By Janie Kronk
Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark is not a new book. It was published 20 years ago, but its content remains fresh and relevant. The book is a writing guide offering little actual guidance–no”how-to” on plot, character, or dialogue. No tips on technique. That isn’t the point. In the author’s words, the book is conceived as a companion, a “friend departing in the opposite direction who [you] can anticipate meeting in the middle” on the otherwise solitary journey of writing.
The book is organized into eight essays, each a manageable size for digestion in one sitting, about the “emotional” side of the writing life. The essays deal in turn with envy, distraction, hurt feelings, writing school, judgment, meaning, writer’s block, and success.
Throughout, Friedman presents writing as a slow-developing process that begins on the inside–one that starts with a love of the process rather than hopes for any particular outcome. Preoccupations with success are external distractions that only get in the way. In The Wild Yellow Circling Beast, Friedman speaks of not being able to write until all thoughts have been separated from outside authority. She describes writing as happening in a place “like a chamber that registers the images of a photograph, and which must be kept dark for the picture to be captured.”
Friedman also addresses internal judgment. “[O]ur obsession with perfection [makes] us mute,” she says in Message From a Cloud of Flies. In Anorexia of Language, she further suggests that a reluctance to write may actually be a reluctance to destroy the beautiful vision in one’s mind by putting it on paper, where it will be imperfect. Writers must set this “non-book” in their head aside and allow imperfection in the real book in order to move forward.
Finding meaning in all this work is a topic that weaves its way through the book. In The Story’s Body, Friedman builds a case that there is no need to insert “hidden meaning” into a story. Because the world is “imbued” with meaning, to write about this world (and the things in it as perceived with the five senses) will naturally give rise to meaning. In other words, writers don’t create meaning; they communicate meaning that is already present in the world. “I saw books milked the world,” Friedman says in The Paraffin Density of Wax Wings. A writer’s task is to find “the optimal arrangement of words to convey the most meaning possible.”
Writing After Dark does not offer technical insight on how to find this optimal arrangement of words. There are other books for that. What this book does do, in often beautiful language embroidered with insight, is encourage us to live well and to write with abandon. And, through writing, to “heal the rift between the hours we’ve lived through and the authoritarian grid of language.”
Janie lives with her husband and daughter in Columbia, South Carolina, where she works as an architect. She has enjoyed the camaraderie and critiques of the South Carolina Writer’s Workshop since 2006. Her writing has appeared in The Petigru Review and South Carolina Architecture.