Thursday, May 17, 2012


Creative Writing

Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed - Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, an autobiography, notes that early in her career she applied for and received a fiction writing fellowship at an artists’ colony in Cape Cod. On a windy, cold March day she went to have a look and reached conclusions about what she called the transcendentalist New England culture of ‘creative writing’ and asked herself why it would be good for her to read short stories by short-story writers who didn’t seem to be read by anyone but embryonic short-story writers?

She found it a puritanical culture embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of ‘craft’. This didn’t appeal to her because she believed writing was the means to deal with the human condition, to search for meaning, to celebrate the never-ending fascination of human interaction.

Craft said nothing about this. Instead it focussed on the negatives: show don’t tell, murder your darlings, exorcise the passive voice, omit needless words etc. It was a culture of the negative paired with the challenge of using active, brisk verbs and vivid nouns.

I don’t agree with all she said because in any discipline you have to learn the basics, the ‘how’, before you can move on to deal effectively with large topics. In painting when you want to learn how to manipulate a medium it is not helpful to have an instructor tell you to express yourself because you don’t have the technical ability to do that. So too with writing. It’s true that emphasizing the negatives, may seem a joyless approach but how do you show or tell the aspiring writer how to choose the perfect word.

Despite the fact that I didn’t totally agree with her the following paragraph in which she deals with modern short stories amused me.

“The first sentences were crammed with so many specificities, exceptions, subverted expectations, and minor collisions that one half expected to learn they were acrostics, or had been written without using the letter ‘e’. They all began in medias res. Often, they answered the “five W’s and one H.””

Certainly, in mystery writing we are exhorted to grab the reader’s attention as quickly as possible but perhaps we overdo it?

Batuman goes on to attack the use of proper names in modern stories. As she says, ‘they come flying at you as if out of a tennis machine.’ “Each name betrayed a secret calculation, a weighing of plausibility against precision”. She gives examples and then discusses the fact that Tolstoy often used the same name for two characters in the same book or that Chekhov’s characters often had no names at all.

Speaking for myself, and who else can you speak for, I found the how-to books, and the summer as well as the year-long program at Humber immensely useful but perhaps this was because I aspired to write mysteries not literary fiction. I do recognize the validity of her comments and they made me think about rules and writing and the unwillingness of some writing teachers to concede that there is so much more to writing than following rules.

How important are the rules that circumscribe our writing? Does knowing the rules give you license to break them?

A member of the Ladies Killing Circle, Joan Boswell co-edited four of their short story anthologies: Fit to Die, Bone Dance, Boomers Go Bad and Going Out With a Bang. Her three mysteries, Cut Off His Tale, Cut to the Quick and, Cut and Run were published in 2005, 2007 and 2007. The latest in the series, Cut to the Bone, will be published by Dundurn in November. In 2000 she won the $10,000 Toronto Star’s short story contest. Joan lives in Toronto with three flat-coated retrievers.

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