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Speaking Volumes : Two road maps through the worlds of secrets, tone and style : HOW TO WRITE: Advice and Reflections, By Richard Rhodes (William Morrow: $23; 229 pp.) : WRITING THE WORLD, By Kelly Cherry University of Missouri Press: $22.50; 147 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Frederick Busch | Frederick Busch's most recent book is "The Children in the Woods: New and Selected Stories." He is Fairchild Professor of Literature at Colgate University

Kelly Cherry is a fine novelist, poet, essayist and (I have no doubt) teacher. I read her for my soul's sake. Here, she writes essays over about 20 years; she rewords them, and they become this intelligent, pungent and useful book. Yet they also work novelistically, whether she wants them to or not, and in reading her "Writing the World," we live the psychic life of a child of art and poverty and childlike parents; we relive the long and no doubt tormented love between Cherry and a Latvian composer trapped in Latvia, and we feel it strain and probably break.

Biblical study is woven into the fabric of the writing life this book describes and demonstrates, and so is the effect of geographical travel in interior journeying, and the relationship between poetry and narrative prose. The language in which she writes about these matters is affected by the thematic reappearance of the incidents that she relates; the structure of this collection affects the prose, and this organic relationship of person and event, style and structure, is itself a living lesson in at least recognizing--whether or not the reader can re-create--such good writing.

While Cherry does intend to show us how she thinks art does its work, and how it is affected by such elements as those of her life that she revisits here--these tend to be the matters that serious writers meditate upon while waiting for a poem or story to strike. She does not pretend to tell her readers how to write as she does. So few of us are even half as gifted as this wonderful writer. But the reader would be well advised to try to emulate her. Re-creating for childhood wonder (and, clearly, her adult response to both the wonder and its provocation), Cherry writes this about her father's violin playing:

That fiddle has a tone so brilliant that when my father drew his bow across the strings, every otherwise dull and secondhand object in the apartment, from the flip-side toaster to the spindle on the turntable of the 78-speed record player, gleamed as if newly polished. This is a fiddle that hushed all city sounds; I think the kids stopped roller-skating just to hear its glorious voice.

Note that the recollection employs the past tense while the fiddle has, the fiddle is: It sounds to her, sings to her, enchants her, right now, but instead of saying that, she demonstrates its now-ness. We know that a record called a 78 plays at a certain speed, but try describing the record player aloud without the word speed : the sentence would clatter and stagger into its closing clause. Cherry's writing hand knew that--she didn't, I guarantee, tell herself that right here she had to inject a monosyllable with a long vowel sound; in such instances, unlearnable art (not teachable craft) takes place.

From this essay, "Art and Redemption," we know that the family lived in a city, but the sentence tells us that the fiddle "hushed all city sounds": try to write that clause without the city and see how the rhythm is hobbled, flattened, generalized; she is writing verbal music about violin music, about the music of her difficult and fascinating childhood's inner life. Inside the young artist, the exterior world is silenced by a magical father, and by his powerful art. Cherry can and no doubt did spot in her own prose what I've just pointed out. And, seeing it, she could teach about it. But she could not teach the ability to do it. And that is the difference between her fine book and Richard Rhodes'.

Rhodes is a writer of both fiction and what he calls "verity"--what I would call expository narratives or nonfictional prose. His 1973 novel of the Donner Party, "The Ungodly," is a large and memorable achievement (and his own favorite fiction). His 1986 "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" won the Pulitzer Prize. "A Hole in the World," his devastating memoir of childhood abuse, will hold a permanent place in that Dickensian category we are forced to create for stories of the war we wage on our young.

For 25 years he has supported his family, educated his children, and made his way in both the literary and journalistic worlds. He knows much about each and tries to tell it. "How to Write" is both a professional memoir and a guide for those condemned to try to write. Because he is a practical writer, and because he has achieved so considerable in this awful trade, Rhodes assumes a confidence, or sounds, for the sake of this student reader, like a confident teacher: "If your want to write, you can," he rashly promises.

He goes on to show how, theoretically, a devoted and energetic fledgling writer could make some money or some small reputation, or both, in writing prose. He tells his readers that writers must read--that "all the craft of books is found in books. Not the life--the craft."

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