Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life

Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life

Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi, Editors

“‘Bringing the Devil To His Knees’ brings to the reader exactly the right mix of wisdom and humility. The solutions these writers offer to problems of craft and presentation are hard-earned, and it is the difficult cost of their knowledge, and the clarity with which they explain it, that makes this such an important and helpful book. It’s less How To than What If?, which seems to me the wisest and most practical tact for a book of this sort to take. I would put it on my bookshelf between other indispensable guides to fictional craft—Flaubert’s Letters and Madame Bovary itself.”
— Michael Parker, author of Towns Without Rivers and Don’t Make Me Stop Now

Bringing the Devil to His Knees: The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life is a collection of essays for fiction writers who have learned that, as editors Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi write in their introduction, “A person—with the best of intentions—can learn the basics of how to write a story from a book of do’s-and-don’ts and still be unable to write a good story.”

The essays, all adapted from lectures given at residencies of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, are by established writers “considering the questions they ask themselves, questions about craft and knowledge and practice that enables a writer of fiction to transcend mere competence.”

The book takes its title from one of Anton Chekhov’s letters:

Everything I have written up to now is trifling compared to
that which I would like to write and would write with great
pleasure…Either I am a fool and a self-conceited person, or
I am a being capable of becoming a good writer; I am
displeased and bored with everything now being written,
while everything in my head interests, moves, and excites
me—whence I draw the conclusion that no one is doing what
is needed, and I alone know the secret of how it should be
done. In all likelihood everyone who writes thinks that. In
fact, the devil himself will be brought to his knees by these

In their introduction, the editors offer an overview of the books’ contents:

The essays are divided into three categories. The first includes those considerations most often gathered under the catch-all category of formal techniques. These essays comprise two on the subject of voice, one being that of Chuck Wachtel, the other that of Steven Schwartz; Richard Russo’s essay on point of view, with particular attention to the question of omniscience; Joan Silber’s comments on “weight”—the sense of a subject’s importance—in short fiction; and Charles Baxter’s notes on inflection. Susan Neville considers mindful villainy as a necessary aid to plot, and Jim Shepard warns against the dangers of epiphany. Here, too, we encounter Debra Spark’s help on “getting in and getting out” of a story and Ehud Havazelet’s observations on Chekhov and form.

A number of the essays begin with a metaphor for the acts of the imagination that result in fiction or the process of fiction making. In this category we find Robert Boswell’s meditation on architectural spandrels; Peter Turchi’s equation of cartography and fiction writing; C.J. Hribal’s commentary on the need for scene setting as the answer to a form of readerly hunger, allegorized wittily as “the scene beast”; Karen Brennan’s observations about fictional perseveration and confabulation as seen through the difficult and harrowing recovery of her daughter from a brain trauma; and Antonya Nelson’s intricate (and serious) reading of the joke form as an analogy, or base, of storytelling itself.

The last category sees all these activities from a slightly greater distance, where overall aesthetic strategies begin to touch other realms, particularly the social and political; no purely formal writing tactics can be separated from other matters of equal or greater importance. Here Pablo Medina addresses the issues of politically charged identities in “Literature and Democracy”; Michael Martone asks how the (conventional) ruination of a story might provide its (paradoxical) salvation; Kevin McIlvoy writes letters, as an editor, to a writer who is safely if uneasily dead; Margot Livesey suggests ways of approaching truth itself, in “How to Tell a True Story”; and Judith Grossman reminds us that there are, after all, readers to keep in mind.

None of these essays presumes to tell the reader how to write. At best this book will be suggestive, informative, and inspiring. Instead of blind self-assurance, the authors offer possibilities, assuming that whoever reads this is interested in writing as a life activity over the long haul and knows better than to believe there is an easy route to a destination worth reaching.

Bringing the Devil to his Knees is a companion volume to Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, edited by Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt, published by the University of Michigan Press. All of the contributors to both books have donated 100% of their royalties to scholarships for writers.

Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers

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