Ox tail stew for the muse
How's that for a book title? Forget chicken soup; even the best leaves me hungry. Ox tail stew, on the other hand, is the quintessential meal in a bowl. Give the muse a bit of metaphorical ox tail stew and she'll be good for a week. I want to share with you the one book on writing which really set me in motion. To set the scene: I'd written short stories galore as a kid, but college closed the door on my muse, and med school turned the key. Fine gal that she is, she wouldn't stay down. I began the Medical Consumer's Advocate site in '98 and expanded it over the next two years. In 2000, iVillage gave me a paying gig as their ear, nose, and throat agony aunt. I wrote a weekly iVillage column for a full year. When they let me go, the muse had nothing left to do but write fiction. My first book on craft: John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. This book may not be for everyone, but it was the perfect book for me. It singed the hairs clean off my ass and got me writing every weekend. Here is a quote from Chapter 2, wherein Gardner first lays out the idea of fiction as a consensual dream. Let your muse drink this in: If we carefully inspect our experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind. We read a few words at the beginning of the book or the particular story, and suddenly we find ourselves seeing not words on a page but a train moving through Russia, an old Italian crying, or a farmhouse battered by rain. We read on -- dream on -- not passively but actively, worrying about the choices the characters have to make, listening in panic for some sound behind the fictional door, exulting in characters' successes, bemoaning their failures. In great fiction, the dream engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things -- sights, sounds, smells -- as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real: We sympathize, think, and judge. We act out, vicariously, the trials of the characters and learn from the failures and successes of particular modes of action, particular attitudes, opinions, assertions, and beliefs exactly as we learn from life. Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are nobles in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations. No one recommended Gardner's book to me. The muse herself picked it off the shelf at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland. Strong work, Elvira! D.