NGCW-Chapter 1

All exercises are taken from Alice LaPlante’s  The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (NGCW).

Chapter 1: Part III features two short fiction pieces, On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion and Emergency by Denis Johnson.

I highly recommend Johnson to anyone who likes Jack Kerouac and Chuck Palahniuk. 

Chapter 1: Part III Readings
On Keeping a Notebook by Joan Didion

1. What do you think about Didion’s reasons for keeping a notebook? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?

Her reasons are to record how it felt to her. I agree because writing is a selfish and self-absorbed process. It’s all about my interpretation of the world and the notebook allows me to record what is significant. That’s why my notebook is useless to someone else and someone else’s notebook is useless to me, as she said.

2. What devices have you found best for generating notebook entries? Do you keep a traditional journal? Or do you find yourself jotting down odd notes, a la Didion?

I am trying to jot down more odd notes and to keep something small with me at all times so I can get into the habit of it. For now, I only have a 100 page mead composition book in which I write ideas from home. I also use it to develop story ideas and to take notes for these creative writing exercises.

3. Have you ever “mined” a journal or a notebook for fiction or nonfiction ideas? If so, how has the worked?

I sometimes write down things I heard on TV and use it later as ideas for flash fiction stories. It’s not so much mining because I do not take notes on the world around me (I would need something small and a habit of jotting to do that) but just referring. I hope to turn to mining in the future.

4. Do you agree with Didion that jotting down notes on what is happening around you is always, ultimately, about yourself? Why or why not?

Yes, I see all writing, at least non-sentimental/ melodramatic writing, as being an expression or a commentary of the world around us. There is always an element of what you’ve experienced or someone you’ve seen or observed and it is therefore ultimately about yourself, even if indirectly.

Emergency by Denis Johnson


 1. What is the story ultimately about? (It’s about more than just getting messed up on drugs.) What is the general feeling you take away from the story?

I loved this story and its brevity. It reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk and, when I looked up Denis Johnson online, I saw that Palahniuk is a big fan of him too. The general feeling I took away is the absurdity and inanity of modern life. A man gets stabbed in the eye, the orderlies who treat him the hospital are high, and a rabbit family gets killed, yet none of these events is the focal point of the story. They are just things that happen.

2. What purpose does Georgie play in the story? How would it be a completely different story if he weren’t in it?

I see him as a reflection on the narrator. The story would be completely different without him. I particularly love (can one particularly love?) this simple yet complex metaphor. “I could understand how a drowning man might suddenly feel a deep thirst being quenched. Or how the slave might become a friend to his master. Georgie slept with his face right on the steering wheel.”

3. Can you point out the ways that Johnson keeps surprising us? How does he play with our expectations and deliver something that feels fresh and urgent?

It feels like a collection of flash fiction pieces all tied in together with the same characters. There is no mulling over and considering, what does this all mean? The prose is not tired or boring. The events that occur are not analyzed, they just happen. Finally, when you think that it’s all over, they meet Hardee, a draft dodger. They drive him to Canada and, when Hardee asks Georgie what he does for a living, Georgie replies “I save lies.” This made me laugh out loud. It was so unexpected and refreshing. Brilliant.

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