Jennifer-It is exciting when something I read enables me to look at something I’ve written in a new way. I’m not going to the conference this year because I went to Sirenland in the spring. BTW, I have links to all the conferences I’ve attended on the Links page.

    Almost forgot to mention that the book comes with a CD of two panels from the workshop so that you can hear the voices of Dorothy Allison, Denis Johnson, Ron Carlson and others as they talk about craft issues.


  4. Sounds like a great resource. I’ll have to pick it up.

    Linda, perhaps they are stuck stories rather than failed stories. I have some of those that would benefit from reading this book as well.


  5. Oh, yes, Cristina, “stuck stories” is much better. Shorter and more to the point than the little dialogue I overheard between Linda’s stuck stories.

    Linda, please report back to let us know if the writer’s notebook is useful to you too. I hope so.


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