Writing About Writing

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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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