I AM SITTING on the stage at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. It’s the first stop of my tour for a novel (my novel!) that hit the shelves this morning. Next to me is Dennis Lehane — the Dennis Lehane — author of Mystic River, Shutter Island, and Gone, Baby, Gone. He has generously flown across the country to appear here with me, having chosen Visitation Street for his imprint at HarperCollins. Lehane is the most famous (and best-sellingist) writer I have ever met: I’m so awed by his appearance at my side that I haven’t given a thought to the conversation we are about to have. In fact, beyond counting down the last 60 days before my pub date, I haven’t given a lot of thought to my book at all — I don’t mean the physical book itself, the product I’ve created, but the writing of it. All that is squarely in the past, lost in the shuffle of prepublication reviews, marketing campaigns, and the buzz of social media.
Lehane lobs a few softballs at me and I’m worried that his questions sound a lot smarter than my answers. Then we turn it over to the audience. Their questions have a similar thrust: How did you create these characters? How did you evoke a sense of place? How did you? How did you? How did you?
The truth is, I struck out with only the vaguest idea: I’d write a book about Red Hook, the Brooklyn neighborhood where I’d lived for three years. I didn’t think. I didn’t plan. I just wrote and rewrote until I was finished. In other words, I was foolishly overconfident and somehow it worked out.
On stage, I hem and haw. I tell the audience that many of the characters are inspired by people I know. I talk about how I grew up in Brooklyn, and that the sights, sounds, and smells of the borough are second nature to me. I explain that when I write, I start with the place and then find my plot. Funny, Lehane says, this is exactly how he begins a book, too. “I’ll be 200 pages in before I know where I’m going,” he tells the audience. “Then I throw those pages out.”
Bullshit, I want to tell him. You’ve written 1o books, many of which have intricate plotlines. Instead I say, “Still, you must have a plan, right?” But he holds firm. I’m astounded. I know from experience that this is not a comfortable approach, this plowing in the dark in search of a story. It requires the sort of confidence that over the next six weeks will begin to ebb away from me.
From this point on, at every bookstore I visit and in every interview I do, I will be asked hundreds of questions about my intention, my inspiration, my “process.” And soon something that was instinctual and exciting, not to mention remarkably satisfying, will be broken into so many pieces that I’m not sure that I’ll be able to assemble it again.
I had been warned that it would be impossible to write in the middle of a book tour. But these warnings seemed to stem from the idea that I’d be too busy or, let’s face it, too tired or hungover to be able to work. But the real reason I can’t write is that I’m being forced to dissect and debunk my own writing habit on a daily basis, ascribe reason and intention to something that is initially summoned from some unreasonable and intentionless place. During my free moments, I sit in front of my computer with a new idea — what had seemed like a good idea — charged by the most recent audience to create vivid characters, and all I can do is think, “Now how the hell does someone do that?”
This happened to me once before, when I was a pro squash player — the career I pursued before I became a writer. Shortly after I joined the women’s world squash tour my backhand began to break down. It was a slow erosion brought on by an article that predicted a promising career for me if I could fix my weak backhand. Until then, I hadn’t noticed anything particularly wrong with my stroke. Sure, it wasn’t as strong as my forehand, but this imbalance isn’t uncommon, especially with lefties.
For several years, my backhand grew increasingly worse in tandem with my disintegrating belief that I could actually hit the ball on that side of the court. I moved from coach to coach, painstakingly breaking the action down into its component parts: racket back, turn hip, pivot foot, drop racket head, lead with the elbow, reach out, transfer weight, follow through. Soon my backhand became a series of unrelated movements out of sync with one another, all equally impossible for me to execute. I was no longer swinging freely, but chopping at the ball, caught up in the minutiae of mechanics instead of the graceful mystery of the stroke.
There are things you can teach on the squash court (proper technique is one of them) and things you can’t — for instance, grace, flair, creativity, and the instinct that brings these gifts to your game. As I struggled to reconstruct my backhand, it became clear that I’d suffocated the intuition that links the mechanics and creates a fluency out of all the composite parts.
My father has always championed both my athletic and literary endeavors. But he is a man who learned to ride a horse by reading a book. In fact, he says he can do almost anything by reading an instruction manual, and so he has: from electrical wiring and plumbing to Japanese garden design. When I was in high school, he would drive me from Brooklyn to Westchester for a weekly squash lesson and sit behind the court taking notes, which he later assembled into a booklet for me to tuck into my squash bag. Despite my father’s best efforts (and much to his surprise), I was unable to take my coach’s advice when it was made two-dimensional, the action of the stroke transformed into words and rules. It felt as if someone had substituted the description of a painting for the work of art itself.
Later on, when I wandered into an athletic-mental wilderness, he started sending me books on sports psychology, believing that I would be able to read my way out of my doubt and misery. But these books rarely helped: in fact, they usually did more damage than good by directly feeding into my pathology.
And when I hit an impasse with my novel, he sent me books on the craft of fiction. These made more sense to me because I could literally visualize the application of what I was reading to the material I was struggling to write. I could see — and I mean see, not simply understand — why one sentence or approach worked and another didn’t. The best books in my shelves — Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, and Bret Anthony Johnston’s Naming the World — manage to discuss and deconstruct craft in ways that don’t swamp the struggling writer with overly stringent rules and regulations. Instead they present a flexible analysis of method while leaving room for the madness of inspiration. Like good athletic coaches, Bauer, Gardner, and Johnston insist that certain skills, like a perfect stroke or proper footwork, can be mastered, and once mastered will assure the writer of her abilities. But the goal of technique is for effort to appear effortless, and for craft to disappear into story. A reader of fiction does not want to be reminded of the writer’s presence, or distracted from the narrative by the hand that shaped it. Like good squash players, whose grace and comfort on the court masks the difficulty of their endeavor, good writers of fiction trick the reader with the ease of their prose.
The success of these books is in their authors’ intelligent demystification of craft by separating it into component parts: dialogue, plot, character, setting. Each contends that while there are no “aesthetic absolutes” (Gardner), there are skills that can be studied, ingrained, and perfected. (In other words, technique can be learned even if talent can’t.) According to Gardner, “when a writer works with some sharply defined problem in technique, focusing on that alone, he produces such good work that he surprises himself. Success breeds success. Having written some small thing very well, he begins to learn confidence.”
Yet it takes courage and faith to attempt these techniques in the first place. Even then, sometimes the dance can be lost in too-careful examination of the steps. Often reading about the craft of fiction while immersed in the art of fiction can be a little too on the nose and instead of providing comfort and advice, can remind a struggling writer (like me) of all the things that she is obligated to do.
Sometimes you just want to believe that it’s going to work out; that there’s a way through the wilderness. Good Prose, by literary journalist Tracy Kidder and his long-time editor Richard Todd, provides that very reassurance. Although their book is concerned with the craft of nonfiction, there is a motivational message that will resonate with any novelist or short story writer: letting go of self-consciousness — of internal doubt and private criticism — will eventually allow a writer’s best work to emerge. “At some point,” say the authors, “you must trust yourself as a writer. You may not know exactly where you are going, but you have to set out, and sometimes, without calculation on your part, the reader will honor the effort itself.”
Good Prose is an interesting mix of instruction and memoir. While Kidder and Todd lucidly address the various forms of nonfiction — essay, memoir, and narrative journalism — it’s the story of their partnership (and friendship) told at the start of each chapter that inspires. They use their own experiences as editor and writer to unveil the stubborn dedication — the constant rethinking and rewriting, the false starts and difficult solutions, and, most important, the trust — that goes into creating a great piece of prose. In this way they prove by example that good writing can emerge from murky beginnings.
“Kidder’s greatest strength,” Todd insists, “is that he’s not afraid of writing badly.” This is a deceptively simple disposition, one that can become lost in the too-careful consideration of method. Kidder and Todd encourage the writer not to “concentrate on technique, which can be the same as concentrating on yourself […]. Don’t be afraid to explore, even to hesitate.”
In this way, Kidder and Todd make room for the mystery of story, the idea that arrives like “grace descending.” Unlike other books on craft, they allow for the literary wilderness where a good idea often appears disguised as a bad one. Kidder cautions that doubt can attack from anywhere — from inside the writer’s own mind, from a worried editor, from a skeptical acquaintance at a cocktail party. Still, if a writer is made curious by her own idea, even if she can’t articulate exactly what that idea is, it is worth chasing down and interrogating until it reveals its true shape. In other words, it’s necessary to mire yourself in the weeds.
On a practical note, even as they acknowledge the doubt that plagues most writers, Kidder and Todd suggest that we can fumble our way from darkness into light by focusing on the “human sound” of our words and avoiding the false notes in our prose. Slowly, one well crafted sentence after another, and as instinct takes over, the story will begin to emerge. Moreover, clear writing can be imposed upon internal disorder. But that imposition cannot come at the expense of courage. While it is worthy to focus on the elements of writerly technique, nothing can trump the willingness to write, or substitute for the fluency that good prose and good story demand. A rigid focus on craft, on the rules of the art, must not affix the struggling writer to the starting block, and make her doubt her right to be there in the first place.
I was finally able to fix my backhand by forgetting about the outcome of my swing — a ball that might bounce too short or fly out of court. After carefully disassembling my stroke, I needed to remind myself what it felt like to strike the ball cleanly and, more important, how much I enjoyed the feeling. Sure, understanding the underlying technique was essential, but in the end I had to get out there and hit.
There’s an Egyptian squash player, Ramy Ashour, who has pushed the boundaries of talent and incredulity on court. I like to watch him on YouTube. He’s a magician capable of the seemingly impossible, executing never-before-seen shots at the riskiest moments. I’m often slack-jawed at his skill and find myself exclaiming aloud at my desk, “How does he do it?” The truth is, I’ve played enough squash to know how he performs the miraculous, at least technically. What I really want to know is how he dares.
Because daring is the thing you can’t teach, the internalized instinct, the arrogance that the words you are committing to paper, the shot you are executing off-balance and at match point will work out. That’s what the audience was asking about at the Brattle last July — how had I dared. They didn’t want to know the nuts and bolts of my character creation, nor the strategy I employed in conjuring my Brooklyn neighborhood on the page. Perhaps they thought they wanted to know those things, but the explanation — a story of vision and revision, of discarding and reshaping and rediscovering what I knew along the way — likely bored them.
I should have advised them, as Dennis Lehane did, as Kidder and Todd would, to be brave enough to forget about craft. I should have told them to just start writing.