Saturday, January 11, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: “The Art of Nonfiction” by Ayn Rand

Developing writers and interested biographers should listen carefully when a celebrated author is talking about writing, and Ayn Rand’s The Art of Nonfiction is no exception. Talking about writing is the operative phrase here, as this book is actually a collection of recorded lectures from a course Rand led for friends and associates in 1969. But readers should not feel cheated. At age 64, Rand had written much, including all four of her novels, two of them, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, ranking at numbers 1 and 2 on the Reader’s List of 100 Best Novels of the Modern Library. She also created a dozen nonfiction books and essay collections, many plays and screenplays, and her own philosophical system, objectivism, which figures prominently in all her work. In any context, her ideas on the creative process are well worth a listen.

The wisdom Rand gained from her writing experience is unique, and she evokes it engagingly. She begins with an encouraging premise: “Contrary to all schools of art and esthetics, writing is something one can learn. There is no mystery about it.” Her walk through the writing process may seem to take a traditional route at first glance, as she divides her topics among the usual chapters of creating an outline, writing the draft, and editing. Along the way, however, appears her uncompromising worldview. How else would a chapter “Applying Philosophy Without Preaching It” show up in such a discussion?

Rand’s objectivist inclinations are unmistakable in virtually every utterance. She says, “Writing is an unpredictable process; it does not proceed regularly at so many words per minute.” With this mindset, she tackles moments in the writing process in her singular way: “There are two separate jobs: the job of thinking and the job of expressing your thoughts. And they cannot be done together. If you try, it will take you much longer, and be much more painful.” She sees writing the first draft as a subconscious activity and editing as a conscious one, requiring “a switch to … a different mental set.”

Far from remaining on a purely philosophical plane, she systematically explains how her method works. Her chapter on editing tenders several practical tips, and her outlook on style is refreshing. “The first thing to remember about style is to forget it,” she writes, accepting that style is so difficult to learn and teach. This realization does not prevent her from dedicating a 40-page chapter to a discussion on how it emerges in several published passages.

Authors who contend with writer’s block can benefit from adopting Rand’s viewpoint. She uses an interesting term to describe it: the squirms. Embracing the squirms as a necessary part of any creative process, she implies that they are not a cause to give up writing but to understand and exploit what’s driving them at the service of the manuscript. And she practiced what she preached, rarely diverting herself from the composing task at hand: “When I was writing Atlas Shrugged, I accepted neither day nor evening appointments with rare exceptions, for roughly thirteen years. “

Understandably, readers might be put off by two problems in this book. Rand frequently references fiction to describe the task of an essayist, even though she sees significant differences between the two genres. Also, she constantly returns to her own fiction to illustrate examples of excellent writing during her talks.

In Rand’s defense, during these lectures she was speaking to devotees, who benefited from references to her familiar prose. In addition, she did not intend to see these lectures in print. Even if she did, she had no hand in their print version, as it was edited by Robert Mayhew and published in 2001, nearly two decades after her death. Being above all else a logical and practical thinker, Rand likely would have changed some the illustrative texts to reach a wider audience if she wrote it herself.

Nevertheless, the presence of her narrative passages does the book no harm. In fact, Rand fans will enjoy the autobiographical aspects of the book. For instance, she admits to being weak at titling books, crediting her husband Frank O’Connor for coining the title Atlas Shrugged (She wanted to call it The Strike.)

Those who are likely to pick up such a book will not be disappointed. A lot of gems are to be found within the 192 pages of The Art of Nonfiction.