Without planning it, I managed today to finish reading Mentors, Muses and Monsters just as my train was pulling up to my stop on the way home from work. The timing could not have been better. I love when that happens.
I’ve already been raving about this book and it held up to the end. While it isn’t gossipy, it still was fun getting the inside scoop on what writers like Annie Dillard, Susan Sontag and Elizabeth Hardwick are and were like. I also got to peek into the goings on at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Bread Loaf. And I learned what it was like working for the New York Review of Books. Some writers seemed to know from the start that they wanted to write, others didn’t figure it out until later. Some took the route of MFA program while others simply read a lot and failed a lot and eventually figured it out. Even when the essay I was reading was by a writer I had barely or never heard of, I still enjoyed their stories.
There were a handful of essays in the book about the book or books that had inspired the writer or influenced the writer most. Those were particularly fun. Can you say, several new books on the TBR list?
One essay, by Lily Tuck is about a creative writing class she took with Gordon Lish. The class met once a week for twelve weeks for six hours at a time. There were no breaks of any kind. The only acceptable reason to get up was to go use the bathroom. Lish was a harsh critic and several students dropped out within the first few weeks, some just not coming back, others getting up during class and stomping out, cussing and screaming. Is it safe to say we have all, at one time or other heard an author say that for s/he the characters became real and told said writer what to do? In one class Lish told the students:
There is a kind of shared lunacy […] among second-rate writers who think their characters are real. That the characters control the narrative. All a writer does is create an effect. If there is a correspondence between the effect and the real, then that is the pleasure of the text.
The writer is a maker not a scorekeeper – it is the effect not the substance that counts. Think of a scientist…A scientist is in control of his experiment at the same time that he hopes to discover something new.
For some reason the shared lunacy part struck me as highly amusing.
At the same time I was getting an inside scoop, I also got some interesting writing advice. Adverbs are bad and so are adjectives. If you are using them it means your verbs aren’t working hard enough. Short sentences are good. I have trouble agreeing with that one. I love long sentences. I love to write then and I love to read them. When I was studying English Lit I was the master of the run-on sentence. My professors probably got tired of scolding me about it but not enough to ever let one slip by unmarked. Reading well is as important as writing well. But then we knew that.
I could go on but will stop there. The book has thirty essays and while I liked some better than others, there was not a single one that was a clunker. It’s not too late to get a copy for your favorite bookworm for the holidays. And if that bookworm is you, you can claim the purchase was a moment of holiday stress relief.