Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stephen Koch's The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction

Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.

In this second of two installments, Carol considers perspective as discussed in the popular fiction writers reference book: The Modern Library Writer's Workshop.


In Koch’s extraordinary book, he commands, “Whatever feeling you ask the reader to join, let it be strong. If your talent is connected to your passion, it will all find expression in a thousand signs, in turns that will be too multiple in meaning for one simple value judgment. The real issue isn’t whether you love or hate your characters. The real issue, whatever the bond, is the vitality and force of what you do feel.” (111)

With almost every sentence highlighted in my copy of Koch’s book, I find his perspective profound. I relish my discoveries about inventing and re-inventing myself as a writer. I also find Koch’s personal stories poignant.

When Koch shares the anecdote of informing his student, three weeks from her graduation deadline that her work is a mess, that she must toss it and start over (163-165), I froze, then panicked. Through Koch’s capable storytelling, however, I calmed and understood the merit of his counsel.

I read Koch’s personal story at the conclusion of the book and wish, as he had, that a book like “this one” had been available to him. I also wish that The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield had been published before 2003 so that Koch could have referenced it in his fifteen pages of “Notes,” in his twelve-page index, and in his text.

Finally, as I read Koch’s perspective and reverence for W. Somerset Maugham “whose notebook is one of the most instructive ever to have gotten out of the desk drawer and into print” and whose “notes on places (Maugham visited) are models of how to capture a setting and the atmosphere of place and time” (214), I reflected on all I had learned.
I appreciate Sandra Scofield’s suggestion to read Koch’s book. I value the voices of writers through the years sharing their own perspectives with me. At times I wish Koch had not bounced from one writer to another so quickly for I felt I was at a tennis tournament with my thoughts going back and forth, again and again, to grasp the insight of Hemingway then the perspective of Kerouac, the brilliance of Austen then the humor of Lamott. Nevertheless, I celebrate Koch’s applause of those writers for whom I am their ideal Reader, including W. Somerset Maugham whose literary work, The Moon and Sixpence, is one of my favorite books.

Ultimately, I cherish this book. I plan to reference Koch’s words and ideas often as I find my way on the path to discover the story I most want to tell. I also cherish my stroll through the history of lawn tennis, particularly my final discovery.

Upon reading that Dwight Davis, a student at Harvard, chose the lawns of the Longwood Cricket Club as the site of the first Davis Cup tennis tournament played between the United States and Britain in 1900, I was stunned. After all, the Longwood Cricket Club is on Hammond Street in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, across from the CVS Pharmacy, on the street that intersects with Heath, mere walking distance from Pine Manor College, the place where I first learned of Stephen Koch.

This serendipity reminds me to thank Sandra Scofield for recommending this book. It also thrills me that Koch is hitting the ball into my court as he reminds me with a rallying cheer: “Your business is spinning the dusty straw of your uncertainty and fear into the pure gold of clarity and conviction. It is the task of a lifetime.” (29)

The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, Stephen Koch, 2003, Modern Library, an imprint of Random House Publishers

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