Encouragement to imagine, write, and revise.
Drawing on decades of teaching, as well as her own writing experiences, Mattison (Bennington Writing Seminars; When We Argued All Night, 2012, etc.) offers a warmhearted guide addressed to those who “not only have the impulse to write stories, but have acted on it repeatedly.” Instead of rules and techniques, she offers personal anecdotes, examples of problems her students have faced, and close readings of a wide range of fiction, all meant to inspire her readers’ imaginations and bolster their efforts. Mattison cautions against self-censorship, often caused by fear of failure, fear of imagining new realities, or assorted other inhibitions: “Writing well involves surprising ourselves, giving what we don’t yet know we care about a chance to emerge.” The central task in writing fiction is “inventing people and actions from nothing, or inventing slight deviations from factual truth.” These inventions come from “what’s most intense in us,” and Mattison counsels writers to fully inhabit their characters to discover their unique personalities. “To whom should this have happened?” she writes, “is a promising question for turning life into fiction.” Writers need also to attend to events, drama, and strong feelings to enliven their plots. Although finished stories have an inevitability that undermines their usefulness as guides, Mattison offers myriad examples from writers including William Maxwell, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor, Grace Paley, Rebecca West, Alice Munro, and many others. Tillie Olsen appears not only as an accomplished writer, but as a woman who put aside her fiction to attend to other tasks in her life; George Eliot serves both for her achievements in Middlemarch and as a keeper of a writing journal; and Mark Twain demonstrates the process of revision, as Mattison analyzes three versions of his last book. Rewriting, the author insists, is a crucial task.
A generous, empathetic writer’s companion.