Naming Makes Visible: Building a Craft Vocabulary
By Caitlin Horrocks •
I was well into my MFA in creative writing before I encountered anything that might be called a craft essay. The previous writing-on-writing I’d encountered consisted of inspirational texts, collections of writing exercises, or literature textbooks. The best of these were genuinely meaningful; more of them felt either emptily aphoristic or scholarly in a way that was paralyzing to an aspiring writer. Even the most useful exercises rarely came with any real explanation for why I should do them, beyond a loose sense that they were intended to “get the creative juices flowing” (juices: ew).
I learned how to write creatively, and how to talk about creative writing, by trial and error. I wrote not-very-good stories, and gradually wrote better ones; in workshops I read stories by my peers and tried to figure out what I was seeing. To write critiques, or participate in workshop discussion, I had to find language to describe what I noticed. Discussing one story, in which two neighbors in an apartment building accidentally met, flirted with mutual interest, and then happily began a relationship, I groped for the missing ingredient: “I think this maybe needs… conflict?”
I don’t think this is an uncommon or destructive way of acquiring a writing vocabulary, and I don’t think it did me any harm. But I definitely wouldn’t call it efficient. Once I was eventually exposed to craft essays and craft books, I found some unnecessarily proscriptive, while others offered me genuinely new ways to think about texts. But the pieces that I found myself most wanting to share weren’t necessarily the most challenging or surprising; rather, they were pieces that put clear names to essential ideas, creating a shared vocabulary for writers at all levels. As a teacher or workshop leader, I try to give the writers I work with more tools, more quickly, than the ones I had. Here are the craft pieces that I love to recommend not just for their observations about writing, but for putting pithy, useful terms to those observations:
- “The Perfect Gerbil” by George Saunders
The central metaphor of this essay, which provides a close reading of Donald Barthelme’s story “The School,” is about how a story is like a Hot Wheels car race track, with movable track pieces and little launchers, often in the shape of gas stations, that fling the cars forward. In a story, a “gas station” can be an exciting plot turn, but it can also, as Saunders demonstrates, be a striking image or turn of phrase, or a break in an established pattern. Examining a piece for its varied gas stations (or lack thereof) is immediately accessible to a beginning writer, and still useful for an advanced one.
- “Engineering Impossible Architectures” by Karen Russell
I tend to forget the actual title of this essay, referring to it as the Kansas/Oz essay, because its central point, about grounding the “Oz” elements in our writing with the “Kansas” elements, is so perfectly expressed. Like The Wizard of Oz, or like Russell’s own fiction, each story features its own “Kansas:Oz ratio,” within which elements need to be balanced. Russell writes helpfully about how to pull off the necessary suspension of disbelief, but the idea of the ratio itself is already a meaningful lens through which to examine the intention of a work. Is a story taking place in a Kansas or an Oz? What ratio does a piece seem to be aiming for or sitting within, and how can it best succeed on those terms?
- “Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit” by Anna Keesey
Keesey makes a distinction between “story time” (st = the length of time it would take for a series of events to actually occur in the real world) and “discourse time” (dt = the length of time it takes to read about those same events on the page). Some writers tend towards action-oriented unfolding, in which st = dt or st > dt. Others, like Virginia Woolf, lean towards infolding, in which frequent interiority results in discourse time > story time. Crucially, Keesey doesn’t claim that any particular equation is superior to any other; she simply explains her ideas, and opens the door for a discussion about why certain approaches might be more useful or necessary at certain points in a work, or how we understand our own inclinations as writers: if we tend toward un- or infolding, what happens when we deliberately alternate, or attempt something different?
- “Urgency” by Benjamin Percy
Percy provides a handily numbered list of techniques to create and maintain urgency and suspense in a piece of fiction; the tactics work at both the level of a whole novel or story and of the scene. Any one of the techniques thus lends itself to a writing exercise, either self-directed or assigned, such as combining “lower-order goals” with higher-order goals in a single scene.
- Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
In matter-of-fact language that’s often genuinely funny, Stern’s well-loved book delineates story shapes like “Gathering” or “Bear at the Door.” In the middle part of the book he offers cautions against shapes like “Hobos in Space” or “Bathtub.” The book’s vocabulary offers new ways to think about stories, structurally, and also contains an obvious invitation to attempt the different shapes. In a classroom, I like pairing Stern’s warnings with stories that I think make similar moves successfully, so we can talk about how the authors pull them off. For example, Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now” gleefully ignores Stern’s advice against idea-driven stories or stories with “population explosions.” Roxane Gay’s flash fiction “You Never Knew How Waters Ran So Cruel So Deep,” a story in the form of an accounting ledger, qualifies as a successful “Explosion” in Stern’s terms. As Stern himself says, “art is made out of broken rules.”
- “The Talent of the Room” by Michael Ventura
This isn’t a nuts and bolts craft essay, but it’s a keeper. “Writing is something you do alone in a room,” Ventura says, adding, “Before any issues of style, content, or form can be addressed, the fundamental questions are: How long can you stay in that room? How many hours a day? How do you behave in that room? How often can you go back to it? How much fear (and, for that matter, how much elation) can you endure by yourself? How many years—how many years—can you remain alone in a room?” I personally find the essay fortifying; I know I’ve given it to at least some people who found it depressing. But I hope it’s clarifying, either way; “the talent of the room” becomes both a shorthand for the kind of persistence and dedication that writing requires in the long run, and a term of self-interrogation. Is it something I have? Is it something I want to have? If so, how can it be fostered? How can I arrange my life to make the most of the talents I have?
- Matthew Salesses’s blog post series, “Pure Craft is a Lie”
Finally, an important caveat: “pure craft is a lie” by virtue of how culturally situated our standards and expectations around writing are. The examples above, whether the extended metaphors of Hot Wheels or Kansas:Oz, or even the expectation that a work of fiction should establish a sense of urgency to its plot, are products of a specific cultural and artistic tradition. My early groping after the role of “conflict” in a story was, for example, based on my understanding that a short story was indeed supposed to hinge on conflict. Writers who come from outside a dominant tradition, whether, as Salesses explains, that means a writer of color in a majority white workshop group, or even a fantasy writer surrounded by people producing literary short stories, can be ill-served by their readers if those readers fail to recognize that much received craft wisdom is not universally applicable, or universally valued.
I offer my enthusiasm for these works thus not with the idea that their arguments are iron-clad or comprehensively applicable, but because these are some of the first essays I’d give myself, if I could go back to when I began writing. They would have given me a shortcut towards certain ideas, and they definitely would have raised the level of my early workshop critiques. In a classroom setting, the language in these pieces seeps into, and shapes, our conversations all semester. If read independently, these essays still give the reader the ability to isolate and practice specific strategies. You can’t consciously manipulate or experiment with what you don’t know is there; naming makes the invisible visible, which makes it malleable. Which also makes it, ultimately, a lot more fun to play with.
Keesey, Anna. “Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit.” The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, Tin House Books, 2009.
Percy, Benjamin. “Urgency.” Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Graywolf Press, 2016.
Russell, Karen. “Engineering Impossible Architectures.” The Writer’s Notebook II: Craft Essays from Tin House, Tin House Books, 2012.
Salesses, Matthew. “Pure Craft is a Lie.” Pleaides.
Saunders, George. “The Perfect Gerbil.” The Braindead Megaphone, Riverhead Books, 2007.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton and Co Inc., 1991.
Ventura, Michael. “The Talent of the Room.” LA Weekly, November 22, 1993. Available online here.
CAITLIN HORROCKS is author of the novel The Vexations. Her story collection This Is Not Your City was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her stories and essays appear in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, The Paris Review, Tin House, and One Story, as well as other journals and anthologies. She lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and teaches at Grand Valley State University and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.