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Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, by Erika Holzer

Like many pro-freedom individuals, I owe a great deal to Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead was the first explicitly pro-freedom book I read, and it not only showed me I wasn't alone in my individualistic thinking, it spurred me to seek other freedom-loving people. Yet, especially as I delved into some of Rand's nonfiction and learned more of her history, I found elements that disturbed me. Unable to exalt Rand, yet equally unable to deny her significant contributions to my own intellectual and personal growth, I have mostly chosen to stay out of the squabbles that seem to—still—consume a lot of objectivists' energies. I never expected to gain any new information that would expand my understanding of Ayn Rand beyond the mostly two-dimensional portrayals I'd wearied of. Then my very dear friend Chris Sciabarra recommended Erika Holzer's book, Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher to me ... and, I'll admit, I considered reading it only because it was Chris making the recommendation.

The last thing I wanted to read was another book uncritically glorifying Rand, or attempting to natter titillatingly about her Inner Circle and excommunications therefrom. It might have been unfair of me to suspect such material would be lurking in the pages of Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, but other books have wandered off their purported focus and into those thickets. Refreshingly, Holzer did not. She not only stayed on the subject, thus providing an excellent overview of the craft of fiction-writing, but she created a three-dimensional portrayal of Rand. Delightfully absent are the clichés of flashing eyes, gathering stormclouds, and absolutist pronouncements; instead the reader is treated to genuine exchanges of ideas between Rand and Holzer. Given the focus of the book on a process—creating good fiction—rather than Rand herself, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Holzer achieves such a rich depiction.

Not having seriously tried my hand at fiction, nor likely to do so anytime soon, I nonetheless found Holzer's treatment of the process fascinating. She doesn't glibly state that anyone can create good fiction; but Holzer does assert that much of the craft can be learned, and offers much to back that claim. In several places I became so intrigued that I was tempted to set some writing exercises for myself. And I'm sure I'm not the only reader to find irony in discovering a chapter titled Flexibility:

The flexibility principle is as crucial, when it comes to outlining a novel, as it is to characterization.

I cannot overemphasize how Ayn Rand's identifications in this regard proved of lasting value to me. Being the kind of person who, at least in my law school days and spilling over into the early 60s, was inclined to take too many notes and deliver a speech word-for-word (no scribbled on-the-back-of-an-envelope talking points for me!), my approach to outlining started out along the same structured lines.

Given this mindset, I was completely out of sync with what Ayn tried to convey to me about outlining a novel – at least, initially. (pp. 70-71)

By her willingness to recreate the learning process she went through with Rand as well as her sharing of excerpts of her writing, Holzer vivifies the process of fiction writing. But that's not to suggest that Holzer airily dismisses the challenges inherent in the process; all along the way, she identifies traps that an author can fall into and never climb out of. Nor does her method necessarily doom works to formulaic blandness. Rather, Holzer distills the process to fundamentals, and offers advice gleaned by years of experience.

In Ayn Rand: My Fiction-Writing Teacher, Erika Holzer has accomplished something remarkable: she reaches beyond the mythic figure, beyond the intellectual accomplishments and oft-emphasized human failings, and creates a well-rounded, believable portrayal of Ayn Rand. She also created a loose how-to that itself reads like an adventure. Any prose writer will find helpful information here; likewise, anyone interested in Rand will enjoy the peek behind the monolithic façade so often encountered.

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