- The Writing Mentor
W. W. Norton & Company
256 Pages; Print, $16.95
Theories about fiction writing dissect and illuminate what John Casey, in his chapter on Aristotle in Beyond the First Draft: The Art of Fiction, describes as a “magnification of grief and horror.” E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) is the classic example, with its craft discussions of mystery, beauty and prophecy. Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House (1997), refers to “the unnamable…that lies beyond language.” In The Half-Known World (2008), Robert Boswell refers to these “magical moments in fiction” as having an “alternate universe.” James Wood, in The Nearest Thing to Life (2015), calls these moments “beautiful enactments of the great ‘Why?’” because “what is a danger in religion is the very fabric of fiction.”
Casey says his essays are “suggestions about things to do, things to think about, when your writing has got you lost in the woods,” and he admits in the first chapter, “Dogma and Anti-Dogma,” “I can’t teach someone to write, but I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.” He compares his suggestions to “hints from Tarot cards or the I Ching” and proceeds to support, and then contradict nine familiar craft advisories.
When considering “Write about what you know,” he describes conversations with two students who replace their costume dramas with personal experience stories, one eventually winning the university’s best short story prize. Still, he asks, what if Tolstoy had ended “The Death of Ivan Ilych” [End Page 19] before the final scene because he didn’t know how it felt to die. Casey’s sphinxlike conclusion: “Write about what you know, but move into that rich intertidal zone between the dry beach of what you know and the sea of what you don’t.”
In response to Conrad’s dictum, “Above all, I want to make you see,” Casey cautions new writers not to “jump to the metaphysics,” but instead to focus on generating meticulously detailed descriptions. But he also insists that “at its very best, it [fiction] gives us a sixth sense, a sense of the invisible forces that make people more than the sum of their five senses.”
Casey is the consummate southern storyteller: witty, charming and evasive. His appreciation for the art form compels resistance to simple definition, and his empathy for newcomers who long for exactly that produces a gentlemanly diversion: an anecdote or comparison to theater or music. He admits that his craft advice for his daughters was “tentative, gnomic, fragile, and usually metaphorical,” while his teachers at Iowa spoke in “an American version of a Zen koan” (Nelson Algren), in “provocative extravagant homilies” (José Donoso), “stood for the annihilation of received ideas” (Robert Coover), and didn’t “talk to us about our writing [in] ABC’s” (Kurt Vonnegut). Casey’s preferred response when asking a friend for feedback about a piece of writing is to be told “a short analogous story, either true or fictitious” because it proves an understanding of the story’s spirit, “has the additional advantage of not intruding,” and is “more apt to incite physical energy.” “You may find some help in looking at your neighbor’s field,” he says, “to see what to do with your own.” This strategy is evident when he shares anecdotes about a friend’s Newfoundland schooner or his interrogation of a witness in a child custody hearing, acting advice from Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1989), or work by writers such as Proust, Shakespeare, and Nabokov.
In the chapter, “Justice,” he includes memories of being a student and stories about his students, along with references as diverse as Honoré de Balzac and Charles Bronson starring in Death Wish (1974). His interest in the concept of justice began in law school, but he applies it to the imaginative process, which “requires an adversarial imagination.” While referencing James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), he theorizes about how drama is created:
[A] lyric self must recognize that there is at least...