Friday, January 18, 2013

Stein On Writing : My Diagnosis is Dire! a book review

     Reading  Sol Stein's 1995  Stein on Writing was like getting a full physical and the follow-up lab on my cherished but anemic writing.  I had poked around in chapters before because his book is, as he says, not theory but usable solutions, however I had not yet read it straight through from page 3 to 303.  Now, this first month of 2013,  I have done so.  Even  if the book jacket didn't announce the depths of his editorial experience, as I read I knew I was reading someone who has wielded a red pen as keenly as a surgeon wields a scalpel.

It is, in some ways,  a terrible book to read.  Having himself been subjected, luckily he explains, to what he calls the wisdom and tyranny of experts when he was brimming with hope and arrogance every chapter has a "so you think you can write?"  tone.   He describes himself as being a cocky beginner,  describes conferences with his teachers as "ordeals" and himself as one who "slunk away" to rethink what he had written.  Of course this man is tough to read, because he has experienced that a writer needs a tough skin and he has in his subsequent years as an editor undoubtably poked at many writers of thin and tender tissue as if they were hairy hided.
"It took some time for me to learn the other lesson, that a writer, shy or not, needs a tough skin, for no matter how advanced one's experience and career, expert criticism cuts to the quick, and one learns to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain maker."  ( page 5)
He is however, eager to impart his secrets, his keys to credibility.  If you think your prose is fit and trim, read his chapter on liposuctioning flab and subject your work to a new level of scrutiny before someone else does!

I am still thinking about Chapter 10 - The Adrenaline Pump: Creating Tension.  As much as I have to learn from an expert like Mr. Stein, there is much about his world view that has no draw for me.   The opening of chapter 10 however,  pricked like a needle:
"Writers are troublemakers.  A psychotherapists tries to relieve stress, strain and pressure.  Writers are not psychotherapists.  Their job is to give readers stress, strain and pressure..."(page 105

Yes, and yet I still don't  believe this. The world is full of trouble and the maker of it has many minions, those consciously on board and  unknowing dupes.  Yet I  hear an echo of a word I was given and  know I need to heed, "Your characters are all too nice to each other."  This critique was  delivered to me by a trusted friend, a mentor in realms of utmost importance, and I want to heed it.
 I'm working to understand how to identify the type of trouble it would be worthy to make.  Who should I trouble and to what ends?

 In the meantime, I recommend Stein on Writing  if you want to check the pulse and stamina of your own work or even just become a more discerning reader.   He is a doctor of the craft and chapter by chapter lays out the tools  needed to practice.  When you need surgery it is best to overlook your longing for the doctor with great bedside manner and find the one who really does know how to cut.  Stein  writes:
 "Is it panful to cut a whole scene?  Yes, indeed. Why then should you do it? Because like a surgeon you are interested in preserving the body of the work by cutting out a part that's not working properly or that's causing harm to the body as a whole." ( page 282) 

And of course when you find the very weakest link in your work and repair or remove that, there is a new weakest member.

I'm ready to read some of my sequestered work before I re-shelve these incisive instructions.

I would be glad to hear what you think of this book.  I'm usually slow in getting around to reading what  most everyone else has already read so perhaps you've already read Stein or have another book on writing you  might recommend with or without reservations?  I enjoy hearing from you.

(Quotes from the first paperback edition published by St.Martin's Griffen, New York.)