"Much more entertaining is The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House, which is a pretty fair summary of where actual writing instruction is at these days. Most of the essays originated in writing workshops run by the literary magazine Tin House, and they include advice on sex writing by Steve Almond, on what you can learn from Shakespeare by Margot Livesey, and on revision by Chris Offutt, who compares the process to 'draining the kitchen sink and seeing what’s in there, which is usually a mess.'"Charles McGrath, The New York Times
"We get all manner of books on writing around here and they tend to blend together but the offerings from Tin House always stand out. They've just published The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, which includes terrifically useful essays from the likes of Dorothy Allison, Rick Bass, Aimee Bender, Jim Krusoe, Antonya Nelson and Jim Shepard." The Elegant Variation
"Tin House is an outstanding literary journal that publishes some of today's finest contemporary writing...delightful...beautifully written...thoughtful...outstanding..."Chuck Leddy, The Writer Magazine
"The essays within The Writer's Notebook each offer a fresh perspective on various aspects of the writing craft...features an eclectic list of top shelf contributions each bound together by a pragmatic approach to teaching the craft of writing... If you can't actually attend the workshops, this is probably your next best bet." Mark Flanagan, About.com
"Brilliant stuff, and not at all the hackneyed tired advice you find in so many writing books." Bookfox.com
"What’s fabulous is we know of these writers, and here we get to know them better through their lectures and essays. With them, we explore the love/hate relationship a writer has with the mind, the words, the pen, and the reader."Helen Gallagher, Opensalon.com
"These essays can be read for the illumination into the craft of writing, whether you are a reader or a writer." Mary Jo Anderson, The Chronicle Herald
"As importantly, almost any subject is good reading in the hands of a talented writer. And believe me...these are fine writers." Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News
"There is enough variety that you are sure to find several kindred souls. The Tin House editors do a great job of gathering an eccentric mix of talented writers and essay subjects."
Lincoln Michel, The Faster Times
"The essays are a fascinating look at the writing process by an eclectic group of writers...covering enough ground to offer something of interest to anyone fascinates by the process of writing...I found the discussions both illuminating and inspiring and I recommend the book to anyone interested in writing."Blogcritics.org
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.