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Every writer must eventually write a book about writing. It’s some sort of unspoken rule. Due to my lifelong interest in the writing process, I’ve read a fair number of these advice manuals. (Two of my favorites are Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, because both of these books say quite a lot about reading and understanding what you read, in addition to writing.) No question that books about how to write remain popular. I guess a lot of people want to be writers, and they think these books contain the secret, that one highly guarded piece of knowledge that will finally transform the person reading the book into a by-gosh for-real writer.
Here’s the real secret: All books on writing say pretty much the same things. They use a lot of words and pages to say it, too, when all the writing advice ever given can be distilled to just a few simple rules. Hang on, I’m going to tell you what they are in just a minute.
If I had to recommend just one writing book, it would be Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s not that she imparts any great secrets either; her book says pretty much the same thing all the other writing books do. But she says it with a lot of humor and reveals a great deal of herself in the process. Her book is really more useful for providing emotional support to writers, rather than showing them how to write. I take my copy out and read random sections from it whenever I need a little boost.
Now, on to the writing secrets. These are the three rules you need to know about writing, distilled from every writing advice book ever:
- If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. You can’t wait to be in the mood or to have a great idea. Showing up is key, but the urge to procrastinate can be very powerful. Successful writers usually build a routine around this just to get their butts in front of the computer (or typewriter or notebook or what have you).
- If you want to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. The initial struggle is just to get words on paper. Those words will never be as good as you want them to be. Once the words are there, you can work with them, revise, shape, cut, rearrange, to make them better. This rule also means that your writing, like most things you do, will get better the more you practice doing it.
- Writers read. I will never understand why someone who doesn’t read books would want to write books. All good writers read, a lot. They read obsessively. They read widely. Reading is how you learn to write. It’s how you figure out structure, character and plot. It’s how you find ideas and techniques to “borrow,” to play with and make your own. It’s how you realize what works and what doesn’t.
By the way, these rules also apply to pretty much any creative endeavor. Just substitute the word writer for the artistic pursuit of your choice: painter, musician, dancer, cook, whatever it is.
And that’s all you really, truly need to know. I’ve just saved you a lot of money buying all those books about writing you don’t really need. No need to thank me–just promise that when you become a successful writer, you won’t write yet another book about writing.
Sally Mann’s Exposure – NYTimes.com: a beautiful essay about art, motherhood and the clash between private and public lives.
How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture – NYTimes.com by Colson Whitehead — a fascinating look at pernicious phrases like “you do you” and “it is what it is.”
Popeye’s “I yam what I yam,” however, remains what it has always been — the pathetic ravings of a man who claims superstrength, when it is obvious to everyone else in the room that spinach merely ameliorates the symptoms of an undiagnosed vitamin deficiency. A scurvy dog, indeed.
Read this and had to share: Margaret Atwood on Game of Thrones: ‘Real people, every murderous one’. Well, if George pops off before the series is done, maybe she can finish it for him. Wouldn’t that be interesting?
Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems – NYTimes.com by Rachel Cusk. Ignore the headline–this is an amazing essay about the stories we invent for ourselves and our families. We are all storytellers. Sometimes we forget that our children our storytellers too, and have the right to tell their own stories of their lives, rather than abide by ours.
I keep a record of what I read in LibraryThing. I haven’t recorded every book I’ve ever read, because I don’t remember (boy, I wish I had started keeping a list at the age of 5 or something). But I have recorded almost 1,200 books, so I thought I’d take a look at my authors list and see which authors were most influential on me.
It seems I read widely, because there are only 2 authors with more than 10 listings, and only one, Stephen King, with over 15 listings. I think being an eclectic reader is a very good thing. For purposes of this little poll, done for my amusement only, I decided to count any author with more than 5 listings as highly influential.
Here they are then, in order of influence:
- Stephen King
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Neil Gaiman
- Jonathan Lethem
- Edward Gorey
- Christopher Moore* (once, maybe, but not anymore)
- Margaret Atwood
- Jane Austen
- Michael Chabon
- Fred Chappell
- Nick Hornby* (like Moore, this one is dubious, unless it’s him writing about books and reading)
- Kim Stanley Robinson
- Octavia Butler
- Tom Perrotta
- Ray Bradbury
- Roald Dahl
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Shirley Jackson
- Francine Prose
What’s the point? None, really, just thought it was interesting data.