Books about the craft of writing often make big promises. Typically written for an audience of aspiring authors who long for the guidance of an expert, a lot of writing craft books insist that they hold the secret key to helping unlock the novels, stories, poems, and memoirs that we carry within our hearts, just waiting for the right spark to make the words burst onto the page, the right creative method that will take us from “once upon a time” to “happily ever after.” We can achieve our creative goals, such books tell us, if only we follow the author’s advice.
But far too often, this advice feels overwhelming. It discourages us more than it uplifts us. I think this happens, in part, because many writing craft books tend to talk at us—lecture and assign us homework—instead of talking with us, bringing us into conversation with an author who is being as vulnerable as we are.
Edited by Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina of the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University, Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing is a writing craft book that succeeds where so many others fail. With contributors coming from the worlds of literary fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and Canadian publishing, Resonance is a bit like having a writing community in the shape of a book. Through forty-three bite-size personal essays, the contributors invite us to peek inside their writing lives and join in their creative strategies. The result is not the instructional writing craft book that many of us will be familiar with, but rather a merging of words of support with practical tips for exploring in our own creative processes the ideas shared in each essay.
The essays are generally four to six pages in length, making them super readable, and each one ends with a prompt or exercise. Some of the essays are more reflective, especially in the early chapters, which focus on pre-writing and inspiration, as well as in the later chapters, which offer insight into the publishing industry from some of Canada’s top indie publishers, including Leigh Nash (formerly of Invisible Publishing, now of House of Anansi) and Brian Lam (of Arsenal Pulp Press). This organization creates an excellent “bookending” effect that kept my mind expanding in new directions of possibility for creative work and the motivations behind it.
The middle chapters, which focus on writing and revision, are full of concise, practical guidance on everything from balancing exposition (telling) with scenes (showing) to whether or not you should revisit “the draft in the drawer.” I especially appreciate Jen Sookfong Lee’s “Cultural Checklist” and her exercises to help deal with potential issues around representation and appropriation, as well as Betsy Warland’s extremely useful exercise for determining where/how one’s manuscript is faltering. These are topics that I see come up repeatedly in online forums, so many writers will value having these resources.
Another thing I really appreciate about Resonance overall is that many of the essays open with a problem or a point of struggle or uncertainty. For example, in her essay “In Praise of Daydreams and Laundry,” Christina Myers confronts our collective tendency to undervalue quiet, slow, or “in-between” moments. The moments that the hustle culture of capitalism calls lazy or unproductive. To challenge this capitalist outlook, Myers explains that these “in-between” moments are actually integral to the pre-writing process because they allow our ideas to simmer in both our consciousness and subconsciousness. In the prompt that concludes her essay, Myers asks us to “notice when you feel guilty or when you berate yourself about ‘wasted’ time, and try to re-evaluate that thought process to shift towards understanding the value in this time as part of your writing life” (43).
This kind of compassionate advice about the craft and life of writing can only be born from having experienced the struggles first hand and from being willing to talk about them. Writing with the recognition that they share the same struggles as the readers of the collection is how the contributors remain supportive throughout. This is what separates Resonance from so many other books in the market.
Although some of the tips and prompts presented in the essays may be familiar to some of us (such as recording minute details in notebooks and the importance of setting to plot), the point of Resonance is not novelty but rather conversation: about writing, yes, but also about struggling, faltering, experimenting, tangling and untangling, and finding your way toward a completed book, a more soul-satisfying creative process, or a more resonant idea.
This wayfinding won’t always be in a straight line, and in fact many of the contributors helpfully discuss it as a continual looping back on one’s process and ideas. Wayde Compton’s essay “The Rupture” is especially poignant. In it, Compton describes an experience that is common to pretty much every writer: the moment when you realize your original vision for your book won’t work. Compton calls this experience “the rupture.” “And it’s a bad feeling,” he writes. “A terrible one” (181). He explains that when faced with the rupture and the bad feeling that accompanies it, many writers ignore it and persist in working on unpublishable things, while others accept it but become debilitated by it, to the point that they stop writing.
The trick to dealing with the rupture, Compton says, is to grapple with it head on, “because the rupture, as awful as it feels, is usually the assertion of great opportunity. What feels like the failure of a project is, in disguise, the chance to make it better, if you’re willing to adapt and listen” (181). Compton goes on to talk about the rupture that occurred while he was writing his first book of poetry, 49th Parallel Psalm, and how he used the rupture to create a much more complex book than he had originally planned.
By sharing with us not only their successes but also their struggles, meanderings, and seemingly quiet or “inactive” moments, Compton and the other contributors model for us a healthful relationship to the craft and life of writing that is as practical as it is spiritual or psycho-emotional. This makes Resonance an excellent companion for writers at any stage of their career.
Resonance: Essays on the Craft and Life of Writing
Eds. Andrew Chesham and Laura Farina; Anvil Press, 2022; 248 pages, $22 CAD
Erin Della Mattia is a writer and freelance editor from Brampton, Ontario. Her work has appeared in The Puritan and in the fairytale anthology Sharper Than Thorns. Connect with her on Instagram @erindellamattia.editorial and her website erindellamattia.com.