Learning a Trade

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Reynolds Price began these notebooks soon after his graduation from college; he continued them during his graduate study at Oxford University, and he kept them up after he returned to a teaching position at Duke University, which he still holds. Increasingly, they have become the foundation for the dozens of books he has written, including plays, poetry, and fiction. These notebooks are one writer’s laboratory, the quiet place he goes to try out his ideas, characters, and plots. In minute detail, they show a writer practicing his profession and learning his craft.

Price writes in his preface to the volume that the value of the notebooks is twofold: For nonwriting readers, the notes give some notion of the origins of books, how they “are made, not found.” For the apprentice writer, however, they also provide some sense of the strategies writers employ, information that could prove useful to anyone learning the trade. Familiarity with Price’s books will make these notebooks doubly useful, but even the general reader may find some value in watching a writer work out his ideas on paper, then leave them to “marinate” in the notebooks themselves. The creative process for the professional writer is laid out on the pages here, and it is a passionate, lifelong occupation.

Price is a writer’s writer. Elected to the prestigious American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988, he has found real popularity with only a few of his works: his first novel, A Long and Happy Life in 1962, certainly, and perhaps Kate Vaiden in 1986. Yet he has produced at least thirty other volumes in his long and fruitful career, including novels, collections of poems and short stories, and printed versions of his plays. All of his work is marked by the same exacting concern with language, an almost poetic quality that is his trademark. He is, in the truest sense, the “craftsman” of his subtitle. Price is also an amazingly visual writer; he had early training as an artist, and paintings and photographs have been very influential on his work. It is not difficult to understand how Price renders human life as vividly and precisely as he does.

The chronology of these notebooks reveals Price’s evolution as a writer and the development of his own particular creative process. The early journals are choppy and fragmentary, filled with story ideas, possible book titles, lists of characters’ names, and fragments of poems. He tries out lines, beginnings, whole paragraphs, and scraps of dialogue. The first half of the journal (through the late 1970’s) is also “antiphonal” in structure: In his first two decades as a writer, Price used a double-paged journal, commenting on the left page about earlier notes on the right. Early entries show him reading in order to learn to write and commenting on other authors, including Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Mark Twain. There is a certain literary self-consciousness to these early journals, but there is also a strong strain of self-criticism and self-education. In the notebooks, readers can witness a writer teaching himself to write by doing it. In April, 1957, he writes, almost prophetically:

Perhaps—if I ever get good enough for anybody to care, so good that it won’t just seem pompous foolishness—I might publish these notes with a long essay on the evolution of this story [A Long and Happy Life], and it might help to reproduce all the pictures—everything—that bore directly or indirectly on the story at any stage.

He has not produced that essay here, but the notes are invaluable without it. Increasingly, the notebooks begin to map whole works, from early conception through to final manuscript, and the fullest sections here (such as the fifty pages on the 1981 The Source of Light, or the thirty-five pages on the 1992 Blue Calhoun) carry readers through the entire writing process. In those sections readers can watch Price struggling with the whole work, from beginning to end. He creates characters, plans their lives, listens to their voices, imagines their next moves, and then watches as they begin to carry the story for him. He plots a character’s life carefully—and the figure turns out to be vastly different from the detailed conception. He gets stuck and cannot figure how to go forward. He writes, reads what he has written, and realizes he has made a wrong turn ninety pages back. What should he do now? Scrap the last ninety pages, or plow on? He plots and plans, from the smallest matters (opening lines, the names of minor characters) to the largest issues (themes, meanings). At times, scenes come to him almost as revelations; at other times, he spends months...

(The entire section is 1926 words.)