Country Craft: The Writer’s Knife

by Stuart Phillips

The spring earth thawed and yielded eight slabs of New York Bluestone from my front yard, remnants of an 1820s walkway from when neighbors visited neighbors. Sixteen hundred pounds, looking for a new home.

I decided to use them for steps in the little slope by our grapevines. Although well-traveled it is just steep enough to be troublesome. The project was new. Challenging. So, I researched. Video after video—some better than others, some more terrible. But each one taught me something—even if it was only how I did NOT want to do my steps. In the end, I used some of my reclaimed bricks as risers with the slabs as treads. After two days of digging, heaving, and leveling I was exhausted but pleased.

I could not have built the steps without a self-assessment. What did I know? What did I NOT know? What skills were not already in my tool kit? In Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he recalls the philosopher Phaedrus, who wielded the knife of analysis with “dexterity and a sense of power. With a single stroke . . . he split the whole world into parts of his own choosing, split the parts and split the fragments of the parts, finer and finer and finer until he had reduced it to what he wanted it to be.” To be a complete writer, you must turn the knife of Phaedrus on yourself. You must identify, and confront, your blind spots about your own writing.

But how to see them? After all, there is no spot so blind as self-reflection. And it is the rare writer who will go to a friend and blithely ask “What’s wrong with my writing?” (It is the rarer friend who will answer anything other than “nothing”). Instead, the writer must follow the advice of Sherlock Holmes. “Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.” Yes, you must play detective. Pull the responses from old workshops—from both teachers and students. Make a chart of the types of comments you received: “Conversation doesn’t flow,” “female character seems wooden,” etc. Read some outstanding pieces in your genre and immediately write down what you feel they did in a way that touches you, but you feel you don’t quite pull off. Send a piece to a trusted friend with specific questions “Does character x seem real?” “Is the motivation clear here?” Assemble the data, then deduce which area(s) in which your writing can be strengthened. You may find that while you know how to mix mortar, you don’t know how to use a snap line.

When revising my current WIP, I realized that my female characters needed to be more fully developed and not just a “woman in a refrigerator.” Admitting that was not a sign of weakness, but of power—I had the power to recognize, admit, and try to remedy an area that needed strengthening.

A problem without a solution remains, well, a problem. So, I made a plan. I decided to read widely in novels by female authors and to workshop heavily with female readers.

From readers I learned that I was writing dialogue as if two men were speaking, without providing the nuance of motivation that (in reality) frequently clouds communication between men and women. By writers ranging from Ellen Gilchrist to Jesmyn Ward, I saw the art of subtlety, especially in deft metaphors for family dynamics (essentially, how to say something without saying it). By exposing myself to that voice, that sensibility, I was able to develop and revise my female characters—eventually doubling their roles in my manuscript.

There are many other areas for me to address. But I don’t look at this as a failing, either as a person or as a writer. Instead, it’s a challenge. And every writer knows that challenges are an integral part of the arc. So, turn the knife of Phaedrus on your own writing; it will be all the better for it.

Read more of Stuart’s work at Reckon:

Fiction – Country Roads

Nonfiction – Country Craft: In the Brickyard

<strong>Stuart Phillips</strong>
Stuart Phillips

Stuart Phillips is an expatriate Mississippian, former Army officer, and recovering lawyer who now lives and writes in the Mohawk Valley of New York. A graduate of Ole Miss, Pepperdine (JD) and Fairfield University (MFA), Stuart is slowly driving himself mad with revisions on The Great Southern Novel. You can follow his descent at or on Instagram @deltawriter12

One response to “Country Craft: The Writer’s Knife”

  1. I liked this piece for many reasons. I will give only one. It described certain things that diligent writers will do to improve their work, and at the same time it did not force me onto Google and into the mess of detail that awaits anyone who wants to do actual step building.

    I thank the author sharing this. Like him, I call myself a recovering lawyer. I am recovering. Unfortunately, my legal career has damaged my writing ability beyond any chance for real repair.