TEXT review

‘Underneath, a tiger lurks’: Learning writing craft

review by Alyson Miller


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Paul Williams & Shelley Davidow
Playing With Words: An Introduction to Creative Writing Craft
Palgrave, London UK 2016
ISBN 9781137532527
Pb 200pp GBP16.99


As Marcelle Freiman (2003) has noted, the question of whether or not creative writing can be taught has long been the topic of debate, especially within academic institutions. The tension is often based on Romantic visions of the misanthropic writer, whose works of genius are produced in response to the Muses or other mystic forms of inspiration. Engaging or even exceptional writing is, therefore, understood as a natural talent rather than a learned skill, resulting in, as Freiman contends, the assumption that ‘creative writing cannot be taught; that chosen students will simply develop their already-identified creative talent’, while protecting their sense of originality and creativity’ (Freiman 2003).

Playing with Words, however, manages to deftly negotiate such arguments through an emphasis on the discipline of craft. Essentially a manual on developing writing skills systematically and through practice, Davidow and Williams eschew the image of the writer as divinely gifted and focus on the rules and mechanics needed to ‘make our words do what we want them to do, regardless of genre, format or style. To really harness the power of words, we need to become skilled craftspeople who can mould and shape our material so that the finished product is as close to what we imagined as possible’ (2). Importantly, the authors repeatedly stress the significance of play, both through writing exercises which encourage experimentation, and via an instructive approach that is underpinned by a sense of wonderment for the ‘mind-bending’ potential of language (2). While such a framework, at times, risks being incredulous, a belief in the transformative possibilities of words, of the ways in which ‘language creates reality’ (17), seems apt in a contemporary media and political climate of ‘alternate facts’ and ‘fake news’. The awe invoked by Davidow and Williams is thus also grounded in a realisation of the functionality of words; the ability of language, that is, to get the work done:

The miraculous concept is this: although words are essential tools to construct intangible things like thoughts and ideas and imagined alternative realities, they are ultimately just the keys we use to unlock limitless realms of stories and ideas. And so, our job, ironically, is to work with words so expertly that they eventually vanish. (2)

Indeed, Playing with Words is fundamentally pragmatic, methodically attending to the nuances of structure, character, voice, symbolism, perspective, rhythm, and tone. Davidow and Williams have ensured a careful balance between exposition and practice, with the assertion – albeit gently – that strong writing comes from an insistence on form and detail, and a willingness to be (self-) interrogative. Drawing on Flaubert’s remark about the tigers which lurk beneath smooth surfaces, the authors observe: ‘Good writing may look effortless. When the words disappear into the picture for our readers, it’s because we have pummelled and tussled with our writing, even wept over our ineptitude, to make it work’ (15). While the evocation of the work of writing perhaps retains its romance here – especially alongside the somewhat banal and persistent reminder that words are ‘living, changing, evolving things’ (18) – writing is, nonetheless, still work, and required to master a discipline. As the text makes clear, a writer is not a vessel of the gods but a craftsperson dedicated to learning an acquired set of skills: ‘a finished piece may ultimately seem to flow like water somersaulting effortlessly over the edge of a flooded gutter, but underneath lurk thought tigers wrestled into position by our struggles’ (16). Certainly, the regularity with which Davidow and Williams equate the writing process with a kind of violence (‘pummelled and tussled’, ‘wrestled’, ‘struggles’) seems indicative, positioning the writer as constantly in battle with language, meaning and representation.

Warring aside, the strength of Playing with Words is in its accessibility, arguably achieved through wariness towards theory and a rejection of jargon and painstaking semantics. The recommended writing exercises are succinct and careful, designed to fine-tune set skills – such as avoiding melodrama or cliché – and to challenge aspiring writers to new forms and styles. The use of classic and contemporary authors, from Mark Twain and Virginia Woolf to Dr Seuss and Stephen King, illustrate the importance of precision, innovation, voice, and play, whilst also acknowledging that the best writers indeed often emerge from the best readers. The literary anchoring of Playing with Words makes its lessons all the more compelling, however the anecdotal interruptions from the authors are not always quite so persuasive. While there is merit in a method that practices what it preaches, it is also always difficult to believe that the authors’ own work is the best possible example of character or the polyphonic novel or dialogue-driven narrative. This form of navel-gazing is somewhat regressive, and would have been better offset with a more rigorous understanding of theory and its relationship to creative practice. The tutorial effect, in which reading the text mimics the ‘live’ performance of classroom engagement, is appealing yet too often lapses into the narcissism associated with teaching creative writing. Indeed, it is an echo of the ‘romance of the writer’, which, as Freiman argues, prizes ‘the writer, not the relationship between text and reader, not … the written text and its language’ (2003).

As a writing tool, Playing with Words offers content that is both practical and aspirational, focusing on the discipline of writing as well as its appeal as a craft or art form. By concentrating on hard skills that can be shaped and honed through time and practice, Davidow and Williams dispel an idea of the writer as ‘creating original works of genius through a mystical and a-social process’ (Freiman 2003), and thus the argument that writing cannot be taught. Through attention to the power of words and the transformative force of language, Playing with Words suggests that writing is a kind of game, albeit one with rules that can make for radical and metamorphic results:

The big idea is that the way we use words locates us, and our writing, in a specific context, in a particular time and place. As writers, if we’re sensitive to this change, to the power behind our words in the time we’re alive, we can them to shape the worlds we imagine, but also the ones we inhabit on a daily basis. (18)


Works cited


Alyson Miller teaches literature and creative writing at Deakin University. Her short stories and prose poems have appeared in both national and international publications, alongside a work of criticism, Haunted by Words: Scandalous Texts, and a collection of prose poems, Dream Animals.


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Vol 21 No 1 April 2017
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy, Enza Gandolfo & Julienne van Loon
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste