March 2006 -- A review of Erika Holzer, Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher (Indio, California: Madison Press, 2005), 301 pp., $20.00.
Deep within every nonfiction writer lie the seeds of a budding novelist. At least, I know that’s true for me. I’ve dabbled continually in fiction over the years, but in fits and starts. Once, on a tear, I even managed to draft more than three hundred manuscript pages of a novel until, once again, Real Life intervened. When I returned to those pages much later, I found to my dismay that I had completely outgrown the story and its theme. Those pages are yellowing and curling in a cardboard box somewhere.
Perhaps you know what I mean.
So I admire anyone who possesses the motivation and discipline to sit down at the keyboard day after day to remake reality in his own image and likeness. For that, after all, is the great appeal of fiction writing: it allows you to play God. You can right the world’s wrongs, transform your drab digs into a palace, construct an ideal lover, take on a glamorous new persona, wreak vengeance upon your enemies, preach your timeless wisdom to the world.
But if you expect anyone else to read your private fantasies, you’d better know how to write them well. Most literary wannabes don’t. Their storytelling attempts are god-awful, which is why publishers and agents refer to stacks of unsolicited manuscripts as “the slush pile.” Writing well is damned hard work; good writers are made, not born; and even talented amateurs need guidance.
In their quest to publish, many subscribe to magazines such as Writer’s Digest and read how-to books. But to learn the craft of fiction writing, there’s nothing better than having an experienced and successful mentor. And if your mentor is a world-class literary genius, you’re in Writer’s Heaven.
Erika’s discussions with Ayn about writing often lasted into the wee hours.
That’s exactly where Erika Holzer found herself during the mid-’60s until about 1970. During that period, she and husband Henry Mark Holzer, both attorneys, became enthusiastic fans of Ayn Rand ’s work, and regularly attended courses on her philosophy of Objectivism in New York. But while Holzer had been “programmed for the legal profession” since childhood, deep in her soul stirred a lifelong passion for writing fiction. Between legal briefs, she found herself crafting “mood pieces” in spare moments.
One day, a friend who knew Rand personally offered to show Holzer’s practice pieces to the celebrated author. To Holzer’s delight, Rand invited her to her apartment to discuss them.
Thus began a series of private, informal fiction-writing seminars that was to last for four years. The Holzers soon became Rand’s private attorneys. But at the end of their weekly business meetings, Erika would pepper Rand with questions about writing. The ensuing discussions often lasted into the wee hours. And as time passed, she found herself less and less interested in law, more and more interested in writing fiction.
Now, two successful, published novels later, Erika Holzer has written a book about those sessions.
I began Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher expecting something of a standard how-to book about literary craftsmanship. What I found instead was a charming, utterly unique literary memoir aboutthe lessons—professional and personal—that Holzer learned during those evenings with Ayn Rand , and how the wisdom Rand imparted has influenced her own life and art.
Readers of The Art of Fiction—a compilation of Rand’s own fiction-writing lectures—might expect Holzer’s book to be redundant. But instead, the books complement each other well. Rand’s is the expected how-to: systematic and detailed in handling issues of characterization and plotting, in dealing with stylistic challenges, in tackling the integrative role of a theme. By contrast, Holzer’s book focuses on fewer of these lessons, and less systematically; but she gives much more attention to the process of internalizing them: on how those lessons can become habitual and ingrained. Rand’s approach is more analytical; Holzer’s is more anecdotal. Where Rand explains, for example, that as a writer you should learn to “stoke your subsconscious,” and the reasons for the importance of this habit, Holzer relates a number of helpful anecdotes illustrating the process in action.
In my experience with writers who also happen to be enamored of Rand’s philosophy, they could probably use a bigger dose of Holzer’s more empirical approach. For example, one of the most important literary sins she addresses—and one of the most common among Rand’s would-be literary heirs—is what she calls “the preachy novel trap”:
…it was the modus operandi for a lot of misguided young Objectivists who had no real conception of theme and plot. Ayn Rand was emphatic in her denunciation of anything that purported to be fiction but was nothing more than the trumpeting of Objectivism ’s virtues and values, done in a literal and self-conscious manner. She had no patience for, as she put it once, “amateurish, pontificating exercises in propaganda—poor excuses for art.”
How to avoid this trap?
[Ask] this rhetorical question: Am I really impassioned about my story or am I just hung up on spreading the Word and enlightening the masses?
Later, Holzer cautions about a related pitfall: starting a novel not with some concrete event or character, but with some overarching, abstract message or theme. This is a special vulnerability for writers inspired by novels of ideas, such as Rand’s. But in beginning her own novel Double Crossing, Holzer “realized that exploring themes at the very beginning of the process could easily deteriorate into what Ayn disparaged as ‘floating abstractions’—fuzzy, contentless ideas.” To avoid this, she says, “I prefer to start a novel with a given situation or plot event, followed, in fairly short order, by a major character or two who is capable of moving my story forward.”
In short: think story, not message. If you are more interested in delivering messages than in telling a story, stick to nonfiction. Or, as film studio boss Jack Warner famously said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
“Stoke your subsconscious,” Rand told Holzer.
Another problem common to writers who approach fiction writing too analytically involves research—not just knowing where to begin, but knowing where to stop. “‘Don’t overdo it,’ was Ayn Rand ’s advice to me,” Holzer reports. “‘It’s a common mistake by the neophyte—novelist and nonfiction writer—to read everything ever written on whatever relates to his subject. To delve endless into history and veer off on unproductive side trips.’ This amounted, she told me, to a failure to think in essentials.” Holzer follows with a chapter of helpful advice explaining how not to research, and “where to draw the line”: knowing what is essential to your story, and what is enough.
Similarly, the overly analytical writer tends to outline, in rigid, meticulous detail, every tiny twist and turn of his story in advance. That tends to stultify creativity that could much improve a developing story. Rand cautioned Holzer against this practice, counseling a looser, more flexible outline—unless “you get stuck…This is the time to start outlining—in minute detail.”
Perhaps the hardest thing for these more analytically oriented readers to get used to will be the loose, anecdotal structure of Holzer’s book. Those who approach this work solely for concrete advice may find themselves distracted by the appearance in its pages of critical endorsements for her books, of previously unpublished short stories, of accounts of public talks and experiences on the movie set of Eye for An Eye, of casting suggestions for a film version of Atlas Shrugged .
But they miss the point. Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher is, above all, a personal literary memoir. It is a chronicle not just of lessons learned, but of memorable personal experiences drawn from a successful fiction-writing career. Holzer’s enthusiasm for that career and all its trappings is contagious. She makes real some of the unique rewards of commitment to the literary life. As such, the value of her book is not only informational, but inspirational.
Erika Holzer had the rare opportunity to stand on the shoulders of an artistic giant. The view from that height was heady, and I am grateful that she has shared it.
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