Word problems: Peter Turchi’s book A Muse & a Maze explores the puzzles of writing

KNOW HOW: "We’ve all heard — and possibly given — the advice 'Write what you know,'" says Peter Turchi in his new book, A Muse and a Maze. "But that implies that one knows quite enough. … So the better advice might be, 'Know what you write.' And know it as deeply, as comprehensively, as possible. Then acknowledge the remaining mystery." Photo by Dana Kroos
KNOW HOW: "We’ve all heard — and possibly given — the advice 'Write what you know,'" says Peter Turchi in his new book, A Muse and a Maze. "But that implies that one knows quite enough. … So the better advice might be, 'Know what you write.' And know it as deeply, as comprehensively, as possible. Then acknowledge the remaining mystery." Photo by Dana Kroos

It’s been a number of years since Peter Turchi lived in Asheville — he’s now based in Houston — but Western North Carolina still finds its way into his writing. “I tend to write more about places that I’ve left,” says the former director of Warren Wilson College’s MFA program. “The stories that I’m writing now, while they don’t reference Asheville in particular, in my mind they’re all set in or around Asheville. Asheville looms large on my personal map.”

Puzzles are another recent Turchi topic. They’re featured prominently in his new book, A Muse & a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, which juxtaposes the author’s essays with a selection of artworks, quotes and inspirations. “The goal is to help people think about writing and reading in different ways,” says the author. “I collect images and ideas and, if it seems to me to make sense, I convey that to the reader.” Some of the puzzles included were composed specially for the book. Turchi will discuss A Muse & a Maze at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Nov. 22. Appropriately, the event involves sudoku cupcakes.

“All of the material in the book began as lectures I gave at Warren Wilson,” says Turchi, who remains on the MFA program faculty. A few of the talks confused his students, who provided helpful feedback through the college’s evaluation system. “Then I got to really dig in, and usually I discovered a lot more by doing that,” Turchi says. “Trying to teach writing has certainly taught me a lot, because people naturally ask questions.” He also credits the faculty’s practice of attending one another’s lectures, because “you’re always talking to your peers.”

amuseamaze-cover-finalBut inspiration comes from those outside the writer’s wheelhouse, too. A Muse & a Maze quotes the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Bruce Springsteen; it also explores the photography of Charles Ritchie, with whom Turchi has collaborated. “Other narrative forms, like film and plays, offer pretty direct inspiration,” the writer says. “Sometimes it can be an artist whose work doesn’t have any obvious relation to mine. … Just the very notion behind them sometimes can be helpful in making me think of some aspect of fiction in a different way.” For example, the visual art concept of creating a self-portrait using objects rather than a human figure led Turchi to think differently about presentation of character.

He adds, “It was fun to get artists to talk to me and hear how they thought about objects, and then to think about how writers can or should give that kind of attention to the world around them.”

Not every writer thrills at the chance to put their craft under a microscope, though. To write about writing is like pondering the mechanics of sleep — there’s no surer way to stay awake. According to Turchi, short story writer Deborah Eisenberg “prefers not to think too much about how she does what she does. It’s not that she doesn’t think about the work intently, but she doesn’t think about how she creates it,” he says.

Turchi does see a correlation between magic and writing, however. “A magician isn’t simply awed by magic: It’s a very mechanical kind of thinking,” he says. “I can read a novel and my readerly response is, ‘That’s beautiful.’ Pretty quickly after that, as a writer, I think, ‘How did that lead me there?’” Curiosity about how literary effects are created is part of what drives the author to write about the tricks and processes of prose.

But as much as A Muse & a Maze seeks to explore the inner workings of the craft of writing, the book isn’t interested in pulling aside the curtain on the art form’s intrinsic wondrousness. If anything, Turchi’s collection of citations, motivations, riddles and games yields as many questions as it answers. As a teacher, he believes that while parts of the craft (such as greatness or sensitivity) can’t be taught, there are plenty of tools that can be shared. That’s where the book comes in: “Here are things you can think about and work on. But then there is something that is much harder to identify,” says Turchi. “I really did want to try to honor and respect the aspect of writing that is mysterious.”

WHO: Peter Turchi reading from and signing A Muse & a Maze
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 22, at 7 p.m.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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