Old School Water Torture… Just… Make… It… Stop

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I really wanted to like this book. The author has great credentials, the subject matter is of particular interest to writers, and the reference materials are impeccable. But reading this thing was like the old spy movies where our hero is subjected to the drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… drip… water torture of the nefarious villain. In the image above, Tara King on the sixties television show The Avengers suffers this horrible fate.

Everyone knows how much I value my creative writing education, but obviously some folks don’t share my opinion. Here on Slushpile, we recently discussed Ricky Moody’s measured and articulate criticisms of his time at the Columbia University writing program. I must say that after suffering through Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, I certainly understand Moody’s complaints. Koch led the Columbia program for twenty-one years and also taught creative writing at Princeton for seven years. Although he mentored some of my very favorite writers, this book is the most annoying, irritating, frustrating, soul-destroying, and yes I’m being redundant, piece of shit I’ve seen in a long time.

Maybe it’s not his fault. Maybe Koch was just unlucky that through a weird set of circumstances, I was trapped for several hours with absolutely nothing else to do but mark up this book with a pen. Maybe it’s just because got on my bad side by continually referring to Raymond Carver as “fumbling” both in real life and in his work. Or maybe Koch just wanted to show off his new fancy printer. But the fact of the matter is that all the fantastic information in this book is completely obscured by Koch’s insistence on emphasizing every other word. There is wonderful insight into the writing process here, buried under an avalanche of formatting and printer virtuosity, it’s just difficult to absorb it . Cacophony is one of those words learned in high school English classes, a SAT word, and it is certainly applicable to the overall noise of formatting in this book.

When I start doing math, you know something is bad wrong. So let’s take a slightly mathematical, almost baseball boxscore approach to this book.

Chapter 1: Beginnings

What originally annoyed me about this chapter was that it’s one quote after another, one writer’s name mentioned after another. There is some fine information here, but there’s not much else. Here in Baltimore, we take crab cakes seriously. And although the crab meat is definitely the good stuff, if you’re not going to provide any breading or binding material, then just serve plain crab. In a similar way, Koch bludgeons you with quote after quote, with very little exposition. All crab, no binding. In this chapter, there are 75 quotes and allusions to 54 writers.

How can you emphasize emphasis? By adding formatting on top of formatting, of course. Koch writes:

    You can make up a story only by finding it, and you can find a story only by making it up.

Some more statistics:
–29 pages in length
–Italics used 86 times, including one page where italics are used 13 times. And I don’t mean 13 words are italicized. I mean that italics were employed 13 separate times on this page. In fact, only 4 pages in the entire chapter don’t feature italics
–11 book titles mentioned and presented in italics, which isn’t really his fault but does increase the preponderance of italics
–Italics aren’t always enough to convey emphasis so 9 words are actually printed in both italics and bold text
–2 words just get bold formatting, no italics
–43 em dashes
–7 sub-headings, centered text, all caps, and bold text
–2 sub-sub headings, left justified, bold text
–1 bulleted list, indented, with round bullets

Chapter 3: Shaping the Story

I quit counting the number of authors and just focused on the sheer amount of emphasis and typographical conventions. Something I examined in this chapter is Koch’s use of what we’ll call finger quotes. Not an actual quote of dialogue or a quote of reference material, but those times that people use their two fingers to quote a word. Like when someone from PBS talks about how 50 Cent is famous for his “bling” or when a guitar player refers to his instrument as an “axe.”

Although in the previous chapter, he heaped bold on top of italics, here he goes back to plain text and also manages to squeeze in two em dashes and a finger quote. He writes:

    The way–the only way–to “find” your story is to tell it.

In another formatting masterpiece passage, Koch manages to use italics, all caps, and a finger quote in two sentences. He writes:

    Plot and story naturally reinforce each other at every stage of their development, but the rule of thumb has to be that, generally speaking, just as intuition tends to precede calculation, so story precedes plot. YOU CANNOT “PLOT” A STORY THAT YOU DO NOT KNOW.

And in what comes close to being the most masterful formatting sentence ever, chock full of goodies, Koch manages to use parenthesis, an em dash, finger quotes, brackets, and a colon. If only he had been able to squeeze in some bold and all caps, then we could have one for the record books. He writes:

    Once that much came clear (and it hadn’t been during the many months before) Woolf worked another full year before she managed to see how the novel’s several stories would fit together–how to link what she called the “caves” of story she had “[dug] out” “behind” each of her characters. She was trying to find the links between them so they could all, as she said, “[come] to daylight at the present moment”: that is, in the culminating moment of Clarissa Dalloway’s dinner.

–28 pages in length
–Italics used 103 times with only 1 italic-free page in the entire chapter
–30 book titles in italics, adding to the devastation of italics
–16 words printed in all capital letters
–96 em dashes
–71 instances of finger quotes
–7 sub-headings, centered text, all caps, and bold text
–2 sub-sub headings, left justified, bold text

Chapter 6: The Story of the Self: Fact, Fiction, and the Autobiographical Muse

This chapter introduces us, for the first time to a sub-title. In this case, the sub-title of Fact, Fiction, and the Autobiographical Muse is naturally presented in italics. This chapter also introduces us to a centered em dash illustrating breaks between paragraphs, similar to what you see in novels when the character goes to sleep, then the centered icon, and then the next scene begins.

Bullets, italics, em dashes, finger quotes; this passage has it all. Sorry, but my meager HTML skills can’t contend with Koch’s printing prowess, so I inserted a asterisk below where the round bullet appears in the actual text. Koch writes:

    *The Subject of Your Memoir Cannot Be “You.” Not you all alone, anyway. A memoir must be about you and something–and that something should usually be your relationship to something intrinsically interesting and bigger than you. With a memoir, until you have found a genuine subject, you will have nothing at all–because “you” are not a subject. Neither are “you” a story. You are a person. As you shape your story and subject, you’ll find that “you”–the amorphous, endlessly multifaceted, imperfectly perceived, living, changing, real you–will start taking shape on the page as a recognizable yet quite distinct, even faintly alien persona: a “you” for the page, a “you” that you must both find and make up in exactly the same way you invent your subject and your story.

In the passage below, we even get an initial-capped word thrown in amongst the italics, em dashes, and finger quotes. Koch writes:

    The prime job in any autobiography consists in shaping a sharp, firm, vital persona–a character–out of the amorphous mass of Everything we call “you.” It’s a very tricky transformation, and it’s usually fumbled–not through self-indulgence, but through a failure of the imagination. A failure to imagine yourself. The writer slips into a fatal error. After all, she or he muses, why work on myself? I don’t need to “invent” myself!

–22 pages in length
–Italics used 83 times with only 1 italic-free page in the entire chapter and that page only has 66 words while another page features italics 11 times
–32 book titles in italics, adding to the never-ending use of italics
–5 words printed in all capital letters
–63 em dashes
–58 instances of finger quotes
–4 sub-headings, centered text, all caps, and bold text
–1 sub-sub headings, left justified, bold text
–1 bulleted list, indented, with round bullets, but this time the first line of the each bullet point is in italics
–2 centered em dashes, acting like a scene break in a novel

I just don’t know. Maybe he had a fancy new printer he wanted to show off. Maybe this is some sort of parody that’s just going over my head. Maybe this is some kitchen-sink school of writing that says you throw everything in. Or maybe this is just an awfully big mess.

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