Exploring the art of prose


NAMING THE WORLD, Bret Anthony Johnston

Naming the World, Bret Anthony Johnston, editor
Penguin Random House, 2007

Naming the World is a craft class in a book. Edited by the writer Bret Anthony Johnston, the book is broken into typical craft chapters: Plot and Narration, Dialogue and Voice, Descriptive Language and so on. Within each chapter, Johnston provides an introduction and then other writers provide their perspective on the given topic with a short essay accompanied by an exercise.

This is a terrific way of both organizing the information as well as providing a very hands-on approach. Johnston is very pragmatic about the pursuit of writing. “I don’t believe in talent,” he says in the introduction, “nor do I put faith in the idea of inspiration, the muse or the muse’s shadowy and malicious twin, writer’s block…Truth be told, I’m not at all sure that writing can be taught. I am positive, though, that it can be learned.”

The line-up of writers that Johnston calls upon in Naming the World sounds like the roster at a summer workshop: Richard Bausch, Dorothy Allison, Ann Packer, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Elizabeth Strout and many, many more. Each writer provides their own unique take on the topic. The exercises are all interesting and useful.

One of the best chapters here is the final chapter entitled “Daily Warm-Ups.” A series of exercises, lasting five to twenty minutes, any of these would be a terrific way to start a writing session or to take a break from a current project. Here’s a good example to get you started:

Spend fifteen minutes finishing a paragraph that begins:

  • “This morning I couldn’t find…”

  • “What I see in the sky is…”

  • Walking along a path at dawn, I …”

  • “Coming up against bureaucratic rules, I …”

  • A wonderful excuse for failing to turn up for work would be…”