Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Books on Writing

Some of us are addicted to drugs; some to gambling. Others of us are addicted to books that tell us how to write. Not that there are many really good ones. Mostly they tell you how to write just like the author, which is not always helpful. Pretty much all Ray Bradbury says in Zen in the Art of Writing is to pick a noun each day, and write about that! It's not a bad exercise at all, but it is just an exercise. Bradbury might have thought he was writing all his stories that way, but since his stories stopped coming decades ago, maybe he should have looked more carefully at what was really going on. (I hate ragging on Bradbury, since his collections of stories blew my mind when I read them as a child, and I credit him with single-handedly stocking my imagination. But he turned into a bitter old conservative, so oh well.)

These books fall into two camps: the inspirational ones and the technical ones. Of the inspirational ones, there are two that everyone loves but me: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg and Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. I'm not a spiritual person and the authors' quasi-religious take on writing grates on me. Not that they don't have lots of good things to say -- they do -- but there is a definite emphasis on feeling good first. Eh. Feeling bad about yourself makes for better writing, if you ask me. Anyway, if you read Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write first, as I did, you might not need any more inspiration for the rest of your life. Ueland was an absolutely lunatic old woman -- lunatic in the best way. She believed that "Everyone is talented, original, and has something to say" and that the trick of it is being honest enough to figure out what that is.

John Gardner's books are a bit stuffy but excellent, too, though unfortunately I got them all out of the library and can't remember exactly why I liked them. William Stafford's books on poetry -- Writing the Australian Crawl is one -- are very good, too, though he was a bit of an insufferable old guy. He got up and wrote a poem every morning, whether he felt like it or not, or whether he had any good ideas or not. His point was that it wasn't his job to edit, but just to write. Fair enough! But he didn't have much patience for anyone who might have difficulty doing just that. Writers' block, he said in so many words, is just arrogance, what happens when a writer tries to be better than he is. Okay, I buy that. But some of his poems are awful. (I have one of his poems stuck over my desk. I don't have anyone else's poems tacked up, so there you have it: love/hate.)

While we're talking about poetry, I have to mention Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town. I've never written poetry, actually, but this book makes me want to. Just thinking about it makes me want to. The title refers to Hugo's obsession with towns, particularly the towns of Washington and Montana, and how place informs and inspires writing.

All the above books offer an entire worldview in addition to, or all muddled up with, writing advice. One really terrific book that does NOT do that is Peter Elbow's Writing With Power. I first read it in high school (it was my dad's) and it is probably the one book, along with Elements of Style, whose advice, direction, and techniques I use every time I write (blogging not included, ahem. I don't think of blogging as writing. Is that weird?) even though I lost the book years ago. Elbow assumes you're inspired and have lots of things to say, and focuses instead on actually getting your ideas on paper, and then once you have them down, moving them around. I love it. It's refreshing and practical. He devotes a whole chapter to Nausea, the feeling you get when you reach the inevitable point when you begin to hate your writing. Hmm, maybe I should read that book again.

5 comments:

jrlennon said...

You and I should write one...we'll be rich, RICH!!!

rmellis said...

Yeah, we'll call it "The Writers' Guide to Distractions": Chapter One: Blogging, Ch. 2: eBay, Ch. 3: Chickens, Ch. 4: Alcohol, Ch. 5: Childrearing....

5 Red Pandas said...

I'm glad that someone admitted that they don't feel like blogging is writing. While I don't intentionally write poorly, or incorrectly on my blog, when I write it, I think, it's a blog, I'm not going to edit this thing with a fine toothed comb. Then someone finds the need to correct me in my comments. Which makes me sad.

I can't read books about writing. They make me too anxious. I can read essays about literature, but not about writing itself. I'm not sure if that is a character flaw, or if I'm somehow doing some self preservation by ignoring that whole category of books.

I too found Bird By Bird a tad too touchy feely for my tastes. Then again, I only have two quotes on my wall. One is by Richard Yates to a female writer friend of his in which he says: "Write with balls." The other one is by Joan Didion in which she says, "Writers are always selling somebody out." I think those two quotes give a good indication of my mindset when it comes to writing.

Duncan Murrell said...

Speaking of rich, I think Gardner says in one of those books (the novelist's one?) that a novelist ought to either marry rich or get a job as a rural postal carrier.

Then I got to know Silas House ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silas_House ), and realized that Gardner was right, at least about being a rural postal carrier.

rmellis said...

I think the rural mail carrier route is apt to make for a more productive writing life. Those who marry rich or are otherwise burdened by unearned dough tend to breakdown under the pressure of proving their worth...