Realism & Other Illusions: Essays on the Craft of Fiction - Tom Kennedy
A great book, though not for beginners. One of the points Tom makes it that you need to get to a certain point as a writer before you can really benefit from courses and so forth. I suspect the same is often true for books on the subject. Below is a review I wrote about this particular book when it first came out a few years ago.
A Review by Zoë King, editor, United Kingdom
Because I receive so many books to review, my usual strategy is to read the first two or three chapters, then to skim-read the rest to get some idea of the overall flavour.
This book though let me know from the outset that it had no intention of letting me get away with that. From the minute I started reading it, it had me by the throat, demanding attention, demanding answers, insisting that I go back and re-read that section and consider my own position on it.
The book isn’t an instruction book per se, rather, it comes across as a philosophical study of the art and craft of fiction, yet it is a constant challenge to the thinking, and yes, a constant instruction.
Tom Kennedy pulls no punches, the writing is very personal, very direct and at times, I felt almost as though he and I were in the same room. As an editor, I’ve read a great many books on writing, and I’ve seen echoes of the positions he takes on the craft of writing, but I’ve never seen them argued so trenchantly, with so much passion, and as a result, with so much certainty.
In the section, “Can [You] Learn to Write?” he makes the point that learning to write, reaching what he calls “the place where the stories are” takes time, and work, and involves a lot of learning and unlearning. And he says, when you reach that place, you will know, and that is when you will most benefit from good tutorials or workshops.
On writer’s block [“A Harmony of Secrets: Talking to Myself”], he offers the following: “Writer’s block is a simple refusal to accept the words your imagination — or whatever faculty — hands up into your consciousness. Vincent Van Gogh gave the best advice I’ve ever heard about this …Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you like some imbecile … Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of ’you can’t’ once and for all.
“If you’re not inspired, just write. Don’t doodle, write. Allow yourself to fail, but fail trying, not whimpering that you can’t. And do not refuse to accept the words that come to you, do not turn them over again and again, sniffing them to determine whether they smell of shit, just write them as they come and let your pen fly on.”
In a later section, “Getting Around the Mind: How I Read, How I Write,” Tom Kennedy discusses meaning and understanding in writing.I spent a good few years trying to understand how much a writer ought to understand of his own story. I was crippled by my intellect, trying to create stories with meaning that could be netted like a butterfly, confined in a killing jar, pinned dead upon the page, ready for the part by part labelling …
Yet one of the most liberating moments for me as a writer was when I asked Robert Coover how much he feels he must comprehend of a story in progress and he said that perhaps the best of what he had written was that which he merely allowed to be written, where language took over and he became a mere tool of it.
The book finishes with two of Tom’s own stories, only one of which I’ve read so far, because I find myself returning again and again to engage with his discussion chapters.
This is one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a very long time. It is certainly one of the best I’ve ever read on the subject of creative writing, and it should, without question, be on the bookshelf of anyone who considers themselves to be serious about the craft of writing fiction.
— by Zoë King, www.zoeking.com