Historically, we’ve had witchcraft, priestcraft, warcraft, and occasionally a spot of statecraft. Today, we have craft beers in corner bars and craft talks at conclaves of writers around the country. Craft is mellowing with age.
Most of John Casey’s yeasty essays on fiction-writing began as craft talks at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. Of the many able writers who have enlightened that yearly gathering, Casey is the first to collect his talks in a book. His five published novels—including the near-canonical Spartina (1989)—point to a mastery and magic only partly communicable in terms of craft. “I can’t teach someone to write,” he stipulates upfront, with a gruffness audible on the page, “but I can sometimes teach someone to rewrite.”
To the maker of literary fiction, so often uncertain of plan and plumb, what exactly is craft? Casey’s title implies it’s pretty much everything except inspiration. The Muse’s role, greater or lesser in a given piece of work, comes mostly in the early going.
For those able to plot their fictions at the start, craft is a kind of carpentry skill at erecting a literary structure. For those who feel out the story as they go, it’s more a handyman’s way with words. In either case: What about craft in its other, shadier sense—as cunning, misdirection, deceit? “There is another world,” Casey says, “but it is in this one.” The writer, effectively, is back to witchcraft or worse: “You do finally have to conjure, whether by implication or direct statement, invisible forces as specifically as you have conjured a bullfight, a bank robbery, a kiss.”
To make a story out of more or less nothing, you dodge, seduce, delay. You dole out the “facts” when and where they suit your ends. It’s like padding the answers on an exam you weren’t ready for—but then the padding, with a few rewrites, makes a sort of weird sense after all. (Or so you hope. The best writers get mixed results.)
By no means do Casey’s impressionistic essays, taken together, make up a how-to manual. They’re for the writer with a lump of a story or novel who doesn’t know what to do next to get it into shape. Casey evokes Dante: “These essays are suggestions about things to do, things to think about, when your writing has got you lost in the woods.” But you’ve still got to find your own way out.
Beware of dogma, he warns. The first essay ventures a sage review of old writing-school edicts: Write what you know. Tell your story in the fewest words possible. Tell the truth. Conventional narrative is boring—you must experiment. Casey comes not to abolish the law but to tweak it, spirit over letter. Write what you know is good advice for a neophyte who falls on his face spinning a yarn about Mayan warriors—yet Tolstoy, while still on his feet, could imagine vividly the death vision of Ivan Ilych. On sparing words, Casey recalls that his agent and his editor both judged a 604-page novel he’d sent them as much too long, so for several months he reworked it, cutting 100 pages but adding a few in the process. When he sent it back, now 640 pages, the agent and editor wrote him, separately, “Good. It’s much shorter.”
Whether Culture is local has risen from aphorism to dogma is debatable, but Casey says it has. Its propounder, in any case, was William Carlos Williams, the physician-poet who seldom set foot outside northern New Jersey. Against Williams, Casey sets Ezra Pound, who decamped to Europe, picked up Italian and Provençal, and set himself to studying Chinese poetry. Is it better for the writer to stay at home, thereby knowing better what he knows, or, in search of the novel (in both senses), to hit the road? Casey stakes out the agnostic middle ground, finding himself one day at the National Theatre in Washington, where a tile beneath his feet is inscribed “Washington—neither Rome nor home.” It happens that Casey has Washington roots: “I don’t think there’s a really good novel set in Washington,” he says, and he seems content to leave it at that.
The 14 essays range widely, from observations on writing sex scenes (less is more, since the act plays out in Paris “just the same as in Cincinnati”) to a consideration, in connection with Aristotle’s Poetics, of paintings done by chimpanzees. He takes up the art—or is it craft?—of translation, which he recommends not for learning a foreign language but for admiring it, and for improving your English. He reprises the glories of childhood reading, and tackles the trickster’s feat of narrating in linear language two different actions at once, but falls short in shedding new light on comic writing, where so many have fallen short before.