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.
This was a beautifully written profile: The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison – NYTimes.com by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. Have you read any of Morrison’s books? I am ashamed to say that I have not, but Beloved is sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to give it my full attention.
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.
It seems like many of us avid readers have a fascination with what, and how much, some of our favorite authors could drink. There have been some wonderful love letters written to alcohol by some of our greatest literary talents.
Kingsley Amis was a prodigious drinker. We might almost call him a professional. His words on drinking have been gathered up in a little book: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis.
This is not a book for reading straight through as much as tippling from at odd times. But if you are at all fond of alcohol, it is a must-read.
There are actually three short books in this volume. The first, and best, section is Amis’s treatise on drink. It is quite funny, and some practical tips are scattered here and there. The second section reprints Amis’s newspaper columns on the subject of drink, and there is some repetition here. The final section contains several alcohol-related quizzes, which might be fun after having a few.
Keep this book by your bar, and remember to nip from it every now and then. It’s probably the only book on the subject you’ll need.
I guess these days we’re too health-conscious to drink like the masters did. Too many calories! The jury is out on whether this is a good thing for literature. But it sure doesn’t seem like being a writer is as much fun.
I remember when writing used to be something I did solely for fun, when I would write just to play around with words. I created collage poems out of words and pictures cut from magazines. I tried to make up my own acrostics and crosswords. I wrote stories as a form of play — playing with an idea, a structure, something that someone else had written.
I think one reason I don’t write as much as I used to or would like to is because somewhere along the way, I lost that sense of having fun with it. Is it because I’ve grown up? Is it because I think I shouldn’t do anything anymore unless it’s productive or results in a paycheck, because that’s we are taught to think that adults do. Adults don’t play; we work.
Or is it because I’ve been told over and over again that to be a writer, one must be tortured, obsessed, possessed? Writing is something you do because you have to, not because you want to. Above all, it is not fun.
Probably it’s a combination of all of the above. One thing I do know — I miss writing just for fun. I want that back in my life.
After reading this — Elizabeth Gilbert Versus Philip Roth: Is Writing Torture? in The New Yorker — I have to declare that I completely respect Elizabeth Gilbert’s point of view. She has not lost her sense of fun or play. She can’t believe she actually gets to write as a job.
Doesn’t that seem preferable to the old “tortured artist” routine?
Also worth reading: Elizabeth Gilbert’s thoughts on writing.
The writer’s job is to entertain, but there is more. Writers can educate, enlighten, even corrupt. This is why books are often seen as dangerous.
Writers are observers. They want to figure out what makes us human. Why do we behave the way we do toward one another? What is our purpose here? Is there any meaning to all this? Are we in control of our destiny or at the mercy of fate, the environment, heredity or dumb luck?
Writers are always looking. They are constantly:
- looking back — to understand who we are by understanding where we came from
- looking around — at contemporary society, culture, institutions, values and beliefs
- looking inward — revealing interior thoughts and psychology, trying to figure out what makes us tick
- looking beyond — turning our fears into monsters; realizing our fantasies by making the impossible possible; traveling to the furthest reaches of space, other dimensions and parallel worlds
- looking forward — extrapolating on the problems of today and following them through to their ultimate ends