Book Review: Stephen Koch’s ‘The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop’

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“First you tell it, then you know it, it’s not the other way around.  You do that by telling the emerging story, to tell itself through you.  Any story must be teased out from the shadows of your imagination and unconscious.” (p.6, Koch)

 

Great books speak to you.  In novels, short stories, and plays, its characters, actions, descriptions, dialogue, and even the language itself burn emotions, ideas, and experiences into your mind and tattoo your memory.  In poetry, everyday words are heated, bent, twisted, and rearranged, transmogrified into something new—vibrant, discombobulating, and sublime.  And even in craft books, the authors’ teachings can inspire while instructing.  Books like ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande, ‘On Being a Novelist’ by John Gardner, ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ by Lajos Egri, and ‘War of Art’ by Steven Pressfield (these last two I’ve reviewed here and here, respectively)—they speak to me.  They speak to me of principles to live by instead of rules coldly memorized.  They speak to me of the whirlwind of emotions that come from creating, editing, and finishing a work, and all of the stuff that comes of it (see: The Biz).  They speak to me of a writer as a warrior, a craftsman, a mystic, and a professional.  And sometimes—just sometimes—they speak to me with too brutal a truth; and this is also why I love them (truth heals my self-inflicted wounds better than any sincerity could).  Stephen Koch’s book falls in this same category, and even, in my opinion, surpasses all others in it.

Affectionately dubbed ‘The Green Book’, the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop has become well-worn, dog-eared, ragged, and almost-coverless from my constant use of it.  Even now, on break from having finished my first draft of my first book, I’m making time to read this Green Book before I dive into my second draft.  I’ll first jump to the ‘Rules for Revision’ section on page 170, taking notes with voracious energy (as I’ve been doing all these years) on Koch’s guidelines in making a lumpy draft into a well-chiseled second draft.  I will, of course, flip to the passage describing the process of writing, which describes the example of Virginia Woolf struggling to write ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ (p. 63-64).  I will comb through the sections and chapters I’ve underlined, squinting at my chicken scratch handwriting and parenthetical comments.  Finally, I will flip to one of my favorite passages in the book, an example from the writer’s own teaching life which is so inspiring, I must quote it in its entirety at the end.

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I never had a teacher that spoke to me (though, for better or for worse, many have literally spoken to me about my work in either creative writing classes or writer’s workshops) either through their own words or actions, to write and be a great writer.  I’ve received all of my artistic confidence from books.  There’s an irony there; of getting hope and inspiration (of being spoken to truly and honestly) from volumes of cold, lifeless pulp pages covered with paragraphs of black-inked words more creatively and efficiently than from any number of warm, flesh-and-blood human beings ever could.  But then again, not really.  Live by the sword, die by the sword.  After all, it is through reading that I’ve become a writer—writing, as Tori Morrison once said, the books that you want to read yourself.  The snake eats her own tail.

Not to say the teachers I’ve had were terrible.  It’s just such a slippery business, this creative writing.  There will always be a debate till the end of literature about how much of writing can be taught, but there will never be an argument about the fact that there are things that can be taught; and as long as people argue about what can or cannot be taught, there will always be craft books.  So craft books were my teachers.  They taught me everything I know about story and plot—the rules, in other words.  The Green Book teaches me the best; and the best, in my opinion, since the last thing that makes me love this book is the power it has to change as I change as a writer.  Gardner’s book doesn’t possess this power, neither does King’s, which is evident in the fact that I haven’t picked them up in awhile.  Egri’s book changes you, but then, his tone strays eventually from philosophical to one pure instruction.  Brande’s is good for reassurance when your confidence runs dry, and Pressfield’s voice is about as sympathetic as a drill sergeant’s—again, appropriate for the mood you’re in.

It is only the Green Book that possesses this power to change me.  It draws me in again and again.  Every single part of Koch’s book deals with every single part of being a writer, and I go back to it not only in different phases of my writing work but also in different phases of my writing life.  If you read craft books that are too instructive, you either get bored or overeager with the rules.  If you read craft books that are too theoretical, you get lost in the vagueness.  If you read the life of a writer or other writers, you get a feel of how it should be done but without any of the knowledge that comes with living that life.  Koch’s voice is human, a teacher sympathetic and knowledgeable.  He teaches you the rules by breaking down the process itself, why these rules have existed, and why they work.  He tells you the difference between story and plot, and how we must employ two different parts of ourselves (the intuitive and the critical) to use them.  He tells us of ourselves as writers, what he’s seen through decades of teaching, and why we struggle the way we do.  Most of all, he gives us examples from the lives of other writers, past and present.  These ‘genius’ writers struggled as we struggle (they all do; something not many young writers know and some older published writers still don’t know), in the same ways, with the same fears and doubts.  These are not new things to craft books.  I can find two dozen books right now that talk about these very things.  What makes Koch such a relief and wonder to read is the way he treats it all through his voice, his wisdom, and his inner workings of the writer.  He is a guide along the path.  And to show this wisdom, let me end by quoting a small paragraph from the book.  I apologize for its length, but I believe its worth it.

“Early in my teaching career, my sometimes-lugubrious sense of moral obligation convinced me that I should devote one session of every workshop term to laying out all the hard truths of the writer’s life.  It seemed to me that I had to level with the students.  Tell them about the numbing, humiliating rejections; the poor or nonexistent money; the probability of failure; that knife with the special twist: partial success.  I never liked delivering these dreary little monologues, but I thought I owed them to the students.  Gosh, unless I tell them the truth, won’t they be, well…deluded? Misled? […] No matter: I was telling them the truth.

At last one nervy student fixed me.  We were in a private conference. ‘Professor Koch, there’s something you don’t seem to understand.  I know you mean well and everything, but all this stuff about how we’ll never get anywhere, how we’ll never make a dime, how nobody will ever give a damn–you think you’re bringing us some sort of news?  Handing us something we haven’t heard?  Every single one of us has an uncle out there who has been telling us those exact same things all our lives.  […]  We’ve been hearing it nonstop from the minute we read that book that blew us away and made us want to be writers. […] What we need is somebody, just one person–like maybe you–who for once isn’t telling us that, who for once says it’s hard but it’s possible.  Who says go ahead.  Who says it’s a great thing to do, the best, nothing better, so be brave and do it.  Who’s not looking at us like a bunch of unrealistic self-indulgent brats who should all just throw in the towel and turn into good little boys and girls and go off to law school and grow up.  You’re scared we’re deluded? Okay, right.  We’re deluded.  But do us a favor.  Leave us deluded.  Because we’re going ahead.’

It was the best lesson I ever had from a student, and it cured me.  I have ever since left the dreary duty of telling writers how hard and miserable their life is going to be to somebody–excuse me, to everybody–else.”  (p. 54-55, Koch)

 

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