It was the subtitle of this book about writing that drew me to it: The Craft and Soul of Writing. The use of the word "soul" in connection with writing stopped me in my tracks. I too believe that good writing comes from the soul, yet my writing always has sounded more like a lawyer's brief than a soulful memoir or story. And so I wondered... Might this book free me from my mental prison? My hopes soared when on the first page, I read, "The whole of life can be a meditation, even writing." Clearly, I was in the hands of a philosopher as well as a writer. Here was a book which combined practical guidelines with spiritual experience.
I left the bookstore, looking at the book's unusual cover—a picture of an elderly fellow seated in a large old rowboat, its empty space in the rear crowded with colorful flowers. He uses a single wooden oar to paddle through the wide open sea as sprays of watery foam hit his face and obstruct his view. I see this as a metaphor for the obstacles and endlessly murky situations humans encounter as they row their way through each and every day, experiencing both the beauty they enjoy and the unpredictable vicissitudes that inevitably become obstacles along the way.
Numerous brilliant, relevant quotes by famous people appear on every page of The Way of Story. They remind the reader of the importance of soul to writing, of the path that writing must take in order to include the elusive soul. I read the profound and unique philosophies of such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Rimbaud, Harold Clurman, Lao Tzu, and many more, all of whom guide us to honor the soul. And we honor the soul by listening, by being still, by believing passionately in ourselves. "Passion," Jones writes, "must come first, then craft. The essence of Art is to use the outer form to convey an inner experience. This sacred thread, your innermost being or Soul, binds you emotionally to what you write, and if given respect, will lead you on to the desired end. Stories written from this center will move mountains—and even create livelihoods. Years ago, when interviewed by the New York Times about my approach to teaching, I was quoted as saying, 'We've become lopsided living only in our heads. Writing, in order to serve the Soul, must integrate outer craft with the inner world of intuition and feeling.'"
This book has become my bible because I am among those who are lopsided. And for all those writers who believe they are lopsided, Jones offers excellent guidance. Among the numerous suggestions she offers is a remarkable exercise called Soul Dialogue, in which she guides us to envision our soul, to learn from it what it wants, what it truly wants, and sincerely wishes to communicate to others. This message pervades her book. One of the many quotes I will always remember comes from another spiritual teacher—Butoh, a famous Japanese dancer: "The Soul is the important thing. Form will follow."
Form is the craft; soul, the art and passion. The author insists that the goal of writing is to reach the essence of feeling. She shares stories revealing how she has achieved this. An example was a day when Jones was in an acting class with the famous teacher, Uta Hagen. Jones was playing Ophelia. Having already played Shakespearean roles for a well known director in England, she felt confident that her improvisation was a good one. Until Ms. Hagen shouted, "I want you to play an Ophelia I believe goes to the bathroom!" At the time, she was stunned by her failure, but she carries this lesson over to writing. "Characters," she reminds us, "must be three-dimensional, grounded, and not just an extension of the writer's projected aesthetic imagination."
The essence of the author's advice is to dare to be personal. Jones reminds us that how we remember is how we give meaning to our lives. Lao Tzu asks, "How do I know about the world?" His answer: "By what is within me"—five important words I have placed on my mirror where I can see them each morning before I begin my day.
Catherine Ann Jones does not overlook the supreme importance of craft, and she is nothing less than inspiring in her chapters delineating the various genres. She covers the more obvious and less interesting ones (to me) such as structure, rewrites, outlines and dialogue. But her book is about so much more—about the voice of character and how to convey it, the unexpected synchronicities of writing, the resource of memory, the writer's voice, discovering your personal myth, one woman's remarkable story. She believes we must pay no attention to what will happen to the work, whether it will succeed in the marketplace, whether it will even reach the marketplace, quoting Robert Frost... "All the great things are done for their own sake."
There is no way to do this book justice in a brief review. Like most things in life, this book must be experienced to be fully known and appreciated. I can promise any student of writing, experienced writers, and anyone merely interested in learning more about the craft that this book will make you glad you did not leave it behind in the bookstore.
Catherine Ann Jones has played major roles in over fifty productions on and off Broadway, as well as television and film. She has written a play about Virginia Woolf titled On the Edge, which won a National Endowment for the Arts Award. A Fulbright scholar in Inida, she has taught writing at The New School University, University of Southern California, Pacifica Graduate Institute, and the Esalen Institute. She leads The Way of Story workshops throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Visit her website.
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