Monday, January 14, 2008

Why Read Books On Writing, Anyhow?

Suroopa Mukherjee, who penned Across the Mystic Shore, asked me this question (rather less bluntly) in the Comment trail.

To tell the truth, I don't particularly recommend anyone read books on writing unless they are so inclined. They are often repetitive (except where they are contradictory). And I am very skeptical as to whether someone can teach you to write a novel.

I don't think art can be taught. But I do think that craft can be taught, and that art employs craft.

The books on writing I enjoy most are down-to-earth discussions of how writers go about their work and how they feel facing the blank page each day. To some extent, what I'm wondering is, "Does anyone else have this problem?" and "Do real writers ever feel this way?" And the answers are always "Yes" and "Yes."

Rob Siders already mentioned Lawrence Block (author of the brilliant Eight Million Ways to Die, which is as good as anything Chandler or Hammett ever wrote). Block is the craft guy par excellence because he wrote a zillion short essays for Writer's Digest, and all of them are tightly focused. For example, did you ever wonder about the problem of withholding information from the reader while writing in first person? Block has an essay on the topic. Want a discussion of different ways to drop into a flashback? Block has an essay on that, too.

But those are little flourishes. If you haven't read enough novels and haven't spent enough time writing, and you don't have a story to tell, none of those tricks will do you any good.

But there is also the aspect of hearing people talk about the topic of writing without making it seem as though they are stealing fire from the gods. For me, taking some of the grand mystery out of the process is vital. In the movie All That Jazz, the fictional director Joe Gideon asks, "Does Stanley Kubrick ever have days like this?"

I don't know how Stanley Kubrick felt. But I have to tell you it was a relief to read an essay where Joyce Carol Oates said that she wrote both when she felt inspired and at other times when her "soul felt as thin as a playing card," and that she had discovered that how she felt about her writing at the time she was doing it wasn't any indicator of quality.

I suppose it's rather adolescent of me. I want to know if how I am is, well, you know...normal. (For a writer, that is.) And it is through books on writing that I've discovered almost all writers lack confidence and gnaw on their knuckles, and, more important, that they work in every conceivable way: planning in immense detail or plunging right in, rewriting every line of the first draft or never going to the next page until the current page is perfect, writing any damn thing and then cutting later or writing minimalist and then fleshing out later. Standing up or sitting down or laying down: as the Barenaked Ladies song says, It's All Been Done Before. (Books on writing also prepared me for the world of rejection a writer must face, which is a great surprise to many.)

Above all, books on writing are a chance to sit and listen to talented people talk about their craft, and that has always been fascinating to me (even when it's a craft I don't practice). I'll probably never meet most of the writers I read, and in many cases the only place we could meet would be in some afterlife, as so many of them predeceased me. And, sure, I'll know them mainly through their art. But I'm so glad that Poe, for example, bothered to set down his thoughts on writing. Are his essays on writing as important as his stories? No. But the essays are as close as I'll ever get to sitting down and buying him a drink.

And if anyone ever needed me to buy him a drink, it was good old Edgar.


Alis said...

I've never been particularly keen on the how to thing, as I think I've said elsewhere, being of the cantankerous cast of mind that I'll make my own mistakes thank you very much and what did I do and English degree for anyway [no, seriously, what did I do an English degree for...?]
But I have enjoyed Stephen King's On Writing, as i mentioned at if anyone's interested!

Anonymous said...

I agree entirely that craft can be taught, but if I am going to learn from writers I truely admire, I would read their entire range of works, and their letters, essays, their interviews. Most writers are self reflexive people and they worry about their craft. Correct me - are books on writing professional tips? If that is the case then they are part of the marketing strategy of the industry, and I am skeptical. But then if they are talented people talking about real experiences of writing then I am interested. I am now reading Coetzee's "Elizabeth Costello". I have hardly read a more heartbreaking insider's view of the loneliness of art and the limits of empathy,the fragilty and insanity of what we claim to do. Which book can teach me how to cope with the slush pile? Which book can prepare me for the "obscurity" that follows a year after the excitement of the book launch? Am I writing my next novel to get over the anxiety, then so be it. You will see traces of it in what I am writing, you will also see what "craft" I use to a make sense of what I feel. Craft is really more carnal than cerebral.


David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yes, King's book is quite enjoyable, and I think some of his recommendations (such as letting the damn manuscript sit for a while before diving back in to revise) are useful.

BTW, have you seen the stage musical "Avenue Q"? It opens with the song "What Do You Do With a BA in English?"

David Isaak said...

Hi, Suroopa--

Yes, actually the best books on writing tend to address the issues of rejection, faith, envy, and despair, both during the writing and post-publication. I'll be mentioning a couple of the strongest in this regard as I move along with these posts.

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