Crash Course: essays from where writing and life collide
by Robin Black
Engine Books, 2016
“How often do we talk about writers who need ‘permission’ when they are just starting out?” Robin Black asks in “Shut Up, Shut Down,” one of the essays in her new craft book-memoir hybrid, Crash Course, a book I turned to for that very purpose: permission. As someone in an MFA program and as someone who has written in some form or another for as long as she can remember, I still feel like I need permission to follow my calling. And I’m not alone. Books like this one speak to that need. Black goes on to say,
I don’t know why I was lucky enough, maybe stubborn enough, to triumph in that long-running argument with the echoing voices silencing me. I don’t know that there are tricks I can share—beyond determination and outrage at the idea of being shut up, being shut down…
There are a few tricks though, among the forty-odd short essays that make up the book. In this collection, Black, acclaimed author of the story collection If I loved you, I would tell you this and the novel Life Drawing, combines personal essays and craft essays to bring us some of the everyday moments that make up a writing life.
Black shares the difficulties that at first kept her from writing—her attention deficit disorder and agoraphobia, a child with special needs, her father’s legacy hanging over her—and she offers advice on writing gathered from her own experience. Many of the craft essays first appeared on the writing blog Beyond the Margins, and their length reflects this—none run over five pages—which makes Crash Course a highly accessible, quick read.
As a fiction author, Black has been called wise, insightful, and the like. Her nonfiction offers wisdom as well, with humility and honesty. She confesses what she calls a cringe-worthy moment from her first writing workshop, talks about what it’s like to be rejected from summer conferences, and shares the unprofessional query letters she’s sent. She also shares the experience of giving up on “The Dreaded Desk Drawer Novel” after working on it for years, how her novel Life Drawing was conceived after that, and what it’s like to navigate the marketing/platform quandary.
Included as well are her take on subjects writers are familiar with: the use of adverbs, how to tell when a draft is the final one, and reader subjectivity. Crash Course isn’t a book of advice, though, so much as it is the author saying, “Here’s what worked for me, and here’s where I made mistakes.” As someone who published her first book in midlife and didn’t write for twenty years during what she calls the “Dark Ages,” perhaps the biggest lesson Black offers is to get past the fear of beginning to write, because “losing decades of your life to such fears leaves a very deep scar.”
Because this book travels from a period of not writing all the way through to publishing, I could see this book being recommended to students just beginning to write as well as those who have practiced the craft for some time. I expect that I will always find it enjoyable and helpful to read books from the perspective of those who are living the writing life, who are on this journey for better or worse, and who accept that nothing is certain when it comes to learning how to live with one’s art.
This book is one perspective, with insight on how others might find their own way, or if they’re already on their way, feel like they’re not alone on this path. Black writes that “perhaps for many writers there is an instinctive recoil from a comfortable state of satisfaction.” This suggests to me that there is something different about us, something that writing allays. “For me,” she writes, “writing has always been about trying to make sense of things that I don’t understand, and not about certainty of any kind.”
With children, and debt, and health issues, and everything else in life, I read writers I admire and wonder, how do they do it? What challenges do they face? How do they make it all work? How can I? Books like this help answer some of those questions and keep me moving forward. For that, I’m thankful.