The Craft is a new e-book series that provides writers the essential tools to sharpen their stories and essays. Volume I offers an exclusive glimpse into the Yale Writers’ Conference. Each craft essay was composed by a master teacher and is filled with expert advice and creative strategies to inspire writers.
The e-book form creates a layered web of instruction. Hyperlinks and linked-video expand the discussion about plot, voice, setting and the creative process. It’s an accessible and affordable resource for every writers’ digital library. Perfect for course adoption.
“The Craft is, flat-out, the coolest guide to the, well, the craft of writing that I’ve ever come across. It unfolds into a practical, laid-back companion for writers to lean on, offering not only great strategies, but counsel and sustenance as well.”
—Christopher Torockio, Eastern Connecticut State University
Introduction: "Getting Unstuck" by Jotham Burrello
The windows in room 211 of Yale’s Linsly-Chittenden Hall are long and narrow like those of a cathedral. The classroom is rectangular, easily holds sixty chairs, and is well equipped with an overhead projector and a computer, like most college classrooms today, but I prefer the old-school chalkboards. Of course there is never any chalk, so I pack my own. I have arranged thirty chairs in five rows. I scribble notes on corporate publishing and indie presses and make a diagram about the art and commerce of writing. My one-hour craft elective on publishing starts in fifteen minutes. Writers attending the conference trickle in with their coffee and notebooks, and I enlist a student from my workshop to pass around handouts. I step behind the front table to review my outline for the session. The table is a sturdy blond oak, very Dead Poets Society. At 9:58 I run down my opening gambit one last time. The room is three-quarters full.
Conference director Terry Hawkins conceived the craft electives based on feedback he’d received from conference alumni: they wished there was a way to tap into the collective know-how of the entire resident faculty. As I prep in room 211, around the corner in 210 Nathaniel Rich is reviewing his notes on noir and crime fiction; in 204 Sybil Baker and Xu Xi prepare their final thoughts on expat literature; and in 208 Terry and Kirsten Bakis ready their cross-genre writing materials. We have to be finished by 11:00 for the next group. Fifteen different craft talks will be delivered twice over the course of the day. My second talk is at 4:00.
I remove my watch and set it on the blond oak; I am attempting to cram a semester’s worth of lessons into fifty minutes. Three students from my creative nonfiction section sit together in the second row holding coffee cups from Atticus Bookstore/Café. They’ve formed bonds during the first week. I can make out Nat’s voice down the hall. I glance at the time. It’s 10:00. I pick up an old copy of Quarterly West. “Good morning everyone. I want to start with a short remembrance George Saunders wrote to the literary journal....” And so we begin our sprint.
After my talk I review my outline, make some changes for the afternoon session, and walk across the hall to room 205 to hear my friend Sergio Troncoso’s talk on multicultural lit. I take a seat to his left on the curve of a massive oval table that seems to have been stolen from Hogwarts. The ten writers assembled are discussing effective dialogue, and Sergio reads an exchange from his novel From This Wicked Patch of Dust. Listening to Sergio read, I first wonder about my own use of dialogue, then how I could share his advice with my writer friends and students. I also wonder how they got that damn table into room 205.
Writing teachers and writing programs are always squawking about the craft of writing, that writerly toolbox of setting, image, character, point of view, structure, and what have you. It’s the tangible part of the process, and while we can argue (preferably over a beer) whether writing can be taught, certainly we can agree that this craft stuff can be identified and practiced. Craft discussions with students during office hours lead to scholarship, which leads to the craft essay. I’m a fan. But craft essays are sneaky little bastards. They harbor kernels of advice that can stow away for years and then suddenly rocket to the front of my mind. This can happen anytime I am writing off the page: running, sitting in traffic, writing in my journal, or zoned out at the computer screen at 5:00 a.m. with a hot mug between my mitts. Creative work has its own gestation period, and the craft essays I keep on file are a reservoir of inspiration and practical how-tos to help me navigate each twist on the dimly lit creative road.
After I wrap up my second talk, which goes much smoother, I dump my bag in my dorm room and head out for a quick jog around New Haven before dinner. (Running is how, to borrow a phrase from Marc Fitten, I excite my limbic system.) On my run I spot Terry talking on his cell phone outside the Beinecke Library.
“Terry, I got an idea.”
“Hold on a sec.” Terry turns and presses his iPhone to his chest. “What?” “I want to publish the craft talks.”
“You’re not going to do it right now are you?” I shake my head. “Then go run, and I’ll keep talking.” I nod. “Sorry about that,” Terry says into the phone, “Jotham has another idea. Now where were we?”
The book idea is still raw in the middle, but as I bound down Elm Street, I have the idea to invite the summer faculty to write craft essays, either directly from their craft electives or something original. I would encourage them to use their own work as examples. And most importantly, I want to keep the voice loose; just a bunch of writers chatting over a beer. I want a mixture of advice and exercises. The type of eclectic anthology I could use in a class. The type I rarely see in print.
After dinner I find Marc Fitten sitting at a picnic table in the Calhoun House quad and pitch him the idea. Scratch that. It was later, I think, during his “unofficial office hours” at the recently defunct Anchor, a local dive with blue booths and sticky floors. Amid the dimly lit grime, students and teachers would connect, drink, and geek out talking about writing. On occasion notepaper and pens would be dispersed from a knapsack for a writing game that was played until the handwriting became illegible. Marc digs the idea of a craft book. And he’s a tech guy—his Samsung is as big as my head—so he understands the digital angle. Over a few drinks he talks me through his proposed essay on the creative process. Later in the Calhoun quad (it must have been Calhoun this time), John Crowley agrees to contribute a piece on commonplace books. By the the last day of the conference, I have enough faculty members engaged to begin the project. Yale stalwart Richard Selzer agrees to anchor the anthology, granting me permission to reprint his essay “The Exact Location of the Soul,” an essay I discovered teaching a CNF class.
For a previous project with Janet Burroway on the revision process, I chose a visual format, a DVD with PDF files. For Elephant Rock Books’s craft book series, I picked the e-book format because of the miracle of hyperlinks—really a miracle (my college textbooks were limited by the space-time continuum)—putting a trove of archives, interviews, videos, and music just a click away. I assigned conference alum and ERB associate editor Andrea Arnold to read the drafts—asking questions as a student—and to add hyperlinks. The versatility of the e-book expands the discourse (and allows for cool videos of dolphins blowing bubbles). I could teach a fifteen-week course with all this material.
Twenty-eight years ago at Bloomington High School South my creative writing teacher, Mr. Mann, handed out a xeroxed copy of a Paris Review interview with James Baldwin. Ten years later in graduate school at Columbia College Chicago my professor Eric May taught Baldwin. Last month in an interview I gave about Elephant Rock Books I quoted Baldwin. The trove of writing about writing doesn’t fade away, it builds, quote by quote, exercise by exercise. Some of it is redundant, but the majority offers inspiration when a writer’s imaginative cache is running low. All writers, regardless of experience, start with a blank page, and all of us get stuck. And many of us return to writing on writing to get unstuck. I invite readers and writers at every level to pull up a stool and join the students and faculty of the Yale Writers’ Conference for a conversation about what we all love most—the writing.