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Writing About Writing

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

Can books about writing actually teach you anything about writing? This was a question that came up last week over drinks with my friend Eliza. There are so many how-to books out there about writing, but I personally feel that the best way to learn how to write is a) to write, and b) to read great literature.

But then Eliza reminded me of John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner was Raymond Carver’s mentor at Chico State and an accomplished novelist himself. What I love about this book is that it’s a book about writing that is beautifully written: although it’s something of a writing manual, it reads like literature. It’s honest, sincere, and inspiring. It gives the amateur writer encouragement while at the same time being honest about the demands the writing life requires. It gives some essential lessons about what good stories need, advice that is both philosophical and practical. It also captures the magic that makes writing so addictive and special. Some of my favorite passages:

“Publication in five or six obscure magazines virtually guarantees eventual success in some not so obscure magazine.”

“The writer who cares more about words than about story (characters, action, setting, atmosphere) is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream.”

“The common reader demands some reason to keep turning the pages. Two things can keep the common reader going: argument or story. (Both are always involved, however subtly, in good fiction).”

“If he’s capable of writing expressively, at least sometimes, and if his love for language is not so exclusive or obsessive as to rule out all other interests, one feels the young writer has a chance.”

“TV is not life, and the young novelist who has watched TV and failed to notice the difference is in trouble.”

“The beginning novelist who has the gift for inhabiting other lives has perhaps the best chance for success.”

“The writer must be not only capable of understanding people different from himself but fascinated by such people.”

“The more abstract a piece of writing it, the less vivid the dream it sets off in the reader’s mind. One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways; the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teacher say that one should ‘show,’not ‘tell.’”

“Good fiction sets off. . .a vivid and continuous dream in the reader’s mind. . .it answers, either explicitly or by implication, every reasonable question that the reader can ask.”

“The first quality of good storytelling is storytelling. A profound theme is of trifling importance if the characters knocked around by it are uninteresting. . .the young novelist should not read in the manner of an English major but in the manner of a novelist.”

“No human activity I know of takes more time than writing: it’s highly unusually for anyone to become a successful writer if he cannot put in several hours every day at his typewriter.”
“Because his art is such a difficult one, the writer is not likely to advance in the world as visibly as do his neighbors.”

“Character is the very life of fiction.”

“In nearly all good fiction, the basic—all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts), and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.”

“One must be just a little crazy to write a great novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time.”

“All writing requires at least some measure of trancelike state.”

“By the nature of his work it is important that one way or another the novelist learn to depend primarily on himself, not others, that he love without too much need and dependency, and look inward.”

“The true novelist must be at once driven and indifferent. Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life.”

“A bad fiction workshop is ‘workshoppy.’ It tends to emphasize theme and design over feeling and authentic narrative.”

“Only the close study of the great literature of the past, in whatever language, can show the writer clearly what emotional and intellectual heights are possible.”

“Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-word. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit.”

Amazing stuff! Any other great writing books you can recommend?

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6 Responses to Writing About Writing

  1. laker says:

    Obviously, there are thousands of writing styles, but I major in only two:
    First, news writing — journalism has so many rules, beyond grammar, it hurts. Publications brag about "in-house training." That’s thick sliced salami … everyone is trying to protect his/her job … it’s a world of sharks looking for someone to devour.
    Second, novelists — from my college professor where I took some evening courses, hoping to get more than just a weekly paycheck from the "local rag," in the early days of word processors, she said, "Just throw words on the screen, your words, in your language. Tomorrow, read it to see how it works. The day after, start re-writing." I cherish that person endlessly.
    I love being retired where I can major in the second style of writing … it’s fun.

  2. Dana says:

    Thanks, Lesley. Define your own success, that’s what I say. :)

    (I liked Stephen King’s book, too.)

  3. Lesley Smith says:

    I think you answered your question: books about writing can teach you about writing! A lot of good books in the post and in the comments. :)
    There are so many, it sort of depends on what you’re looking for.
    On Writing by Stephen King is good.
    Story by Robert McKee is good.
    Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott is good.

    I have to agree with Dana though that a writer shouldn’t write just to get published.

  4. Dana says:

    The Writer’s Path has some nice exercises and approaches. I like the way they break down existing stories into short little five-word outlines that you can work from. And they encourage collaborative writing. And they encourage a lot of noodling and doodling and exercising as a way to delve deeper into the self.

    Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. It is more about art-making in general, but a very good book that has informed my writing practice a lot. Good info on teasing out the tropes and tricks of different art processes.

    Same with Trust the Process by Shaun McNiff. More about visual art but very inspiring.

    Writing with the goal of being published is entirely the wrong approach for me. I like Barbara Baig‘s How to Be a Writer, because it’s more about process. It’s a very intelligent and meaningful approach to writing, I think.

    Mostly I just steal techniques and approaches from writers who are doing what I want to be doing.

  5. Gordon Jones says:

    Doctor Who: The Writer’s tale has helped me immensely recently.

    It isn’t actually a ‘how to’ book. There is no clear advice for characters, themes, etc and what there is is mainly for those writing scripts though I did find that useful.

    What it does do though, exceedingly well, is describe what writing actually is, not in terms of planning or layout but just the very act of writing itself.

    I had been writing for a good two years when I started reading it and I was amazed and greatly bouyed to discover that my way of writing is not unique, not utterly insane after all.

    It says that great writing is a mish mash: The result of years of ideas and knowledge, your own or somebody elses, building up and stewing in the mind before being pulped by deadlines and late nights.

    This book truly explains what it’s like to be a writer, the mental processes involved.

    Personally, arrogantly, I believe that if you really need a book to help you write then you probably shouldn’t be but it can be refreshing to get clarity of vision on whether the way you write is utterly bizarre or not.

  6. Julie Nilson says:

    My favorite writing book so far is <i>Write Away</i> by Elizabeth George. Her descriptions and examples gave me a lot to think about as I structure my own stories, and her character worksheets are wonderful. After every chapter, I had a little writing binge because thinking about those things got my subconscious working on my novel.

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