Book Review: CREDO
Editors: Rita Banerjee, Diana Norma Szokolyai
Reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Often, writing reference books labor under a single focus, but Credo, a collection of essays assembled by members of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, forms a patchwork of advice. The book is divided into three sections: Manifestos, Craft of Writing, and Exercises. Each section contains a plethora of short chapters in a variety of styles. Sometimes, the pieces lean toward scholarship, with footnotes and a dry tone, while others communicate in list form, via poems, or, in one case, with a faux job advertisement. Some writers take the idea of “manifesto” literally, with energizing results, while others put in print what amounts to a class lecture. The variety in this book is its real value; something in it (though not everything in it) will work for writers at multiple levels of expertise.
As with any anthology, writing or otherwise, this book contains both gems and duds. The gems include Peter Mountford’s “Calling Bullshit on a Writer’s Top 10 Excuses for Not Writing,” which is painfully accurate and extremely funny, and Matthew Zapruder’s craft essay, “Holding a Paper Clip in the Dark,” which is kind, properly subjective, and helpful, even to non-poets.
I have certain nearly religious beliefs about language: that it expresses the collective historical intelligence of human beings, and that it is the accumulated wisdom of all language users. Therefore, I also have a great faith that my little humanity, plus the great wisdom of language, in the right combination and with the right degree of humility and attention on my part, will result in poems.
Many of these essays get at writing by way of personal narratives, with varying success. Eva Langston’s “The Story of My Writing Career in 3-Act Plot Structure” is humorous, sad, and familiar, while “Navels Are Natural” by Carroll Sun Yang is what it says on the tin: navel-gazing, and minimally inspiring for the reader. Other essays offer insight on combining the process of producing new work with the methodology of other practices: haiku as a warmup for writing prose, for example, or the spiritual mindset of yoga as an approach to writing.
The first two sections, Manifestos and Craft of Writing, are only distinguishable from one another at the extreme end of each section’s purpose. That is, only the most manifesto-like essays in the manifesto section are decidedly different from the tamest of the craft essays. The third section of the book, Exercises, is unfortunately the least impressive. Mostly, the exercises are uninspired (interview your character, keep a writing journal) or overly complex (use nine bhāvas and four abhinaya forms on flashcards to determine the emotions roiling beneath a story). Kevin McLellan’s “Attributes: A Prompt” is a brief but creative hand-holder for how to write a poem, including two commands out of twelve where he advises the writer to “Take a deep breath or a nap.” (Advice I can get behind.) Meanwhile, Janine Harrison asks the writer to imagine his life’s important events as tattoos, something I suspect any person with meaningful tattoos has already done. The only exercise-driven essay that struck a novel note was Kazim Ali’s, which closes the book. All of the workshop ideas he presents come from other artists, from figures as varied as Leslie Scalapino and John Cage, and they are unusual indeed. For example, one workshop, inspired by Jan Trumbauer, takes place in the dark, with students lying “in a circle, only their heads touching.” The instructor plays no role except timekeeper.
Although all of these writers approach their vocation slightly differently, similarities run throughout. Daily pages, written first thing in the morning before the rest of the household is awake, are recommended repeatedly (though not exclusively). The sense of writing as a necessity, not a frivolity, comes up often. More than one writer is defensive. More than one writer confirms that reading is more important than writing. Many essays take writing so seriously that their authors risk ridicule, but for some readers, this seriousness will be welcome. It seems to this prose writer that half or more of the essays approach poetry rather than prose as the goal, but in truth there is probably a good balance. However, only Jade Sylvan writes specifically about memoir: “So look deep inside, open up, and above all, don’t fake it.”
Some authors interpret “manifesto” as “why I write.” Laura Steadham Smith, in an essay in which every sentence begins with “I write because,” ends thus: “I write because I’m crazy enough to believe I could tell you something about yourself,” while E. Ce Miller closes with a wider scope: “I write because of an unwavering conviction that when the money is gone and the grid has crashed and there’s no more oil and the well is dry, those left standing will be the artists.”
In all, Credo is a mixed bag, but then, most anthologies are. This anthology is a particular risk: writers talking about writing can either be duller than an old pencil or can make the process of stringing words together feel newly thrilling. Credo is primarily neither dull nor thrilling, but it contains helpings of both. In its variety, it’s an interesting book, and it’s useful, if in limited ways. Although seasoned writers may find little new guidance here, the passion of these writers bleeds through the pages, and the book may serve as both confirmation and inspiration to novice writers. That alone is worth the purchase price.
KATHARINE COLDIRON’s work has appeared in Ms., the Guardian, LARB, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.