5 min read
4 book recs on writing
Toolbox, Ages 9-99
AVAILABLE IN PODCAST
How do you write on the move? A computer and phone work for me. When I’m not in the TreeHouse I miss my books, dictionaries, and style guides. Worse, there are no dogs. At the moment, I’m in the Westin bathroom; rolled in a chair and put a towel on the tub to rest my feet. I’m that mom, I hate to admit it. My daughter can be a light sleeper and needs the rest because she’s competing in a volleyball tournament. I read Sayaka Murata’s novel Convenience Store Woman whose delinquent roommate worked from the bathroom tub. The desk chair is more comfortable.
Truth is you don’t need much to write. When she started out, Ann Patchett traveled with her Hermes 3000 portable typewriter in a 17 pound case with handle, so things have improved. A lot. Jane Austen needed a sheaf of writing paper, ink, and a quill! For writers, the challenge can be the setting but for many it’s the process.
Writing about writing abounds; it’s what writers do. Writing advice falls into two major categories, the craft book and the inspiration book. Ursula Le Guin has a craft book with ten chapters* organized around ten exercises. If you want to improve your skills, get it. It’s one of the best. And, inspiration books help you with hurdles. Steven Pressfield War of Art takes you through his routine and fighting off the excuses which keep you from working, the endless piles of laundry and bills and chores which you’d skip in a heartbeat if you were meeting up with your bestie but damn well have to do now to keep you from sitting down to work.
Both titles and both types of books help. There is no substitution for the actual thing: if you want to learn to write, you must write. If you have interest in anything else, do that. Stocks, teaching, chicken farming. Please, for the love of God, do something else if you have it in you. This is a tough road littered with impoverished humans, who may have added to the breadth of the human endeavor, but also lived miserably, died broke, or like Poe or Hemingway and Woolf, came to sad ends.
How will you know you’re a writer? You must write; writing is like breathing, if you stop doing it, you die. You also should like words. And, if you’re traveling as I am now, you write.
If you’re still with me, then you fall into that category or you are curious about the creative process or you love reading and want to peek inside the rattle to see how the thing works. For a thousand writers, a thousand methods.
Here’s how I write on the road. Over the course of the week, a kernel of an idea comes to me. I find these in books and life, or they find me. I’m not a fast reader but I read a lot. By habit, by setting aside the time. And because reading for writers is the flip side of what I wrote earlier, about how writers must write. Writers must read.
So, ideas from books and stuff going on in my life come head to head and throughout the day the intersections and patterns bounce around like a bunch of white noise. This might be a poem or a passage in a book, conversations I’ve had, reading group discussions, news and current events. When I go to bed, I think on these, like I have the last couple nights before I left home. I often wake with an answer or idea.
What will I write on the road? Austen Kleon, in his marvelous little book Show Your Work, said if you’re creating today you have to share. You don’t have a choice. I wasn’t sure how my creative process even looked for me, writing on the road. I certainly hadn’t imagined sending dispatches from the toilet of a hotel. Here’s what I know.
I start with the kernel of an idea and tell it like it is. Getting down the bones. Like any professional, writers develop skills and I’ve been writing for a long time. That’s a lot of muscle memory. If you’re new and answered yes to the question above about writing, then start now, do a little every day. Vomit on the page. I usually don’t know where I’m going exactly, though I have a destination in mind. The discovery is along the way. My last letter involved searching for war poetry in an anthology when I came across Howard Nemerov, a Jewish poet. At dinner my family talked about Urkaine and Zelensky and his Jewish heritage. I felt a connection and it grew stronger as I read more and as I wrote more. His poetry moved me deeply and I had a similar feeling about this Ukrainian leader on the brink of losing it all.
Next I rewrite and revise. Writing is rewriting. It’s never good enough for the writer. So you aim high and fail daring greatly. Or you aim low, down close to the page, spewing whatever’s on your mind. And you go back and write it again.
Once I’ve gotten out the first draft, I let it sit a while, half a day, a whole day. Then I see what the hell it was I wrote. Oh. Go figure. That’s not what I intended to do at all. Then I rewrite and tighten which means CUT. BY GOD you must cut. Le Guin’s best exercise, ok they’re all bests, but she says it’s A Terrible Thing to Do, and you must cut your writing in half. There you go. Cut half of it. It will be better. Distilled and potent, able to capture the reader’s imagination and stick with her. And respect her time and lighten her burden by figuring out what you want to say and doing so in the fewest words possible.
If I had more time this would be shorter. You’ve cut your 5000 words to 2500, good. Then what is it you were trying to say? Structure the writing around that, make sure it is set up on a foundation of your own natural voice, a rhythm that a reader can follow. Then take her along on the journey.
This is the same for any writing, whether you’re in the toilet or Timbuktu. I write early. I write midday. I write late into the evening. For me it’s when the idea hits. For formal writing in school or at work, this requires three revisions. For writer-writers, this is tireless and ongoing. My letters rarely have fewer than ten revisions. I’m fast and follow the Ray Bradbury method when I’m able: Work-relax-don’t think.* I do it on the fly, then I come back to it multiple times. I just checked, three recent letters had 22 revisions, 17, and 21. WordPress tracks edits like media and line edits, such as those for punctuation and word choice. But you get the idea. Writing is revision.
Once I’m okay with it, I let it go. Send it out in the world. I record my letters for my podcast and I can’t tell you how helpful that is for rhythm and story. My phone works when I’m on the road but that’s not as clean a recording on my BLUE Yeti microphone in the TreeHouse. But read your work out loud because speaking lets you catch all the silly stuff, the phrasing and words that are off. I go back and read my writing aloud if I have time. Does it work? I fix it while I’m talking. There are screwups and I laugh at myself, stupid things I did. Then I try to get it right next time. I can’t worry once it’s out there because I know it’s the process of creating that I have to love and I develop my craft by doing it over and over.
It’s a powerful force to create; creative people have to create. Until I began writing seriously, I found this in music, performing music: playing piano or harp or violin. The music helps the writing and vice versa. The drive to do both are similar and the result when I’ve finished writing or I’ve learned a musical composition is a kind of relief, sometimes if done well, a deep sense of satisfaction. But then tomorrow comes.
*Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin in its original version has a tagline, exercises and discussions on story writing. She studies sample writing passages. I learned from this book and keep a copy on my desk. Later, my professor in my graduate studies assigned the book for his fiction class. I learned more going back to it the second time. The exercise referenced in this letter is the last, A Terrible Thing to Do, and I think it correlates with her last chapter Crowding and Leaping.
War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Excerpt from his site: Friends used to come to me all the time and say, “I know I’ve got a book in me.” So I would try to help them. We’d sit up till two in the morning with me explaining the concept of Resistance and psyching my friends up to overcome their self-doubt, their vanity, their fear, their self-sabotage. I did this on about ten different occasions. So, Pressfield–a notable author in his own right–wrote a book for them. It’s good, but you have to do what he says instead of talking until 2:00 in the morning about it.
*Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury is a desk top reference. This distillation of one of his chapters, Work – Relax – Don’t think, is my take-away from the title chapter in the book, page 139. I have it written on the white board in the Tree House. When I get caught up on some random idea, or fall into a ‘research’ rabbit hole, I see the three words in red on the white-board. Cut that stuff loose, work and relax and don’t think.
*Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. Powerful little book about the creator and how to be part of the scene, sharing your work when doing so may not come naturally.
Wonderful to get a peek inside your process! Do you ever revise by writing out on paper? That is what I do when I get stuck, and helps me puzzle over word choice and other revisions. I often start my writing process longhand as well.
Reading out loud is essential… helps avoid awkward phrasing and over-long sentences.
Thanks as always for sharing!
Thank you for taking the time to write, Karen! Writers I know enjoy long-hand and I love the feel of paper and pen too, but my preferred method is typing. I can’t write quickly enough by hand. Paper is helpful for note-taking, sketches, ideas, plot-points, especially visual ideas and problem solving.
I wrote my first two novels almost entirely on an iPad mini with a zagg keyboard case. Far more compact than my already compact laptop which I worked on all day. I would often just go to a Starbucks and write in the evening or a weekend and that, plus the iPad, provided me with a needed change in venue from my work. I wrote the first one in word and used a chapter template so that every chapter was a file. Which I then backed up to Evernote before I left the coffee shop. I changed to scrivener for the first draft of my second and now third and use the dropbox backup setting.
Your discussion of cutting text reminded me of the Mark Twain quote:
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one instead.”