The Writer's Notebook

The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House combines the best craft seminars in the history of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop with a variety of essays written by some of Tin House's favorite authors, offering aspiring writers insight into the craft of writing.

Dorothy Allison, Jim Shepard, Aimee Bender, Steve Almond, D. A. Powell, and others break down elements of craft and share insights into the joys and pains of their own writing. This cast of deeply respected poets and prose writers explore topics that vary from writing dialogue to the dos and don'ts of writing about sex. With how-tos, close readings, and personal anecdotes,The Writer's Notebook offers future scribes advice and inspiration.

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  • Page Count: 259
  • Direct Price: $15.25
  • List Price: $18.95
  • 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
  • Trade Paper
  • May 2009
  • 978-0-9794198-1-2
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Price as Configured $0.00

Contributors include:

 

Dorothy Allison, Steve Almond, Rick Bass, Susan Bell, Aimee Bender,Kate Bernheimer, Lucy Corin, Tom Grimes, Matthea Harvey, AnnaKeesey, Jim Krusoe, Margot Livesey, Antonya nelson, Chris Offutt, D.A. Powell, Peter Rock, and Jim Shepard.

"Much more entertaining is The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays From Tin House, which is a pretty fair summary of where actual writing instruction is at these days. Most of the essays originated in writing workshops run by the literary magazine Tin House, and they include advice on sex writing by Steve Almond, on what you can learn from Shakespeare by Margot Livesey, and on revision by Chris Offutt, who compares the process to 'draining the kitchen sink and seeing what’s in there, which is usually a mess.'"
—Charles McGrath, The New York Times


"Tin House is an outstanding literary journal that publishes some of today's finest contemporary writing...delightful...beautifully written...thoughtful...outstanding..."
—Chuck Leddy, The Writer Magazine


"The essays within The Writer's Notebook each offer a fresh perspective on various aspects of the writing craft...features an eclectic list of top shelf contributions each bound together by a pragmatic approach to teaching the craft of writing...If you can't actually attend the workshops, this is probably your next best bet." 
—Mark Flanagan, About.com

 

"We get all manner of books on writing around here and they tend to blend together but the offerings from Tin House always stand out. They've just published The Writer's Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House, which includes terrifically useful essays from the likes of Dorothy Allison, Rick Bass, Aimee Bender, Jim Krusoe, Antonya Nelson and Jim Shepard." 
The Elegant Variation


"Brilliant stuff, and not at all the hackneyed tired advice you find in so many writing books." 
—Bookfox.com

 

"What’s fabulous is we know of these writers, and here we get to know them better through their lectures and essays. With them, we explore the love/hate relationship a writer has with the mind, the words, the pen, and the reader."
—Helen Gallagher, Opensalon.com

 

"These essays can be read for the illumination into the craft of writing, whether you are a reader or a writer." 
—Mary Jo Anderson, The Chronicle Herald


"As importantly, almost any subject is good reading in the hands of a talented writer. And believe me...these are fine writers." 
—Robert Birnbaum, The Morning News

 

"There is enough variety that you are sure to find several kindred souls. The Tin House editors do a great job of gathering an eccentric mix of talented writers and essay subjects."
—Lincoln Michel, The Faster Times

 

"The essays are a fascinating look at the writing process by an eclectic group of writers...covering enough ground to offer something of interest to anyone fascinates by the process of writing...I found the discussions both illuminating and inspiring and I recommend the book to anyone interested in writing."
—Blogcritics.org

Introduction | Lee Montgomery..........................................................1

 

Place | Dorothy Allison....................................................................5

 

Hard Up for a Hard- on | Steve Almond...............................................17

 

When to Keep It Simple | Rick Bass.....................................................29

 

Revisioning The Great Gatsby | Susan Bell............................................37

 

Character Motivation | Aimee Bender.................................................51

 

Fairy Tale Is Form, Form Is Fairy Tale | Kate Bernheimer..........................61

 

Material | Lucy Corin ................................................................... 75

 

There Will Be No Stories in Heaven | Tom Grimes ..................................93

 

The Mercurial Worldsof the Mind | Matthea Harvey ..............................103

 

Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit | Anna Keesey......................135

 

Le Mot Incorrect | Jim Krusoe.........................................................155

 

Shakespeare for Writers: Sixteen Lessons | Margot Livesey ......................171

 

Lost in the Woods | Antonya Nelson..................................................193

 

Performing Surgery Without Anesthesia | Chris Offutt............................205

 

(Mis)Adventures in Poetry | D. A. Powell............................................213

 

The Telling That Shows:
Some Provocations from Inside the Story | Peter Rock............................227

 

Generating Fiction from History and/or Fact | Jim Shepard......................241

Steve Almond


Hard-up for a Hard-on


 

Welcome to “Hard-up for a Hard-on with Steve Almond.” I’m Steve Almond. There has been some discussion about the title of this seminar, which was not mine, I’m sorry to say. I submitted a number of nominations, all of which were turned down. I’m now going to tell you about that, because it was painful for me. My first nomination was “Swing for the Fences with Steve Almond and his Raging, Fictional Man-Bat.” I think that was considered too European. And then I thought, all right, more on the nose: “Pussy, Pussy, Pussy, Cock, Cock, Cock, BLING.” That was maybe too on the nose. “It’s Not Skull-Fucking, Baby—It’s Skull-Making-Love” didn’t work. Next it was “You Write a Line, I Got a Pole, Honey,” which I thought was great; it called to mind the children’s song. Then my personal favorite: “I Just Sexually Harassed 200 People for an Hour, Now Give Me My Money.”

 

But enough about my raging manbat. Let’s get started. The central obstacle to writing about sex seems to be that people are embarrassed, so the first thing I thought we’d do is go around the room and have people disclose their most humiliating sexual experience. Now, that’s mandatory, but theoptional part is you can come up and we can do an interpretive dance, or perhaps a pantomime.

 

Kidding!

 

Okay, let’s start with this. It’s a story called “A Seminal Release.” Tragically, I did not write this.

 

Jordan Michael-Thompson was a beautiful girl with an eye for fashion and huge tits that you could grab and squeeze but only if she allowed it. She had an affinity for world music and one day she sashayed hornily into her neighborhood recorded-music store because she was in the mood to buy a compact disc from South Africa. As she walked in she noticed there was a really hot security guard. He had a shaved head and was well over the arena of six feet tall; his eyes were blue and his crotch bulged in a manner that suggested he had a giant dick. She got so much more horny at that point! Jordan winked at security guard. Security guard returned wink. "Hello." His hot smile said, reminding her of just what his mouth might be capable of. She got wetter vaginally.


"Can I help you??" He added hungrily, his eyes glued to what he imagined to be perfectionate breasts hidden underneath her six hundred dollar cashmere sweater. Had he thought about the treasures that lay inside of her downstairs box, he was sure his wiener might explode within the capri confines of his khaki pants. He tried not to think about that because he was on the job.


Sensually, she took his hand.


"I think you should go on coffee break right now. I need to find a good world music album.” She rubbed her fat ones against his uniform as she told him the plan. He was so "sexcited."


"My boss will kill me. I don't even know your name!"


"The only thing you need to know is I don't have AIDS." She said, as she unzipped his pants and fondled his hairy, peach colored ballsack with her smooth, effeminate hands. She leaned in and began darting her healthy pink tongue in and out of his right ear, and his dong began to well up with the juice of man as she did this. He undid her designer belt and slid his worker-hands down her pants and into the folds of her thong underwear, careful to note that her sex was as shaved as the top of his head was.


He began to finger wantonly. Her cries rose in volume and she pulled his now hard stick out of the sweaty confines of his pants and underwear. She was happy to note it was the size of a CD tower. And just as fucking hard!!!! He threw her on the floor and began to eat of her. The slobbering wetness within her cooch tumbled into the gaping and welcoming hole of his mouth as he used his powerful tongue to deliver the news. The news was that he was giving her a fantastic orgasm! He turned her on her side and licked her ass afterwards. The brownest hole tasted fine to him that day because Jordan was beautiful. She also had something to say.


 

"Can you recommend any world music to me? Is South Africa good?"


"The racist country?" he replied, positioning his cockmeat within grasp of her pouting lips, "I have the perfect album for you." He got up and his boner looked hot to her as he walked and she licked it and he picked up Paul Simon's album Graceland from the world music shelf, as prejaculate oozed from his swollen urethra. He shoved the CD in her attentive clam, causing her sweat-filled mound to quiver.


"Paul Simon recorded this with South African musicians. I want you to have it." Jordan stumbled out of the building with a compact disc inside her cunt.


It felt like a classic.


So now you’re asking yourself: Why is Steve Almond such a sicko? Fair enough. But the reason I wanted to, uh, share that story with you is so we can do an exercise. I want you to write the worstpossible sex scene you can; the most wantonly, vaginally, pre-ejaculatory, oozingly awful sex scene possible.

 

[Some examples are read. They are oozingly awful for the most part, but also surprisingly moving in spots.]

 

Part of the reason I’ve encouraged you to write a bad sex scene is that it frees you up to write whatever you want to write. The central reason that people muff— he said muff — their attempts to write sex is because they are putting pressure on themselves for the scene to be sexy. And any time you get pressure you start making all the mistakes associated with pressure: the onset of the bad and unnecessary similes and metaphors, the extra words, and the big, showy, juicy nouns and adjectives that wind up seeming imposed by the author instead of experienced by the characters.

 

You remove the pressure for the sex to be good, and it frees you up to write about what really matters, which is the way sex reveals character. That’s really the central reason to write any scene, especially a sex scene: to lay your characters bare. Of course, that’s a big, scary job, which is why writers spend so much time avoiding sex scenes – the next morning they woke up, there was orange juice, blah, blah, blah—or even more frequently, ornamenting it. They find a way to avoid getting to the shameful truth of what the sexual encounter is going to reveal about the characters.

 

We all know how exquisitely awkward and shameful, and ecstatic and wonderful it is to be in a sexual interaction. Most sex writing is almost nothing like that by my judgment. So now I want to expose you to some good sex writing.

 

This is from Mary Gordon’s wonderful novel, Spending.

 

 

He put his head between my legs, nuzzling at first. His beard was a little rough on the insides of my thighs. Then with his lips, then his tongue, he struck fire. I had to cry out in astonishment, in gratitude at being touched in that right place. Somehow, it always makes me grateful when a man finds the right place, maybe because when I was young so many of them kept finding the wrong place, or a series of wrong places, or no place at all. That strange feeling: gratitude and hunger. My hunger was being teased. It also felt like a punishment. I kept thinking of the word “thrum,” a cross between a throb and a hum. I saw a flame trying to catch; I heard it, there was something I was after, something I was trying to achieve, and there was always the danger that I’d miss it, I wouldn’t find it, or get hold of it. The terrible moment when you’re afraid you won’t, you’ll lose it, it won’t work, you won’t work, it is unworkable and you are very, very desperate. At the same time, you want to stay in this place of desperation…at the same time, you’re saying to yourself, you’re almost there, you’re almost there, you can’t possibly lose it now, keep on, keep on a bit longer, you are nearly there, I know it, don’t give up, you cannot lose it. Then suddenly you’re there.”


 

How much description is there of the physical act? Barely any, it stops at about line three. So that’s dogma #1 of writing about sex: it must be explicit, and you have to tell where all the parts are and where they are going, and how the lubrication is progressing and so forth. Nonsense.

 

The primary thing that is happening during any sexual interaction between two or more people – or in somebody’s head, given that most sex is fantasy sex – but the central thing that is happening is that somebody’s thinking. Your thoughts are racing during a sexual interaction. So, in fact, Mary Gordon shows us that. We move very quickly from a couple of establishing, non-explicit, details—nuzzling, beard a little rough on inside of thighs – to the real action, which is upstairs.

 

Anything else physical in the rest of that piece? And yet, is there any confusion about what’s happening physically? No. So how is Mary Gordon conveying the physical reality of what’s happening? She is using those great underutilized tools of the trade: syntax and sentence-shape. We see the sentences change, and begin to mirror what’s happening to the narrator. Her consciousness is perfectly reflected in those long, galloping sentences, as she struggles to get to the place that seems to be eluding her. Gordon uses everything: commas, colons, semi-colons. She even uses the dreaded ellipses, something we almost never see. All in an effort to convey the physical and psychic rhythms of the sexual act.

 

What else is this little excerpt about really, other than sex? Gratitude and hunger, certainly, but there is another word that’s pretty striking here: punishment. This is primarily an internal dialectic. The narrator is struggling against her own capacity to have pleasure, to receive pleasure from this gentleman. There’s a tremendous sense of pressure, it’s as if her orgasm is a big test, like the SATs or something. This is a common experience people have, even when they’re in the supposed throes of passion. There is a tremendous performance pressure. The pressure to come. Biologically, as it should happen, most men have somewhat less trouble achieving an orgasm. It’s become less of a narcissistic talisman. For women, it’s a much more precarious balance. Gordon is speaking quite honestly about what a lot of women experience when they’re in a sexual setting. I mean, I don’t know a lot of women in that way, but I’m trusting Mary Gordon.

 

Let’s move on to James Salter. This is from the novel. A Sport and a Past Time. If you haven’t read Stephen Elliott, and you’re wondering if you can write a book that is entirely about sex, the answer is yes. A Sport and a Past Time is about an older American, a very lonely ex-pat, who develops an elaborate fantasy life about the sexual encounters of two young people, a younger American ex-pat and his French girlfriend. So bear in mind that this scene is a fantasy. Here goes:

 

 

She is in a good mood. She is very playful. As they enter her building she becomes the secretary. They are going to dictate some letters. Oh, yes? She lives alone, she admits, turning on the stairs. Is that so, the boss says. Oui. In the room they undress independently…


“Ah,” she murmurs.


“What?”


“It’s a big machine à écrire.”


She is so wet by the time he has pillows under her gleaming stomach that he goes right into her in one long, delicious move. They begin slowly. When he is close to coming he pulls his prick out and lets it cool. Then he starts again, guiding it with one hand, feeding it in like a line. She begins to roll hips, to cry out. It’s like ministering to a lunatic. Finally he takes it out again. As he waits, tranquil, deliberate, his eyes keep falling on lubricants—her face cream, bottles in the armoire. They distract him. Their presence seems frightening, like evidence. They begin once more and this time do not stop until she cries out and he feels himself come in long, trembling runs, the head of his prick touching bone, it seems. They lie exhausted, side-by-side, as if just having beached a great boat.


“It was the best ever,” she says finally. “The best…We must type more letters.”


 

It’s sort of like I gave Salter the bad sex assignment, isn’t it? It’s a very different sort of writing than Mary Gordon’s. Much more explicit. The narrator’s vantage point has very little concern for the woman’s emotions. She’s really just evidence of this guy’s remarkable sexual prowess. I don’t really believe there are masculine and feminine styles of narration – that’s a disservice to how complex individuals are – but we can say that this style of narration is clearly expressing, or trying to express, this superannuated masculinity. The use of a word like “prick” says this overtly: it’s about the man’s power to inflict.

 

Okay. So what are those lubricants about? Why do his eyes keep moving there? Here’s a hint:she’s on her stomach with her ass in the air. He keeps looking at these lubricants and they feel like evidence. This is where you have to recall that the scene is an obsessive, even pornographic fantasy, crafted by this lonely older man.

 

The very idea of anal sex, which is embarrassing to this young guy, might be even more preoccupying our narrator, who is, after all, imagining a younger man with his big, delicious prick plunging deep inside this woman. Taking this scene out the context of the whole novel is unfair, but surely you notice how odd it is for this guy to feel this sudden squirt of shame. It doesn’t fit in. He’s supposed to be Superman.

 

So when it comes to a sex scene, we’re not just talking about who is doing what, but who is telling the story. In this case, the guy telling the story is feeling a powerful and embarrassed relationship to the possibility of anal sex.

 

You’ll also notice the language is kind of violent, i.e. prick. It’s certainly not sexy, but that word is quite intentional. It’s how this lonely narrator need to craft this sexual interaction, as a fantasy about male power and dominance. That’s basically how pornographers make their nut. The revelation of character, in this case, isn’t essentially about the two people doing the nasty. It’s about the person who needs them to do the nasty.

 

Okay, let’s try something a little bit lighter, a scene that will inverse the power dynamic. It’s from Paradise News, which is a novel by David Lodge, a very funny British writer. All you need to know is that the protagonist here, the male character, is a 40-year-old virgin, an ex-clergyman. He’s never had sex before. Yolande is a nurse and a social worker, so she is someone who works not in a sexual context, but is used to instructing people and helping them out. They’ve struck up a relationship and they’re now in a hotel room.

 

 

Tomorrow there was more light in the room, and they split a half-bottle of white wine from the minibar before they began. Yolande was bolder and far more loquacious. “Today is still touching only, but nowhere is off-limits, we can touch where we like, how we like, OK? And it needn’t be just hands, you can also use your mouth and tongue. Would you like to suck my breasts? Go ahead. Is that nice? Good, it’s nice for me. Can I suck you? Don’t worry, I’ll squeeze it hard like this and that’ll stop you coming. OK. Relax. Was that nice? Good. Sure I like to do it. Sucking and licking are very primal pleasures. Of course, it’s easy to see what pleases a man, but with women it’s different, it’s all hidden inside and you’ve got to know your way around, so lick your finger, and I’ll give you the tour.”


 

This is a much gentler passage. Notice how Yolande carries her educator/caretaker persona right into the act of sex. People don’t drop their essential ways of interacting, in fact, in some ways, they become more pronounced during intimate situations. That’s the way she buzz manages him through the experience.

 

Also, you’ll have notice, the passage is almost all in dialogue. The author doesn’t feel the need to step in and rescue our poor hero. Instead, there is a sense of the rush of events as they’re being imposed upon him, quite benignly, by his guide. There is no interceding exposition to step back and give the reader a break. This guy is feeling completely overrun by the circumstances. Notice also how Lodge shows us that Bernarrd is physically excited. And yet Yolande’s tone is entirely matter-of-fact, even clinical. The tension between those two affects is part of the comic effect. 

 

Okay, finally, let’s look at a passage of Stephen Elliot’s. He is my hero. I loved Stephen’s last book, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up, because it is fearlessly about the role of sexuality in the life of the protagonist. Absolutely fearless. This is from “Other Desires,” page 50-51.

 

 

I make her a cup of coffee. She stands by the window peering cautiously through the blinds to the street. I crawl to her on my knees. She looks down at me skeptically. “You couldn’t give me what I want in a million years,” she says. She places her leg on a chair and guides my face to her and tells me where to lick and where to suck. “That’s where my husband fucks me,” she says. I’m stretching my neck as she lifts beneath my chin, surrounded by her legs. “Stop,” she says, pushing me away. Stripping her top and skirt. She’s getting fat. “Do you think I’m the most beautiful woman?”


“I do,” I say. We’re going through the motions. The next forty minutes is spent with me trying to please her with my tongue until my mouth is dry and sore.


She slaps me a few times over by the couch and for a moment I think this is going to work. She hits me particularly hard once and I feel my eye starting to swell again and she stops. “Lie down on the bed,” she says. “My husband doesn’t want me to do this.” She slides over me. Of course I’m not wearing protection. Nothing is safe. She rides up over me. Like an oven, She says, “Theo, darling.” She grabs my hands and places them on her thighs. She lies on top of me, biting me lightly. I grip her legs and stay quiet. Her chest is against my chest. This is sex. There’s no real threat. If I yell loud enough she’ll stop, which leaves us with nothing. And when I say I exist only to please her I don’t mean it. And when she tells me how beautiful she is it’s because she doesn’t believe it. Or when she says she has to punish me and asks me if I’m scared, she doesn’t mean it. We don’t mean it.


 

Hot.


Okay, maybe not so hot. Maybe the opposite of hot. Like, absolute zero.

 

This a very, very sad passage. It’s about when sex doesn’t work. Now sometimes the purpose of a good sex scene is to arouse the reader, to serve as an ecstatic affirmation of the character’s desire, which should be transmitted to the reader. But there are other times when just the opposite is true. The sex shows us how profoundly broken the relationship. It becomes one powerful way of representing that disconnection.

 

The most immediate and grueling way to represent this couple’s failure is that they can’t even bring authentic emotion to their playacting. Traumatic sex that clearly is an established pattern in their relationship. They just don’t mean it. It’s quite a brilliant passage because we always think, “Well, a good sex scene is predicated on the idea that both characters have so much at risk, and they want it so much.” In this case, we know their affair is doomed because the danger is gone, the risk is gone.

 

I'll leave you with a little bit from my silly essay, “The 12-Step Program to Writing Incredibly Hot Sex Scenes.” There’s lots of practical advice in there, about using sensual detail and not using genital euphemisms, and being subtle rather than overt, blah-blah-blah. But here’s what we’ll have to call the money shot:

 

 

Step 12

 

If you ain’t prepared to rock, don’t roll


 

If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex then don’t. By this, I mean writing about sex as it actually exists, in the real world, as an ecstatic, terrifying and, above all, deeply emotional process. Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so utterly vulnerable. We are all, when the time comes to get naked, terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn’t abandon your characters in their time of need. You mustn’t make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human business. Because we’ve already got a name for sex without the emotional content: it’s called pornography.

 

 

One more piece of advice: read the Song of Songs, which is this absolutely gorgeous, nasty, erotic poem that somehow got smuggled into the Old Testament. It’s the most profound and lovely sex writing I know.