Friday, August 29, 2008

Not Another Writing Book

There are over a hundred books on writing available in bookstores or through online booksellers. Some of these are written by wildly popular writers such as Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Anne Lamott, and Stephen King.

Others still have been written by noted critics and editors, ranging back to E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, and Robie Macauley and George Lanning’s Technique in Fiction. In more recent years, Betsy Lerner’s writing guide, The Forest for the Trees, Michael Seidman’s Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published and publisher/editor/novelist Sol Stein--Stein on Writing( wherein I am referenced)and Creating Memorable Characters by Linda Seger(where I am also quoted)--are but a few examples. Of these mentioned and those not mentioned, sales figures attest the overwhelming popularity of the Anne Lamott Bird by Bird.

The number of want-to-be writers increases yearly as, in fact, do the number of schools and classes to teach them how. Guides and reference books for writers have become a book trade staple. Many of these are valuable in a historical sense, in much the same spirit as Aristotle's Poetics is valuable for writers in a historical sense. But note well, while these and some of the unnamed ones are of some value (and some of some considerable value) they are all out of date.

As the wheel of time ratchets into century twenty-one, evolution is visible on any number of species, including those of story and writing. The first chapter of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) is still one of the most compelling opening chapters of all, repeat all Western literature, holding up after a century and a quarter, and Great Expectations (1860-61) still remains the quintessential first person novel (narrow eclipsing my own favorite, Huckleberry Finn,published in 1884).

Back in the day, when Charlie Block ran the Bantam Books office in Los Angeles and I ran the Dell Publishing office in Los Angeles, we often met on neutral ground, somewhat like the cops in The Wire, to gossip, exchange notes, wonder if paperback books would supplant hardcover books. Charlie had to go to a sales meeting in New York, wondering if I'd do him the favor of taking two of his classes at USC. What did I know about teaching? What do I know? Charlie said. You don't talk about teaching, you talk about editing. You talk about writing. And so I said okay, and so Irwin Blacker called me at home after the second class was done and said, cleaning up his language somewhat, They are fucking threatening to boycott the rest of the semester unless you agree to come back and finish up. What about Charlie? I asked. I'll set Charlie up with a seminar on theory. You keep telling them what you told them.

I already did, I explained. Well, you probably have more--you just haven't accessed it yet. Of course you can always assign Aspects of the Novel for your text, I suppose. Sure, I said. Of course.

You have read it, haven't you?


Well then, you'd better. I'll send you my copy, order a batch at the student store.

And thus my third encounter with books on writing, the first being Writing Magazine Fiction by Stanley Vestal, which was foisted off on me by a well meaning eleventh grade English teacher name of Herman Quick, my second being The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, which title I rejected as offered as a reprint because, having read it, "it didn't feel right," which was all my publisher needed to hear. (It was not what a subsequent department chairman needed to hear. Sometimes, when he was exasperated with me, he'd introduce me as The man who rejected Lajos Egri.)

Are writing books good for you?

Since I am in active collaboration with Digby Wolfe (head writer/originator Laugh-In, John Denver, Frank Sinatra, Jonathan Winters, etc specials, emeritus department head Dept. of Drama, Univ of New Mexico, Visiting Prof Univ of Canberra, etc and then some) I have to say yes. At least, they're good for us because we think a) some of it can be taught b) we think we know how to do it, c) we have overlapping theories on how to do it d) we've taught and worked together before, and e) we like the idea of carving our initials on this particular desk.

So what are we saying that's different?

We're saying that it comes from you, that there is a place in you whence it comes and you have to find and trust that place, allow it to speak to you and influence you, and okay, take notes when someone in your writing group or MFA seminar has notes or comments, but remember also that this is not the standard format of thesis defense before a committee, this is you, your voice, your take.

And you think you two are worth listening to?

Sure, because look where it got us, which is to say nervous, suspicious, notional, but not overly defensive. Somewhere between food stamps and resentment toward the IRS, mercifully free of jobs selling hot dogs in the COSTCO booth, our major resentments toward network and university bureaucracies, but able to carry on meaningful conversations with deans and some of our academic colleagues. Compulsive maybe, obsessive maybe, but not overly defensive.

Defensiveness being the key to it all, we are able to say in apercu, let it be. Bring it up, let it out, let it be. That's not grammar we're talking about or syntax or style, it is discovery, the thing you dig up in every character you create, the thing you dig up in yourself.

In the Appendix of our book, we're going to have a list of some of the men and women writers we admire, with descriptions of how each can be said to be in some way screwed up.

"I want my place--my own place--my true place in the world, my proper sphere, my thing to do, which Nature intended me to perform when she fashioned me thus awry--" Nathaniel Hawthorne


Wild Iris said...

Some writing books I find helpful, as they reveal mechanics that I was previously unfamiliar with, normally navigating the task of writing by instinct. Writing books are helpful because they offer helpful suggestions on the dreaded process of revising. But do books on writing a writer make? I do not believe they do. Because telling a story requires a passion that no book can teach you. The book can only teach you how to develop your passion into a skill, but not how to develop a skill into a passion.

Anonymous said...

I have several of the writing books you mentioned plus plenty more. I stopped buying them when I decided I was reading about writing more than I was writing. Some of them I'm sure taught or revealed a thing or two. Most I enjoyed reading. Whether they really helped...well, I suppose readers can decide on that.

Querulous Squirrel said...
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Querulous Squirrel said...
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Anonymous said...

I like two kinds of writing books: those that encourage you to leap into the writing fray, and those that focus on mechanics. For the "go for it" type, I like Lamott and Smiley. For the mechanics part, the best book I've read in years is "Manuscript Makeover" by Elizabeth Lyon. Her advice helped me name, and then correct, a problem in my manuscript that I hadn't seen anyone else address so clearly. (Having to do with "riffing" in a scene...).
The books I hate are the "how to conquer the market with these surefire techniques" kind. They turn writing solely into a product. I have no problem with the business side of writing, but these books don't honor the creative process at the core of what we do.