It’s not meant to be complicated. “I hope to help you think about your writing, and to approach the task with more confidence, excitement, and hope.”
That’s Alice Mattison’s intent. But of course it is complicated. Which is why there are countless books about the craft of writing.
The Kite and the String particularly reminds me of Elizabeth Berg’s Into the Open (which is kind of kite-like, now that I think about it) and Stephen King’s On Writing. Books by other commercially successful writers who have taken on the task of sharing their experience with other writers. (There are many examples and I’ve just mentioned a couple of my favourites: how about you?)
In the case of Stephen King’s book, he has included specific information about his own writing process with specific works, so that I can imagine King fans who do not actually have a personal interest in writing might find the volume of interest.
But with Alice Mattison’s book, there is very little of this. She is writing for writers, although close readers might enjoy the specific examples she draws upon (which are nicely varied) and the ways in which she pulls wisdom from the works.
Because reading is of great importance to her. (This is true for Berg and King, too.) “Read small-press books and literary magazines. And, of course, read the books into which you fall as into a warm bed on a cold night.”
Specifically reading with curiosity. “Of course, you can’t read everything – but are you reading with curiosity, with a willingness to see what some authors can do that you can’t (or can’t yet), and with intellectual energy?”
And, also, with intention. “Read to develop a sense of shape and form – what make works of art feel right, feel complete – and then, as you revise your own work, listen for the messages from within you that say, ‘No, no – a little more’ or ‘Stop here’ or ‘Slow down – now speed up!’”
Occasionally, she reminds me of Anne Lamott (her classic, Bird by Bird), but Mattison dresses up her language. So, no “shitty first drafts”. Instead, she says: “Good writing goes through stages where it’s not so good.”
There aren’t any exercises in this one (unlike Berg’s) but there is a lot of substance. It took me longer to read than many books on writing (say, Dani Shapiro’s, which I also really enjoyed).
And, while I was reading, I began to find kites and strings elsewhere in my stacks as well. Even in Olive Senior’s 2005 poetry collection, Under the Roofs of the World:
“In the sky
and the one
(And there were references in Alice Mattison’s book which informed the other reading in my stacks, in turn, like her discussion of the pastoral, which was helpful because I was reading André Alexis’ Pastoral.)
As far as kites and strings, the metaphor is discussed straightaway in Alice Mattison’s volume. “I needed abandon and control – a kite that takes off into the wind, a retraining string that’s unspooled a little at a time and pulled when necessary, a string that lets it fly, but not so far that it gets lost.”
But it’s not heavy-handed. And although there are some serious discussions, and a great deal to contemplate, there are also lots of brief snippets (as in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creating Beyond Fear, a recent favourite) which beg you to jot them down in a notebook (or, on a notebook, so you’ll open it and write, instead of read, at least sometimes).
Below are some of the jottings from my notebook: which is your favourite?
“Strong feeling, like it or not, marks every life. That’s our source.”
“Cherish the readers who offer more praise than you deserve, but find others as well – which may be more difficult. A critique should make you want to get back to work.”
“Can we say then that a plot is a series of events arranged in a way to arouse enough curiosity to carry us through a story? Except that events aren’t the only sources of curiosity, and even meandering, messy stories can take on just enough direction to keep us going.”
On honey and babies:
“In a story, if a jar of honey shatters on the floor just as the baby crawls in that direction, you need to stifle your impulse to snatch up the baby.”
“Coincidences happen in life; they are suspect only in art.”
“Throughout, the process will prove to be emotional as much as intellectual: often the problem is not what to do but how to find the nerve to do it.”
On transformation: “There is enough new incident not necessarily to change a character (some people never change) but to change the reader: we start someplace, go a distance, and return; or go a distance and arrive.”
And, finally, on revising:
“Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your work. With a long-sturdy string tied to your kite, go out on the windiest day of the year, toss it into the sky, and see what happens.”
Have you been reading about writing lately? Do you have any favourites on the subject? Have you enjoyed Alice Mattison’s fiction? Is this volume on your TBR?