From the Forge is a Writers’ Column that will be appearing every other week in the newsletter of The Village Writing School and will also appear on this blog. The posts will be short, around 300 words, and will focus on a single element of creative writing, offering suggestions and examples.

Forge:  n., v.tr.

  1. A furnace where metals are heated or wrought.
  2. A workshop where pig iron is transformed into wrought iron.
  3. To form by heating in a forge and beating or hammering into shape.
  4. To give form or shape to, especially by means of careful effort.

Blacksmiths work metals in a forge. Writers work words in the forge of the mind. In the mind, words are “heated” and “wrought.” We beat them and hammer them into shape. They begin as pig iron, stubborn, resistant to our desires, but with toil they slowly yield. They become the wrought iron of literature.

Number 1: Geography 101

In her book Making A Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See says that “by being ‘universal’ we run the risk of boring our readers to death.”

But, wait. I thought good literature was universal, that good literature connects us to what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice”? Far be it from me to argue with Faulkner.

But how does a story do what Faulkner requires. Where do writers find the “universal truths”? The answer, of course, is that the “old verities and truths of the heart” are mined from the geography of everyday life. A story is about people who want things, do things, suffer, and succeed or fail. The “old verities” are found in “verisimilitude.” They have to look like life. The quiet room after the door closes. The lipstick smudge on the empty glass. The smell of rotting flesh, or a flower.

See’s advice? “Scratch out a sketch of the town the story happens in, the living room where people sit and talk, the view from the windows, the traffic outside. . . . The more deeply you take charge of [the geography], the more easily you keep the reader enchanted.” I think See means that you, the writer, must inhabit the geography of your story. Close your eyes and breathe deeply, hear the baby cry next door, see the light go out in the second story room. [Short example]

The paradox of great stories, See says, is that “In order to be timeless, [they have] to be rooted in time.” We understand the universal only through concrete reality.

So keep it real.