TEXT review

Inventive essays on writing

review by Sue Bond



The Editors of Tin House Books
The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House
Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon 2009
ISBN 9780979419812
Pb 264pp USD18.95


Tin House began as a literary magazine in the United States in 1999, venturing into publishing books three years later, and now also hosts annual writers’ workshops in Portland, Oregon. According to the brief introduction by Lee Montgomery, it is from these workshops that this book originated, and it is a stimulating and provocative collection.

Not all of the contributing writers were familiar to me, but all of the seventeen essays are worth reading, with several being exceptionally useful, both to writers and teachers of writing, who will garner ideas aplenty. The topics discussed are place, sex, simplicity, editing (using The Great Gatsby’s evolution as an example), character motivation, fairy tales, material, time, imaginary worlds, scene-making, Shakespeare, revision, poetry, telling versus showing, and empathy. And two essays that are difficult to describe in one word: ‘Let Mot Incorrect’ by Jim Crusoe, which is about getting to the ‘right word’ through many wrong ones, and ‘Lost in the Woods’ by Antonya Nelson, a rather beautiful dissertation on lostness in story, the characters’ search for each other, loneliness and aloneness.

There are dozens and dozens of books on writing, and they can be categorised into the following: inspirational texts that discuss what it means to be a writer and to have a ‘writing life’, practical ‘how-to’ books that often have exercises, and books that deal with the business of writing and earning a living from it. This book is mainly a how-to but with a strong intellectual edge and no exercises, and it is inspiring because of its energy and inventiveness. It would sit well with other writing texts by such authors as Annie Dillard, Mark Tredinnick, Anne Lamott and Betsy Lerner.

The first essay is by Dorothy Allison, and simply called ‘Place’. It is arresting and full-blooded and persuasively written, starting the collection with a knockout blow. She insists on the importance of place, makes you believe it is integral to a good story, and uses examples with language so alive you will not forget her exhortations. ‘Place is feeling’, she writes, ‘and feeling is something a character expresses’ (8). Her essay is full of richly expressed emotion itself.

Steve Almond writes amusingly about writing about sex, a notoriously difficult task. But he manages to quickly and simply dispel this terror by suggesting the writer write the worst sex scene imaginable, thereby taking away ‘the pressure for the sex to be good’ so that ‘it frees you up to write about what really matters, which is the way sex reveals character’ (20).

The next particularly startling essay is by Lucy Corin, a novelist and Associate Professor in English at the University of California. In ‘Material’, she presents the idea of looking at how your writing appears on the page, arguing that form and content are equally important. She likes to think of alternative ways of creating story, and ‘making something’ (75) is how she thought of her writing when she was a beginner. She believes a writer can ‘look at the material you produce to find your material’ (77), sort of treating words as play dough and examining the shape of the story on the page to find out what type of story it is. She illustrates her argument by drawing pages of well known text using lines on a piece of paper. By using such examples as Beckett’s Molloy and Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’, she compares the rich denseness of the former with the airiness of the latter. She also discusses the shape of, and motifs in, Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’. As a way of thinking anew about writing, and generating more and better stories, this is an original method.

Tom Grimes writes ‘There Will Be No Stories in Heaven’, a piece about time, specifically how, because it is limited and we are all going to die, story exists. Without it, there is no story because it needs – we need – limits and boundaries:

For writers, our stories are amorphous until we discover how time controls them. Every great story contains a “clock”, an intrinsic timekeeper. Lacking this, a story could go on forever. Yet, no matter how great a story is, we long for it to end. Endings offer us solace, and time, not infinity, delivers it. Time organizes, advances, and limits a story, thereby satisfying the reader’s craving for narrative coherence and closure. (94)

He uses the examples of The Great Gatsby and the stories of writers such as Alice Munro and John Cheever to illustrate different and inventive uses of time.

There are many other jewels within this book that will benefit most writers. Jim Shephard states boldly in his essay (‘Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact’) that ‘The whole project of literature is about the exercise of the empathetic imagination’ (243). It takes us out of ourselves and puts us in the place of others, takes us to other worlds and times. Chris Offutt writes about the revision process, giving a blueprint for how he goes about writing drafts of a story. ‘There are no shortcuts in art’ (210) he advises, and in order to ‘serve the story’, the writer must never give in to laziness or the easy way out. When he writes ‘To me, the final product is like an iceberg: you only see ten percent of the actual work, but that other ninety percent is still there’ (210), it may sound like a cliché, but it’s an apt description of the process of carving out a story.

I unreservedly recommend this book to writers for its innovative and imaginative suggestions from an obviously accomplished and fearless group of writers. Beginners will be infused with the wonder, beauty and challenge of prose and poetry creation; those more experienced will be glad of new ideas to hone their skills.



Sue Bond is a freelance writer and reviewer for several publications, a former book reviews editor for M/C Reviews: Culture and the Media, and is currently studying editing and publishing at the University of Queensland.


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Vol 16 No 1 April 2012
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Enza Gandolfo