My top three books on writing — and the key takeaway from each
After my last post, "[Before & After] A comparison of writing — What a difference a year makes!" I started thinking about the progress I have made over the last three years, and the steps I have taken to get myself there.
These have included (but are not limited to)...
- Creating progress calendars
- Progress journals
- Going to the gym everyday
- Scheduling when I write
- ... and reading — lots of reading — on both fiction, non-fiction, and most importantly, on writing
So, I asked myself "what was the single most important book (on writing) that I have read?"
I couldn't pick just one.
Here are the top three books on writing I have read and the most important thing I have gotten out of them.
(Purchase my first poetry book, Before Oblivion, HERE.)
Stephen King's On Writing
The key takeaway: If you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write.
Before I read King's book — which is highly praised among writers, and for good reason — I read a good amount, but nowhere near enough, as he makes clear in his book. If you're standing in a grocery line, read, at the bank, read, waiting for a doctor, read, downtime at the gym, read. Basically, anytime you have some sort of "in-between" time, you should be trying to squeeze more reading in there.
This accomplished a few things for me...
1. It stressed the importance of reading — "if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write."
2. It made me think about how to stretch your time. Working a 9-5 job, 40 hours a week, and juggling a ~40 hour writing job (when you include reading + writing), squeezing time in everywhere becomes important.
3. It made me ask myself, if I was going to be reading a lot more, "what should I be reading?"
Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird
The key takeaway: Allow yourself to suck.
For a writer just starting out, this lesson is incredibly important. It is, perhaps, the most important lesson you can learn as a *new* writer, or anyone in any creative field.
Your ability to make great work is not proportional to your ability to recognize great work.
Your ego starts to go wild, crying out for attention, and bashing its head against the wall, yelling obscenities and saying "you're terrible! you're awful! you stink!" all the while you're trying not to be any of those things.
Your ego is the enemy.
Just sit down and do the work and your ability to make great work will eventually, one day, hopefully, if you're lucky, catch up.
I'm reminded of a video by Ira Gass of "This American Life," who probably put it better than I ever could (there's that ego).
John Gardner's The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers
The key takeaway: You're creating a movie in someone's head — make it come alive with detail.
This is the most recent book I've read, and probably the one that had the biggest direct impact on my writing.
Here's how Gardner puts it, "...vivid detail is the life blood of fiction. ... The reader is regularly presented with proofs—in the form of closely observed details—that what is said to be happening is really happening."
That is, when a floor board creaks for no apparent reason, when the wind whistles, and the author does up his sweater, the one with three buttons, not four, whose threads have worn through at the elbows, it's because they're helping you imagine the story in your mind. Guiding you through details, small puzzle pieces, that you put together to form a picture, a running movie.
It is not because the writer is verbose or likes to hear himself speak (though, this writer may sometimes like exactly that), or because he wishes to bore you, but precisely because he does not want to bore you, that those added details, those ostensibly pointless facts of a story, are there.
(Download Chapter 1 of my upcoming novel It's a long way down)
Steven Pressfield's The War of Art
Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style
(What's with all the Stevens writing about writing?)
What's a book on writing that you've read? What have you gotten out of it? What should I read?
Let me know!