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Book Review: “Story Craft” by John R. Erickson

Story Craft, John R. Erickson

Book Review by Debbie Thompson, ACM Volunteer

If you have 8-10 year old children you may already know John Erickson. He is the author of the popular Hank, the Cowdog stories. Hank is such a delightful doggy character that almost any child or animal loving adult will shake their head at his foibles, laugh at his doggy logic, and wish that they could just once scratch him behind the ears. But here is the amazing thing about Hank the Cowdog: he is an undercover agent, covertly planting goodness, truth, mercy, justice, courage, and joy in the hearts of all who love him.

Story Craft is John Erickson’s “Reflections on Faith, Culture and Writing”. It is part autobiography, part philosophical and theological exposition and part advice to writers. All of it challenges the reader to greater depths of appreciation for authors or commitment to the vocation of author.

Sometimes, the truth is very hard for Christians to hear. Although Erickson carefully builds his case, it is still hard to read the quote from Dr, Thom Praham, an associate professor of theater, film and television at Azusa Pacific University and a Christian on the topic of Christian films: “Christian filmmakers are so intent on their message they ignore storytelling… they tend to see the world the way they want it to be. Ignoring life’s complexities, they paint a simplistic, unrealistic portrait of the world.” (pg 111) That this is true of writers as well is apparent.

It is equally difficult to perceive writing as a Christian vocation which, like all vocations, requires sacrifice. In his chapter, 8 Traits of Good Writers, he admonishes writers “Anyone who claims to have ambitions of becoming a writer can’t afford the luxury of being a heavy consumer of entertainment.” In other words, turn off the television and movies and start writing. Erickson, himself, writes for hours every day and hasn’t watched television or movies for years.

Erickson does not leave us with hard truths and hard words of advice, however. This book is full of invigorating, fresh, life giving, ideas which are bound to inspire a new zeal for contributing to the culture. He gives us reasons to write and a mission statement that should be pinned to every writer’s bulletin board: “[Your} mission should be to do what artists deserving of the title have always done: bring light into the world, find order in chaos, and provide nourishment, hope and meaning to people who need it. Art that can do that is heroic.” (pg. 82)

But back to Hank: “In the sixth Hank adventure, Let Sleeping Dogs Lie, Hank is racing back to ranch headquarters to bark the alarm about some impending crisis, but on the way, he scares up a cottontail rabbit. He can’t pass up a chance to chase the rabbit and off he goes. But then he’s drilled by a flea and has to abandon the rabbit to scratch the flea. By the time he has whacked the flea, he has forgotten the crisis that caused him to run back to the house in the first place.”

So the story is interrupted by this hilarious scene and nobody cares because everyone is laughing at Hank and seeing their own lives in the same light.

Where was I? Oh, yes, read Hank the Cowdog stories. Your children will never know you are reading them for yourself. And then read StoryCraft and let John R. Erickson inspire you to become a valiant writer.



    • Joe on October 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    I’ve only thumbed through one of the Hank books, but a friend of ours loves them. He plays the audio recordings on family vacations and his kids sit (mostly) still, listening to what Hank will do next.

    I’ll have to pick up the writing book (and maybe a Hank book as well).

    “Anyone who claims to have ambitions of becoming a writer can’t afford the luxury of being a heavy consumer of entertainment.”

    I’d love to hear his surrounding thoughts on this, because I’m inclined to disagree. Sorta. I agree you can’t be a “heavy” consumer, because 1) you won’t have time to write and 2)you’ll likely just repeat everything you see/read/whatever. But I think there’s a lot to learn about storytelling, character development and scene setting from good movies, books and television shows. I’m not suggesting we all run out and buy season 1 of Jersey Shore or anything. But if you can wrap your head around a David Lynch movie, chances are you’ll come away with a broader perspective on the craft.

    • Debbie on October 14, 2010 at 9:08 am

    I think Erickson would agree that during a writer’s “apprenticeship years”, analyzing plots from other books is vital. Authors are extending those “apprenticeship years” fruitlessly by continuing to be heavy consumers.
    He defines ‘heavy’ consumption as viritually any consumption. You appear to be advocating some carefully chosen consumption. While I would probably advise less consumption than you and allow more than Erickson.
    Although his statement here is expressly for writers, in the larger context of the book, he seems to be saying that about everyone involved seriously in any vocation. You could easily rewrite the sentence to be: Anyone who claims to have ambitions of becoming a violinist/doctor/gymnast/pastor can’t afford the luxury of being a heavy consumer of entertainment.

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