Vivid and Continuous: Essays and Exercises for Writing Fiction
by John McNally
University of Iowa Press
Good advice often feels so obvious that the advisee unthinkingly assumes she’s following it – after all, if it’s so basic, who wouldn’t? In his Vivid and Continuous, a collection of essays on the craft of fiction writing, John McNally dispenses just such good advice and then does one better: he uses humor, some gentle prodding and a healthy amount of candor to get the reader to see that she, too, could stand to take his advice to heart.
The book is designed as a supplement to the standard meat-and-potatoes writing primer, which allows McNally to speak on aspects of interest to those who have been writing seriously for several years. The result is a series of heartfelt essays in which McNally draws on experiences from his own life in order to make a broader point. For example, in “The Ideal Reader,” McNally explains that his mother was very intelligent and a great storyteller, but never had the opportunity to get an education beyond the eighth grade. She seldom read, but when she did, she chose romance novels, even though she found them tedious.
So, whenever McNally came home after a semester of college, he would give his mother the books he had been assigned, great works like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Wright’s Black Boy and Carver’s Cathedral. These small gifts, which were appreciated and enjoyed, would lead to conversations – and McNally’s realization that his mother was one of his ideal readers:
What my mother reminds me, even now, is that it’s possible to write a complex, intelligent book without alienating your reader. ...If my colleagues – all English literature professors – enjoy my books, that’s fine, too, but truth be told, they’re not my ideal readers. I’m sure some of them (not all) think I’m not experimental enough or that the ideas in my books aren’t as challenging as they could be or that my books aren’t nihilistic enough. Well, too bad. If I ever write a book that wouldn’t have been accessible to my mother, shame on me.
McNally champions straightforward, mimetic prose, though he stresses that the story must be told from an original, empathetic position. In the essay “Subject Matter,” McNally outlines the fourteen failed story types he encounters most often as a teacher of writing (such as ‘The Dead Grandmother Story,’ ‘Surprise!’ and ‘Short Stories about Short Stories (about Short Stories)’). Characteristically, McNally describes his hard-won insight on the topic with a light touch:
I’m in a unique position because I have read well over a million pages of fiction written by beginning writers – frighteningly, this is not an exaggerated figure – but also because I have edited theme-based anthologies, for which I often put out calls for submissions, and what I discovered was that for every broad subject there’s a default story.
However, rather than simply admonish the reader to avoid default story types, McNally describes the pitfalls of the fourteen most common, why a young writer may want to avoid a given default topic altogether – and then gives examples of published work that succeed despite the potential hazards. (The Great Gatsby doesn’t feel second-hand and distant, despite being a ‘Hearsay Story,’ for instance.) As McNally puts it, the goal is not necessarily to avoid writing stories of a particular mold – rather, it is “to think carefully about the default version and the almost insurmountable task of transcending it.”
Like any true craftsman, McNally isn’t afraid of digging into the details. In his essay, “Immediacy,” he catalogues twenty mistakes he finds frequently in beginning writing, ranging from ‘Redundancies’ to ‘No Control of Psychic Distance.’ He delves into the specifics of each error, and gives tips on how a writer can avoid them in his own work. While some of these straightforward technical essays are realistically of interest only to writers, many of his essays describe a writing problem so well – and McNally does such a good job inserting his personality into the collection – that one can’t help but follow along.
In fact, the collection displays McNally’s own writing skill: it’s easy to become attached to his casual charm and diagnostic acumen. In his final essay, “Humility,” he describes an incident that fostered his own growth as a writer. He concludes the anecdote by saying, “…if I had been committed to the view of myself as a genius, as someone who didn’t need advice from someone with much more experience (an accomplished writer), I wouldn’t be writing this essay today.” Of course, McNally has since become an accomplished writer himself (he’s published three novels and two short-story collections), though his modesty still suffuses the collection, making his advice all the more powerful – and making Vivid and Continuous a valuable read.