That great French lark-meister and sometime surrealist Louis Aragon once got in a jam when what he mischievously called his “novel-that-was-not-a-novel” veered too close to fact. He had described, in 1924, the illicit underworld of the Passage de l’Opéra-one of Paris’s famed shopping arcades, a “ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and professions”—which was soon to be demolished for an access way to the Boulevard Haussmann. Aragon’s rank imagination, the arcade’s shopkeepers charged, had tarnished them with tales of debauchery and titillation. Come clean! they cried. Our reputations! Who has supplied you with these secrets and lies? “Good people, harken to me, I get all my information straight from heaven,” Aragon replied in Paris Peasant. “The secrets of each of you, like those of language and of love, are revealed to me each night, and there are nights in broad daylight.”
Aragon’s revelatory smudging of fiction and fact came to mind as I paged through Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction (Bloomsbury, 284 pp., $14.95), a new manual for the somnambulists among us. Whole wards of sleepers turn out in broad daylight these days, pillows akimbo, manuscripts billowing from pajama pockets, novels and stories and character sketches in varying shades of illumination. Damnable pleasures? Darn right. “It’s a fact,” notes GWW dean of faculty Alexander Steele, who edited this volume, “a staggering number of people out there harbor an intense desire to create fiction.” Over 6,000 students served, says the Workshop, among them a glorious menagerie—”doctors, lawyers, accountants, janitors, policemen, undertakers, housewives, retirees, students, psychics, zookeepers”—all seekers after their own unseemly selves.
They will find this a perfectly useful guide. There are wise nudges toward the mastery of craft (“Know Thy Theme”; “Excommunicate Those Latinisms”; “Don’t Be a Chimp”). There are bankable tips on the use of dialogue (“exclamation points in dialogue tend to make statements sound like lovesick teenage e-mail”) and blunt words on revision (“It’s okay if a first draft sucks; it should suck; it’s supposed to suck”). There is a whole point-of-view menu, including the ever attractive “unreliable” narrator, plus the good old third person omniscient, upon which we are urged: “Relish your godlike ability to know and see everything.” Still, my favorite imperative of the book is the first-person narration drill: “Get inside someone’s skin.” Aragon would approve zestily.
Welcome pointers all. But is the craft of fiction really teachable? Life, let’s just say, is eminently teachable. And Writing Fiction shows how to live it to the hilt. “What is in your character’s refrigerator right now?” the guide asks as it presses writers beyond the blue-eyed-and-fair-haired school of characterization. It’s a swell question. (A geranium? A ham hock?) The possibilities are fiendish and unlimited. Elsewhere, the guide helpfully advises: “A character should want something.” (Shouldn’t we all?) By far the most compelling aspect of this book, though, is the gusto it takes in writing done well. Its many citations of top-drawer passages are bolts straight out of Aragon’s magical-mystery dreamscape. We find a life-changing (it did mine, anyway) line from James Joyce: “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” We’re treated to Holden Caulfield’s exchange with a cabdriver in The Catcher in the Rye, still sublime as ever:
“Hey, Horwitz,” I said. “You ever pass by the lagoon in Central Park? Down by Central Park South?”
“The lagoon. That little lake, like, there. Where the ducks are. You know.”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, you know the ducks that swim around in it? In the springtime and all? Do you happen to know where they go in the wintertime, by any chance?”
“Where who goes?”
Makes you want to backstroke through the Pond and nuzzle a mallard or two, right? And there’s—indulge me here—more doublelicious Joyce: ” . . . to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” There are also thimblefuls of Fitzgerald, snippets of Lorrie Moore and Flannery O’Connor, and a running mini-colloquium on Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral”—that omphalos of modern short fiction—which is appended in its entirety. “This blind man,” it begins, “an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.”
The best lesson of Writing Fiction, I’m trying to say, is the existential one. Shouldn’t we be the fabulists of our own lives? “There are strange flowers of reason to match each error of the senses,” Aragon observed about the hothouse byways of the mind. “Admirable gardens of absurd beliefs, forebodings, obsessions and frenzies. Unknown, ever-changing gods take shape there. I shall contemplate these leaden faces, these hemp-seeds of the imagination. How beautiful you are in your sand-castles, you columns of smoke!” These are the fictions of our secret selves. Go ahead, give them heed. Write them down. These strange flowers—they’re all we’ve got.