Posted by: jeannineatkins | October 28, 2016

The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control – and Live to Tell the Tale by Alice Mattison

I’ve read a lot of books about writing over the years, and this one moves straight to my most-recommended shelf, which only has room for books with strong (and often funny) voices, such as we find from Anne Lamott, Steven King, and Nancy Willard. Right on the first page, we’re in a coffee shop where people bend over laptops or narrow-lined notebooks, and “a woman with messy gray hair who’s at risk of spilling her coffee down your neck” as she strains to see your work.

Alice Mattison tells us that The Kite and the String is not for beginners who should just write. She has in mind people who’ve written seriously, whether or not published, “people who earn a living and manage friendships and love, who look after children or frail parents, or who are slowed by their own ill health.” And she makes excellent company. She tells us how she began writing poetry in the basement by the washing machine, publishing very little for years, and created habits that work for her. “I’ve been lucky but also fierce. Selfish. I learned to protect my writing time.” She writes that she wants to do other things besides write, and she does, but has learned to put writing ahead of other worthy considerations at times “even though we can’t be sure that what we write will be worth reading. It’s a gamble we have to make.”


Invention is at the core, which means, “We need the courage to waste time, even though we have so little of it.” We may work with and from intense feelings – and she suggests daring to find them is part of what takes time – and then shaping scenes using common sense and an awareness of how books are structured. “I needed abandon and control – a kite that takes off into the wind, … a string that lets if fly, but not so far it gets lost.”

I love what she has to say about writing stories or even novels not just as events that come to mind but as figures a speech. A novel may be an extended metaphor, or by using hyperbole, become a fantasy, for instance. She writes about the need for trouble in fiction, for authors to step back from protecting our characters. That baby crawling toward the broken honey jar? Don’t snatch her up. And we need to step thoroughly into each character, becoming them more than writing about them. But we’re also not to get stuck in their feelings, but write action, for “focusing too intently on psychology makes writers look back, not forward. … the expression of psychological complexity through – primarily – a series of actions is what makes fiction work. Characters do things.”

Decades of writing and reading stories, novels, and poems have taught her much, and she greets us as a practical and astonishingly generous companion. For instance, re finding critique partners, she suggests not just to stay away from readers who make you want to quit, but if asked about seeing new work: “If you can’t bear to say “Never!” … say, ‘Hmmm… I don’t really know.’ Then glace at your phone as if checking your calendar and shake your head slowly, in bafflement at your own unpredictable habits.” And she returns to that kite and string. “Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your own work.”


  1. This is great, Jeannine! Thanks so much!!

    • It’s not only illuminating, but an enjoyable read!

  2. Such wise advice: “Take outrageous risks, and then have the patience and humility to fix your own work.” Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thanks, Catherine. She works this metaphor, though not ever too much, through the book, so you can almost feel it in your body — we go out, we rein in. Hope your fall is going well!

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