Thursday, March 27, 2008

Prowling the bookshelves


Or, dusting, part II . . .

One of the books I dusted the other day was Donald M Murray's Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers.

A Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and writing teacher, Murray died in late 2006. But his books live on and continue his mission to teach.

Shoptalk is a book I've had for probably ten years. And it isn't one that I have listed in my top four or five that I turn to again and again, but it probably should be as it's a collection of significant writerly wisdom. It's definitely a book to keep.

If you're unacquainted with Shoptalk, it's sort of a commonplace book for writers. In it Donald Murray has gathered quotes from many writers -- novelists, poets, non-fiction authors, pretty much a Who's Who of those who make their vocation working with the written word. He introduces each chapter with thoughts of his own on the topic, then he lets the authors speak for themselves.

It's not a book you read from cover to cover. It may not even be a book in which you read an entire chapter.

It's a book to dip into, to read here and there, to listen to soundbytes of wisdom,
and find one that speaks to you right where you are.

It's sort of an I Ching of writing aphorisms.

You can take your current problem -- a scene, a character, an inability to sit down at the computer (or anywhere else) and actually write -- and find someone else whose words resonate with your dilemma. It gives you a different perspective from which to study it, someone else's view to filter it through.

It's a comfort -- and it's a challenge. And I'm glad I plucked Shoptalk off the shelf to dust -- and re-read bits and pieces of.

The quote that resonates with me at the moment is in the chapter called "Planning for the surprise."

It's about that curious dichotomy that exists between planning a story and being surprised by it as you go along. While certainly some of us are more plotters and some are more pantsers (those who fly by the seat of theirs), each book, I think, has an element of both.

I'd be hard pressed to imagine a book plotted so tightly that the author was never surprised by anything the characters did or said. And equally, I would find it hard to imagine a book coming to a satisfactory conclusion if the author had absolutely no idea at all where it was going or whether he or she was writing horror or romance or a western.

So . . .

as I am in the "oh-gosh-there-is-a-Saturday-in-Seb's-week" and something has to happen then (surprise!), and I have lots of plans for Sunday, should we ever be lucky enough to get there in the book (debatable at this point), I particularly appreciate William Maxwell's comment.

He wrote: "Undoubtedly if I knew exactly what I was doing, things would go faster, but if I saw the whole unwritten novel stretching out before me, chapter by chapter, like a landscape, I know I would put it aside in favor of something more uncertain -- material that had a natural form that it was up to me to discover."

Ah, yes. I, too, am a fan of the surprise. And I don't think I would like everything plotted and sorted and neatly boxed.

So I'm out here in Saturday of Seb's week and looking for the surprise. It's not exactly comfortable, but it's challenging.

I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather be.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Annie West said...

Anne, just wanted to thank you for the William Maxwell quote in particular. It's good to know that element of surprise is something others look for too. I think if I knew exactly what was going to happen between my characters before I wrote I'd think twice about writing the story. I enjoy the excitement of discovery as I progress.

Annie

30 March, 2008  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

I do, too, Annie. I'm always amazed by the things that pop up out of nowhere -- or somewhere. I sometimes wish I could 'plan' for some of them. But all you can do is catch glimpses of signposts or the like as you go along. At least that's all I can do!

30 March, 2008  

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