I rather liked the eclectic material in Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times and its sequel; many of the short essays didn’t impart, but they fascinated because of the range of their concerns and how appropriately well written they were, whether about people who always ask authors where they get their ideas, or what kind of typewriter/computer/paper/pen they use, or the importance of avoiding cliché. The subjects stay with me even when I haven’t read the novels of the authors writing, and the collections stay with me because they’re often enough correct in their descriptions of problems if not always their conclusions that they made me evaluate writing anew. Yes, some specimens had apparently either been written for the money or because the author had nothing else to say, but at eight hundred or so words each they were easy enough to skip. Word limits also have the benefit of forcing the author to be concise, logorrhea being an occupational hazard for many.
Given that, I went into The Writer’s Notebook with sympathy in mind. Its contents have the benefits and drawbacks of length: Matthea Harvey’s “Mercurial Worlds of the Mind” is clever, but a sharp editor might have cut the section on what 2-D versus 3-D means. Her opening metaphor is clever but overly broad: “Trying to write about imaginary worlds is like breaking a thermometer in a classroom, then trying to collect the little balls of mercury that go shooting off under the desks, down the hallways.” Maybe: but I don’t get the impression that’s how Tolkien felt as he invented Middle-earth, as the myths of Lord of the Rings feel built and layered, rather than chased down. In my own world-building efforts, I don’t at all feel like I’m chasing mercury.
Despite the first sentence, Harvey’s essay works. Someone must have told many of these writers that you have to start with a bang even if its decibel level doesn’t correspond to accuracy. For example, Tom Grimes’ “There will be no Stories in Heaven” is about how fiction uses time, but his lead says, “To me, we read and write stories for a simple reason: we all die.” Good thing his first two words qualify all of what follows! Despite the off note at the beginning, his essay works, and so does Harvey’s; she shows that what one must do to build fantastic worlds is not so different from what one must do to build a “realistic” one. You need rules, size, and so forth; each of those subjects could be an essay unto themselves. When you’ve finished Harvey, Stanislaw Lem’s Microworld’s is the next logical step.
Elsewhere, Margot Livesey’s “Shakespeare for Writers” might be shallow for those who’ve read John Updike on the Bard, but it still examines Shakespeare from the structure standpoint much criticism leaves out by asking, for example, why so much of Shakespeare makes implausible leaps of character and plot yet gets away with it. As she writes:
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the drug-induced affections of the lovers seem, in depth and passion, very similar to their real feelings. Motivation is often left out and provided, or not, by the actors and, of course, by the readers and viewers.
Why? The audience doesn’t have to ask the question, but the writer must, and maybe the real lesson, for the writer that language excuses all else; Livesey quotes some of the many, many examples of where Shakespeare nails speeches through elaborate, figurative language. The idea of language excusing all else brings me back to Henry James, since I didn’t love Portrait of a Lady because its plot was empty even if its language was vacuous. Shakespeare’s plots usually charge like cavalry. But they don’t overturn feelings, and they don’t override each characters’ interiority. Livesey’s essay explains how, and if I could summarize it, I would.
The Writer’s Notebook continues a conversation about aesthetic form, meaning, and creation that’s lasted for centuries if not longer; they are a small effort to map an infinite space and discuss the fundamental choices writers must make: where to revise; whether one should organize a story around a “clock” or time period; how to use language; historical influence; and more. Some might not be finding new space so much as configuring what we already have. Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene” uses the terms “outfolding” and “infolding” to describe how a writer can primarily move forward by dialog and action or by interior thoughts, respectively, with Hemingway and Virginia Woolf as examples. The line isn’t perfectly clear, and the point about how things happen either within or outside a character has been made in various ways before, but I’d never seen it articulated so well.
Collectively, many essays from The Writer’s Notebook are also keeping an eye on one’s back, toward how history affects or should affect writers and how genre and literature aren’t as separate as they appear. None are so gauche as to come out and say either point, but it’s there, lurking beneath them, because for a writer, who cares if one is writing capital-L Literature? You’re always in pursuit of whatever works, and if works, maybe it is, or will become, Literature, which is fundamentally about stories, how we tell stories, and how we listen to them.