Laura Oliver’s The Story Within is not your every day craft book. This is a whooping roller coaster over the highs and lows of the vocation of writing. Every writer has heard “Show, don’t tell.” I never thought I’d find an entire book on the craft of writing that page after page did just that over 26 topics of writerly discussion.
Full disclosure – Laura sent me the book, after I sent her my book No Red Pen: Writers, Writing Groups & Critique. We have never met, I’ve never been in her workshops, or as best I recall heard her speak. I don’t particularly like craft books as in general they make me sleepy and thus can only read them in small doses. (I’m on my second month reading a book on Poetics.) I was professionally interested in her work. I might learn something, more likely, I’d find something I might be able to use as I develop my own professional writer and teacher persona.
The Story Within is a page turner, can’t put down, tour de force packaged in of all things, a writing book. The entire book is a treasure trove.
Oliver starts with science, physics to be exact. Wow. The theme to that sitcom with the brainy nerds soundtracks the introduction for me. I picked up the book off a stack of a dozen or more waiting for my attention to read for a few moments in the bathroom as I was too lazy on my way to bed to turn on the bedroom light. Twenty minutes beyond the two minutes I’d allotted to read the intro I’m in bed, wondering how I can carve out time the next day, a non-preschool day, to read more. I find a way. While the toddler runs the electronic device’s battery down with games, videos and interactive books and we are cuddled together on the couch, I read the first half. Quiet Time after lunch gets me to the end of the book. I’ve laughed, cried, and been on the edge of my metaphorical seat. Along the journey, for it was as tumultuous a journey as any novel that has kept me way past bedtime, I kept experiencing ‘ah ha!’ moments. These were then filed away because what I was reading was what I could use in my own writing practice. Sometimes new ideas, sometimes just a different perspective, sometimes a reminder of something I already knew about but perhaps had forgotten or misplaced.
Laura Oliver is a skilled, imaginative writer with clear confidence, regard, and respect for her calling. This is important as her writing is matter of fact not presumptuous. Each chapter is a conversation in a best friend’s or long time neighbor’s kitchen. She interweaves her prose with quotes and passages from other authors’ work in such a way that a tapestry of craft emerges. Threads from the page link with the reader’s own experience creating what every writer I believe is seeking – connection. The individual is the collective universal experience. She adroitly creates doorways and windows into the writing process, each one an invitation. When a passage to illustrate the navigation of a story depicts a mother gathering her son in her lap, I am transported to my daughter’s bed, holding her safe so she can quiet and let herself be sleepy. Then I lay her back down, leave her to get there on her own, walking out to a quiet whisper of “Good night mommy.” The chapter’s point, the story entry is a direction not a conclusion, resonates.
I’ve always considered, no wait, I’m pretty damn proud, of my ability to create dialogue that is realistic. That’s not a chapter I expect to get much from when reading a craft book. I learned three new ways to consider and create better dialogue from Chapter 7. And, I have to hunt down a copy of Alan Elyshevitz’s story, “Noah’s Ark” from which Oliver drew for example. I have to know what happens.
In chapter 17 I’ve become so emotionally attuned to the examples and writing passages that in this chapter entitled “Spirit: Caring for the Writer” when she encourages “So get it all down now even if you don’t know what you are going to do with it. Capture on paper the first time you heard your son laugh, your parents harmonize to ‘Moon River,’ the smell of a dog who has rolled on a dead fish.” I am instantly transported. My daughter’s laugh, my mother’s voice, my favorite dog who rolled on a dead fish in January and stank so bad I had to give her a bath standing in a tiny shower because it was too cold for her to sleep in the truck. And was instantly overcome with grief because she has been dead and gone for almost ten years. “Write the damn book,” Laura Oliver says. Because memories fade with the living.
The Story Within promises “New Insights and Inspiration for Writers.” Laura Oliver delivers. Read the damn book. Because this is the book you will dog ear and mark up, will recommend and lend out or because you don’t want to lose, will buy and give away. This is the book for every cohort of writing students, and every emerging writer out there to invest in because it’s one that will not be sold back or garage saled.
U.S. $13.95 CAN $15.50
2011 Alpha Books