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Writers on Writing

Two new books from Tin House discuss the art of writing—and

B

ooks about how to read or write can go wrong in two ways. The too-prescriptive book flattens the subject, implying (or declaring) that there is a best type of book to read, a correct lesson to “take from” each masterpiece, and a few simple rules that, once understood, should allow you to contribute your own masterpiece to the canon. Any reader of catholic reading tastes, robust writing strategies, or a sense of modesty in the face of the task before him or her sees the lie in this kind of book immediately, and sets it aside. On the other hand, the wide-eyed guide places its favorite books in the aerie confines of the ineffable, and discusses the act of writing as if it involves no craft or dogged discipline at all, but instead only the madness of inspiration occurring in the presence of genius (and near a pen and notebook, if you’re lucky.) The equivalent of a sports highlight reel, these books present moments of brilliance, implore us to recognize them as such, and then suggest we go and do likewise. Well, I’ve watched Michael Jordan dunk from the free-throw line, and I can see how he did it, but friends, that is not my method for scoring. (Unless we’re talking a Nerf Hoop hung from the back of your dorm room door, in which case: Come fly with me.) The difficulty of doing these kinds of books

well is why two new titles from Tin House Books are such a pleasant surprise. The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House gathers the thoughts of faculty from the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop, adds some pieces from other authors the journal has published, places them between two covers, and even includes a cd of some panel discussions. If you’ve ever wanted to get an advanced degree in writing without actually having to talk to other people or pay tuition—and without actually getting the degree, I suppose—this is your book. Susan Bell’s look at Fitzgerald’s revisions of The Great Gatsby drive home how crucial it is to dive back into your text. Rick Bass’s “When to Keep It Simple” of-

Propeller Oct 09  

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