Monday, September 7, 2009

Writing books are delicious

For various reasons, mostly having to do with yestereve's writing not going very well, I went to bed last night with Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. This morning I got up and did some chores and necessary writing, and then I read 50 more pages of the book and am now in quite a good mood.

Lamott's book does what all the best writing books do, which is to remind me of how hard writing is and that my failures are common but there are ways back to the right track, and indeed, I already know how to do whatever I need to do. There's even a chapter called "Shitty First Drafts"--hooray, I already write those. I read the chapter with cheered validation in my heart. Yes, I can, at some point, take this failing incoherent story where characters change names and there is a half page description of a parking lot, and turn it into a strong, affecting story that someone might not be angry at me if they had to read it!! Hooray!! Any minute now, I get right back to work on said story.

Ok, so the above was a little sarcastic, and Lamott's book doesn't deserve that--the first 50 pages anyway are very honest and bracing and encouraging, and also written by an extremely talented funny writer. But the position writing books hold in my life is a little like banana cake--a delicious dessert masquerading as a healthy snack. You have to consume both the books and the cake with discretion. If you have banana cake for breakfast instead of a bowl of oatmeal because, hey, it's *fruit*! you are in trouble. Just like reading writing books instead of writing can get to be a big problem--they are so validating and encouraging, and so entertaining to read, it can get to be a habit that goes in the slot where actual work should go. If on the other hand, you eat banana cake for dessert instead of chocolate cake, you are very slightly ahead--hey, at least it's fruit. I try to stick to reading writing-advice books when I've run out of steam on the writing, as a leisure activity in place of, say, playing internet Scrabble, napping, or baking a cake (although all these things have their places). It's not writing, but it's better *for* writing than something completely disconnected from the practice.

So, here, a few lovely writing books I recommend you read sometime when you want a treat with a little substance:

--Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. When I was first given this book, at 12, I thought it was silly, but I've probably read this book half a dozen times since and it gets smarter every time. Lots of very simple, *slightly* hippyish, Zen Buddhism flavoured advice on just writing writing writing--in restaurants, with friends, in notebooks, by yourself, while travelling--just shut off your inner editor (Goldberg calls it the "monkey mind," not sure why) and do it.
--How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf and J. R. Struthers This is a collection of essays for both readers and writers of short stories, about both how writers do what they do and why. Worth the price of admission just for Clark Blaise's twin pieces on how to write beginnings and how to write endings, but you could also cheerfully read this book without wanting to write a word, and come out the end a better reader of stories. That said, there's no, "rah rah, you can do it" stuff--just lots of insight into process and product. To continue with the cake metaphor, this one wouldn't have any frosting.
--Writers' Gym, edited by Eliza Clark A much lighter version of the last book, a mix of writing exercises, tips, interviews and mini-essays on how stuff works. Lots of fun to read, and certainly in the right mode of writing practicality, but this one's largely frosting.
--What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter This one is all exercises, but with extensive explanations and discussions of each one. I have done a few of these and they were the necessary combination of fun/interesting/useful, but mainly (is it bad to admit this?) I like to read about the exercises without doing them. Many in this book are quite specific, and often for writers in the early stages of a project, so to find the one that's useful for me to do often takes a while. But it is interesting to read about the others, and be reminded of those skills they are trying to teach.

This is just a taste--I have half a dozen more on my shelf, and in the world they are legion. No substitute for anything--not writing fiction nor reading it--but a worthwhile indulgence nonetheless. I'm really looking forward to the rest of *Bird by Bird*, as well as getting on with this story...really soon.

Bon appetit!

I need a telescope not a telephone


Andrew M. said...

Bird by Bird is fantastic. My favourite is when she says something to the effect of, 'Nobody produces good first drafts. Well, one woman I know does, but we don't like her and feel she has no inner life.' Or something. Anyway, she's a weird, wonderful lady, a born again Christian who's irreverent and smutty. I just finished her memoir Operating Instructions. Another good one.

frede said...

I read Bird by Bird in law school, a bit by accident. A boy I liked loved it and I thought if I read it I would somehow be closer to him. I wasn't. But I enjoyed it immensely. :)

AMT said...

this discussion has taught me a lot. for example, when we are allowed to not like people. i feel good about this. thank you, bexy.

roseanne said...

Writing Down the Bones and Bird by Bird are classics. I return to both of those books again and again, whenever I'm in need of a little cheerleading. How Stories Mean looks interesting, I will have to seek out that one...

I love your blog and your stories! You are awesome!

Rebecca Rosenblum said...

Anne Lamott is pretty amazing. My favourite part is when she spends 2 years on the novel, and the editor says it isn't working, then she completely rewrites it and reorganizes it and the editor still doesn't know what it's about and she says, "Thank goodness, back then I was still drinking."