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September 14, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Writing

Marguerite Duras,

translated from the French

by Mark Polizzotti

Lumen/Brookline Books: 92 pp., $14.95 paper

"No matter what I say, I will never discover why one writes and how one doesn't write." That enigmatic sentence, which appears on Page 5 of this collection of four stories and an essay on writing, echoes physicist Stephen Hawking's confession that, while he might someday know how the universe works, he will never know why. This is not a book that can tell you how to write, but it certainly leaves you with a sense of why you might be called to do so and whether you have the temperament to sustain a writing life. Solitude is important to Duras. "One does not find solitude, one creates it," she maintains. Solitude is risky, even dangerous, because it increases the possibility of depression and mania. But one cannot, she emphasizes, write without it. Furthermore, you must not begin with any solid ideas: "To be without ... the slightest idea for a book is to find yourself, once again, before ... [a] vast emptiness ... something terrible, terrible to overcome." A little dramatic, perhaps, but Duras weeds out the pretenders, those who put structure over ideas, those who write only for money, those for whom there is no risk. "Writing also means ... [k]eeping silent. Screaming without sound." It's good to be reminded of the scream. "[W]hat makes writing wild," she says, is "the savageness of forests, as ancient as time

*

The Pen

Commandments

A Guide for the Beginning Writer

Steven Frank

Pantheon: 316 pp., $19.95

And now for something completely different. Frank humbly offers "the basic principles" of good writing. He's more concerned than Duras with giving beginning writers guidelines, and even hope. Duras is to be read during intelligent procrastination. Frank is to be read as you write. But you don't have to swallow it all.

Some principles are more time-tested and independent of sheer talent than others. "Show, don't tell," for example, is one that always seems to work. "Honoring the reader" is something Duras probably never gave much thought to. But you can't teach rhythm, and the section on finding your voice may tempt you to return to Duras' scary, solitary world.

Frank's notes on economy of language will be helpful to most of us, though some fine writers like Dave Eggers or David Foster Wallace or even James Joyce aren't wed to parsimony. Frank is generous; he doesn't want anyone to be frightened away from the sport because they don't know the rules.

*

Writing Fiction

The Practical Guide From

New York's Acclaimed

Creative Writing School

The Gotham Writers' Workshop

faculty, edited by Alexander Steele

Bloomsbury: 292 pp., $14.95 paper

This handy guide comes complete with a copy of Raymond Carver's story "Cathedral" in the appendix. Just in case, after reading "Writing Fiction," you assume you actually could. "We believe writing is a craft that can be taught," write Workshop founders Jeff Fligelman and David Grae. And they set about with great enthusiasm and energy to outline the principles of Character, Plot, Point of View, Dialogue, Voice, Theme and Setting.

Forget the beret. Forget the solitude. You can also forget the mania, because by the time you finish reading this book you might never set pen to paper. Each chapter includes exercises (some are a lot of fun), but there is altogether too much boiling down for my taste: We're told that plot should be centered around one question, characters must be consistent and one must begin a story at the right place. If everyone followed these suggestions, all our novels would be, like Disney movies, fundamentally the same.

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