Frustrated with writing workshops that provided no craft exercises, I turned to craft guides to find direction and support. After all, writing is often like visiting a country you recognize but can’t navigate; books that explore craft serve like travel guides, as maps to the page. In a post called “Ten Writing Rules,” which circulated online a few months ago, Antonya Nelson suggests the following: “Craft books, in my experience, are far less important to the writer than the literature you admire.” Nelson is right to emphasize reading literature, but I’d like to modify her “rules” to include books on craft. The assistance craft books provide makes flailing around on the page a lot more useful. Just because you lived it (or imagined it), doesn’t mean you know how to write it.
Two recent craft guides deserve special attention: Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir.
In a United States culture full of stretchy truthiness, Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir particularly resonates. This book hit me much the way Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer hit me years ago, which is to say, I read it straight through and then went back to read it again.
As a teacher of English Composition, I often discuss tone with my students, and Kephart’s tone is an example of intention and integrity combined, of reading honesty on the page. There are useful exercises to build writing muscles, and the book will also teach you, like Prose’s does, to become a more focused, close reader. Throughout, Kephart has conversations with you—writer to writer—as if she were your mentor and teacher. Kephart writes:
It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do: Don’t lose your urgency. Don’t yield to the suspicion that you know enough, have seen enough, have wanted enough, have danced the perfect rumba. Don’t get yourself all pretty, perfect, and complete. Value imbalance. Remain vulnerable.
Those days when you sit at your desk and wonder why on earth you ever wanted to write, Handling the Truth will prove to be a good, stable friend.
When you are ready to dig deeply into the maze and wounds of loss and memory, read Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. (I came to Handler’s guide through her sublime memoir Invisible Sisters, available from University of Georgia Press.) Like Kephart, Handler provides heartfelt support, befriending the reader-writer while showing the way. For example, Handler writes:
What I hope is that this book will help you write your way through your grief and into renewal. Consider this book a guide to finding your way through the very personal journey of writing a true story that’s hard to tell and impossible to forget.
Crafting literature is not therapy, but writing about grief and loss can be therapeutic, as Handler clearly relates. And though it may seem counter-intuitive, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss is a delightful read, lifting wounded hearts and providing encouragement by affirming the of reality of pain. Handler and Kephart underscore that to write with tenacious honesty is a skill, which involves meeting and befriending the self. Transparent thinking comes from honest reflection, and the ability to include often opposing, layered emotions builds stories. In Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss, Handler’s interviews with fellow writers are insightful, yet her own story—and her ability to write it—truly shows the way. Handler writes: “With time, I had come to see that while my sister’s unmarked grave was tragic in its own way, it was the story of this neglected grave that fascinated me.” In conclusion, I agree with Antonya Nelson’s suggestion to read. To that end, both Handler and Kephart include fantastic bibliographies. A writer needs a circle of support—these two craft books are an essential part of mine.
For more information on Jessica Handler, please visit: http://jessicahandler.com/
For more information on Beth Kephart, please visit: http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/
Handler, Jessica. Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013.
Handler, Jessica. Invisible Sisters. New York: PublicAffairs, 2009.
Kephart, Beth. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. New York: Gotham Books, 2013.
Nelson, Antonya. “Antonya Nelson’s Ten Writing Rules.” Weblog post. 8 Nov. 2014. The Story Prize. 20 Feb. 2015. <http://thestoryprize.blogspot.ch/2014/11/antonya-nelsons-ten-writing-rules.html>.
Prose, Francine. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.
Renée E. D’Aoust’s first book Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a finalist for Foreword Review’s “Book of the Year.” A six-time Best American Essays “Notable Essay” writer, D’Aoust’s essays have been anthologized and published widely. D’Aoust teaches online at Casper College and North Idaho College, volunteers as a mentor for AWP’s Writer-to-Writer program and as an Idaho Master Forest Steward, and lives in Idaho and Switzerland. Please visit: www.reneedaoust.com.