Now and then I check The Believer site to see if they’ve put Charles Baxter’s article “Loss of Face” online yet. Apparently, it’s about how the “modern face” is “woefully underrepresented in contemporary fiction” and I am dying to read it. (Not literally dying, though. No way am I driving an hour on icy roads to pick up a copy of the magazine.) I’m intrigued by this article because a) I happen to like the fact that most fiction doesn’t contain detailed descriptions of its characters’ faces. In real life we live in a tyranny of the face — faces matter way too much and even when we want to, it’s difficult to see past them. A face can be like a wall. The general facelessness in fiction relieves us of that barrier. A fixation on faces seems to me somehow silly, similar to a brief obsession I had as a child, which was why didn’t Nancy Drew ever go to the bathroom?
And b) I admire Charles Baxter — his essay “Against Epiphanies” is one of the wisest pieces about short fiction I’ve ever read. Maybe he’ll change my mind about the face thing. So I keep checking the site in the vain hope his article will appear.
Anyway, when I was visiting the site yesterday, I happened to spend a little time meandering around in Tom Bissell’s article about how-to-write books. Tom Bissell is quite the wanderer. I like that about him. And I hate to admit it, but I own a good number of the books he mentions in the piece. (I hide them in the back of my coat closet, as if they were pornography.) Here are some snippets of Bissell’s text, like snapshots of the view along the way or something.
On Strunk and White and the New Yorker style:
There are several types of how-to-write books. The first is the rigorous handbook-style guide that does not concern itself with creating interesting characters or crafting exciting scenes. Rather, it concentrates on how to write a decent sentence that means what one intends it to mean: a Userâ€™s Manual to the English language. The most famous is William Strunk Jr. and E. B. Whiteâ€™s The Elements of Style. If one wishes to write New Yorker-style prose, this is the book to read. Of course, the New Yorker style is a fine style with which it is eminently worth getting acquainted, but it is not the only style. Nor is it, in every case, even the most preferable style. One truly interesting thing about the New Yorker style is that it can serve both as a hiding place for mediocrity and as the lacquered display table for masters rightfully confident in their powers. Used well, the New Yorker style is what one imagines the style of God might be, if there were any indication that God spoke English. Used poorly, the New Yorker style is all gutless understatement, decorous to a FabergÃ© extreme.
On “historico-romance novelist” Anne Perry’s foreword to Donald Maassâ€™s Writing the Breakout Novel:
“Put yourself on the page and all that you think and feel about life, but do it with discipline; do it with skill. Then the good agents and the good publishers will get your work into the hands of the good readers.” And then the good fairies and elves will approach your front door carrying bags of gold, and the leprechauns will come, and the gnomes, and the friendly talking monkeys will sing, oh sing! outside your window!
On Maass’s advice about how to create complex supporting characters:
But can one learn how to keep readers turning pages? Can one learn some magical method of “Building a Cast” of supporting characters, as one of Maassâ€™s subchapters is headed? “Needless to say,” Maass writes, “the more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.” One can almost hear the scribbly note-taking accompanying that insight. Maass is not wrong; it is needless to say. But seeking to provide writers with some surefire method of injecting complexity into secondary characters seems a sloggy concern more along the lines of a DePalma than a Dos Passos. How would one do this, if not intuitivelyâ€”if not naturally? Well, let us try. Say I have just created a secondary character named Jake. Jake works at a zoo. He is overweight, conscious of his body, and has no girlfriend. Okay. Complexity now. He was once kicked in the face. By a zebra. That Jake, he hates zebras. This is pointless, of course.
On Anne Lamott:
Of well-known how-to-write books by established authors, Anne Lamottâ€™s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is, despite her healingly mild approach, the most fun to read. The title comes from a story out of Lamottâ€™s childhood. Her brother, overwhelmed by a grade-school writing project on birds, despaired of his ability to finish it. Lamottâ€™s father put his arm around the boy and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Perhaps one feels a small temptation to snigger at this adviceâ€”how easily it is imagined upon a crocheted pillowâ€”but this temptation should be fought, for a simple reason: like much of what is found on crocheted pillows, it is memorable and quietly true.
Note to self: crochet the words “like much of what is found on crocheted pillows…” oh wait. You can’t crochet words onto a pillow. Embroider the words “like much of what is found embroidered pillows, it is memorable and quietly true” on an embroidered pillow.
There’s a helpful Richard Rhodes quote:
“If youâ€™re afraid of what other people will think of your efforts, donâ€™t show them until you write your way beyond fear. If writing a book is impossible, write a chapter. If writing a chapter is impossible, write a page. If writing a page is impossible, write a paragraph. If writing a paragraph is impossible, write a sentence.”
Yes, and if writing a sentence is impossible, write a letter. If writing a letter is impossible, make a short telephone call. Maybe wait until you know the recipient will be out. That way you can just leave a message.
It is the delusions endemic to bad writers and bad writing that need to be destroyed. Here are a few: Writing well will get you girls, or boys, or both. Writing well will make you happy. Fame and wealth are good writingâ€™s expected rewards. Writing for a living is somehow nobler than what most people do. What needs to be reinforced is the idea that good writingâ€”solid, honest, entertaining, beautiful good writingâ€”is simultaneously the reward, the challenge, and the goal.
Now that’s good stuff. (I should warn you. If you intend to read the entire piece, you’ll need a glossary. Here’s a start: anÂ·iÂ·madÂ·vert, bullÂ·shitÂ·lessÂ·ness, inÂ·cuÂ·nabÂ·uÂ·lum.)