WR Book Review #1: STORYVILLE! An Illustrated Guide By John Dufresne

In this inaugural edition of WRITER READS, I’m reviewing STORYVILLE! AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE by John Dufresne. (W.W. Norton, 2020). John previously wrote one of my favorites, “The Lie That Tells The Truth”, and–spoiler–Storyville continues his tradition of honest, helpful instruction.

You have to have two skills to be a fiction writer. You have to be able to write and you have to be able to tell a story. Telling a story is the harder skill to master.

Get used to the name John Dufresne around these parts. I’m a huge fan of both his fiction and non-fiction and I’ll be reviewing some of his other books on writing in the near future, for sure. John Dufresne, if you haven’t yet discovered him, is a professional’s professional. A talented, skilled, and experienced writer with a gift for sly insight and humor, and bold, muscular, often lyrical, prose. If Anthony Bourdain had stuck to writing and wrote books on writing, he might have been John Dufresne (and, come to think of it, if John Dufresne ever decides to write a book on food, I’ll probably snatch that up the moment it hits the shelves). He’s an author of fiction novels and short stories who teaches writing at Florida International University and who, later in his career—and to the benefit of all us writers—decided to start writing about the craft of writing. His fiction includes the novels Requiem, Ma., Louisiana Power & Light, and Love Warps The Mind A Little. His short story collections include The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad. His books on writing include The Lie That Tells The Truth, Is Life Like This?, and Flash! Writing The Very Short Story. You can visit his website at www.Johndufresne.com (and when you do, check out his killer blog—predictably smart, funny, and fun). And John has found a collaborator this time around with Evan Wondolowski. Evan is an artist who, along with occasionally providing illustrations for books, also makes art out of money—literally. You can see for yourself at www.theartofe.com

This is my very first Writer Reads post. When I first came up with the idea of Writer Reads, I envisioned my first post being either an introduction to the site (but screw that—why not just get on with the show and let it define itself?) or a revisit to a writing classic and favorite of mine—namely, The Lie That Tells The Truth by John Dufresne. As it turns out, however, I had just purchased Storyville, John’s most recent release and so why not review that?

First off, Storyville is fun. As Dufresne’s writing always is. If you’re familiar with his previous work then you’ll immediately recognize the smart, assured tone. The dry, surprising wit. The effective (almost hypnotizing?) use of the present-tense second-person to lead the reader through the writer’s-eye-view of being and becoming a writer. As well as the wealth of literary references, anecdotal and by quotation, from a Greek chorus of great writers (not just the usual Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bradbury usual suspects, but also from Hilary Mantel, Cynthia Ozick, and Bernard Malamud) which serve as more than just page-dressing, but more as further expert testimony to the particular lesson being taught.

There is some overlap in the teachings as you would expect from a book that is not focused on a single, newly explored aspect of writing but rather on the craft in general. After all, he has tackled the broad subject before and hasn’t changed his fundamental writing views and practices.

It’s a provocative world out there, and you try to make yourself susceptible to it. You understand that every object is worthy of your attention because a story can begin anywhere, because everything is implicit in anything, because any irritating grain of sand can become a pearl.

Dufresne believes in writing as an organic process that starts from a true place. He believes in “accidents” and following the dream of fiction. He believes in exploration. And he believes in believing in the process. And what the writer personally brings to the table.

But before you begin to think it’s sounding a little too hippified, you’ll also come upon his not so gentle Ten Commandments Of Fiction Writing (reminiscent, though somewhat different, from Elmore Leonard’s famous version). Among them, #1: Keep Your Ass In The Chair!, And #8: Thou Shalt Rewrite Again And Again. And Again!

The book leads you logically and efficiently through its four parts: The Fiction Writer, Fiction Writing, Plotting, and Revision. While I found especially useful—and personally connected with—the plotting and revision portions, the first two sections deserve emphasis. In these two parts, Dufresne takes time to explore the writer first. Their interests. Their obsessions. Their motivations for writing. Their insecurities and uncertainties. These are important aspects to the artist and their creative process that, if not resolved, may hinder the writer from the outset. Normally glossed over in writing books that often focus more acutely on writing “rules” and “no-nos”, Dufresne, his long experience as a teacher of fiction showing its worth, doesn’t shy away from these issues, or take a simplistic hardline, but instead embraces and addresses them like the generous mentor he is.

While the book comes in at a substantial 271 pages, Storyville is a quick and easy read that can be completed in a single sitting if the reader wanted (though I would instead advise taking your time with it, journal opened, notes taken, exercises fully exercised). This is in part because much of the book is made up of illustrations and artwork (which I haven’t forgotten about and deserves much credit! See further down), writing exercises followed by pages of empty lines for completing them (which does seem unnecessary and more like filler—a writer, I think, would want their own notebook to do such exercises so that they could write as much or as little as they wanted), and full-page quotations from the writers mentioned before. But also because of the layout of the pages, which is often made up of bulleted lists, headings followed by short paragraphs, pages and their subjects broken up by artwork, bullets, and pull-quotes, etc.

That is not to say that the book is sparse or lacking. It isn’t. It’s economical. There are pages of mostly uninterrupted prose devoted to subjects which Dufresne feels needs the attention—particularly in the Fiction Writing section when dealing with the subject of character and in those later sections where he takes time to write a story in full so that the reader can follow along to learn, in real-time, exactly what the teacher is teaching (I guess it should be no surprise that a fiction writer would give a good amount of effort to actually writing some fiction, right?).

Storyville’s sub-title title describes itself accurately as a “guide”. It could almost serve as a companion to The Lie That Tells The Truth. “Lie…” is a more detailed book which I’ve read many times over and will again whenever I want to be once again immersed and reminded of these lessons in detail, whereas Storyville might be the book I would pull from the shelf for a quick reference and reminder on process while in the midst of the writing itself and feeling stuck.

You’re not as smart as you thought you were. Fiction teaches you that real quick.

Lastly (and only because I’m a writer and not an illustrator), the illustrations by Evan Wondolowski are creative, understated, and fit in perfectly both with the playful structure of the book and with Dufresne’s learned but wise and witty tone. The artwork is simple but spot-on, never distracting, and always helping to further cement in the reader’s mind the important bullet points that Dufresne’s prose is making.

In summary, Storyville is yet another unique and helpful addition to John Dufresne’s catalog of books on writing. In my mind, the biggest reason it stands out among its peers—both Dufresne’s own works and others—is its fun, playful (again), and pressure-free approach to writing that focuses as much on the writer themselves as the craft of writing. I think it will be particularly helpful and appreciated by new writers who often fall prey to the fears and anxieties of facing the blank page. And then as well serve as a reminder to those who have been writing awhile that while writing can be work, can be challenging, can even, at times, be frustrating and disappointing, it can also be—and should also be—enjoyable. Otherwise, why do it?

Random Kick-Ass Quote On Writing

Actually, not so random. One of my favorites from one of my favorites:

(Me too)

Thank you for reading! And please subscribe so I know who I’m talking to and to receive WRITER READS directly in your inbox. If you have any recommendations for books on writing I should review, websites or content you think worthy of sharing, suggestions for articles on writing/publishing about writing, news to relate, questions, or criticisms please email me by replying to this post.

Happy writing!

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