What About the Baby?

September 1, 2021

As a writer, I’m also a reader – both pursuits are intrinsically linked, in competition for the betterment of each other. Since I write fiction, I read mostly fiction, often selecting books that explore the complexities of relationships and the undercurrent of essence in ordinary lives. Occasionally I read nonfiction, if I’m particularly interested in a person, place, or thing. And sometimes I read books about work, about writing, and grammar. Among those that sit on my shelf are how-to’s by Anne Lamott, Stephen King, William Strunk and E.B White, Patricia O’Conner, and Mary Norris – and now Alice McDermott.

What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction Writing is a 200-page volume of advice doled out in chapters covering topics as narrow as sentencing and as broad as story. McDermott leans heavily on wisdom gleaned from other writers, as well as her own experience, her decades of successes. This is to be expected, yes? We seek advice from those who’ve done well, from the masters. As a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for three of her eight novels, McDermott is no one-hit-wonder.

She was recognized early in her career, publishing her first novel by thirty. She’s published stories and essays in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other noteworthy periodicals, and she taught creative fiction at Johns Hopkins University for more than twenty years. She’s good, and she knows she’s good. And yet, there’s a humbleness about her that’s both charming and telling.

“ It sometimes happens that immediately after I give a reading – especially if I’ve read something new and untried, something I’ve never spoken out loud before – I am at a loss to know: one, if anything I’ve written has made any sense; two, if the audience has even heard me; and three, if I should burn the manuscript. I find myself in a kind of stunned perplexity, a pathetic state of cluelessness, anxiety, doubt, and regret that cannot be penetrated by even the kindest, most reassuring response.”

Me, too, Alice!

“ Over the years I have had some experience with going to my desk every day – pulling toward land, if you will – with a heavy heart, like men going to execution, convinced that I had neither story enough, talent enough, luck enough to get the damn thing completed, that only windy ambition was driving me dangerously on to catastrophe, that I was hastening my destruction with my own hands.”

Me, too, Alice!

And yet, McDermott is clearly talented, decidedly driven, and passionate enough about writing to give “fledging writers” the benefit of her knowledge and study, her patience and her time.

A few pieces of advice from the book:

  • Clarity is achieve by careful use of detail – “detail of place, detail of face, of dress and sound and smell and gesture.”
  • Writers have been forever told to show the action, to put it center stage. There is a time for this, of course. And there’s a time to simply tell your reader what she needs to know. As McDermott says: “Exposition makes drama.”
  • To thine own self be true. “Don’t look around for your true subject – not to today’s hot topics, certainly not to the books of the moment…look inward, to the old verities and truths of the human heart…” It’s tempting for writers to write to the market, to write what their agents or publishers tell them will sell. Doing so may be financially rewarding, but it is satisfying?

Books about writing can give writers the pep talk they occasionally need. The books can be encouraging, instructional, affirming, and even humorous. What they cannot do, unfortunately, is write the novel for you.

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