Friday, June 30, 2017

5 Books That Made Me a Writer

When I want to learn how to do something, I reach for a book.  This approach did not serve me well when I decided I wanted to learn to knit.  It took one-on-one lessons from my sister for me to perfect a knitting style that many people would call ‘eccentric’.  Books have helped me become a writer, though. The act of reading widely from a very young age has given me some of the skills I need, but there are a few books that have influenced my habits as well.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones:Freeing the Writer Within is the first book on writing that I fell for hard and the one that had the most lasting impact on my writing process. Her perspective is that of a Zen Buddhist with a serious practice, but her approach to writing is playful as well. Goldberg is all about making writing a discipline. Her view is that if we sit down and write consistently, we will be writers.  And that is how I feel; I call myself a writer when I am writing every day.  When I am not, I don’t. Maybe at those times I am a writer on hiatus? In remission? When I first read the book about 26 years ago, I filled spiral notebooks with daily writing on everything from wild ideas for novels to how the Kansas hayfields I drove by every evening reminded me of Monet.
Goldberg’s rules for writing practice are the most helpful ones I’ve found for the act of writing a draft, useful enough that I share them with my students when I ask them to write an oratory. In Bones, she lists and explains them:

1. Keep your hand moving. [Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying]

2. Don’t cross out. [That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)

3.  Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. [Don’t even are about staying within the margins and lines on the page]

4. Lose control.

5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.

6. Go for the jugular [If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.]

A blank page is terrifying. Heeding Goldberg’s tutelage, I try to get a lot of stuff down on the page so the fear goes away.
     Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is full of advice for nervous writers. She advises writers to allow ourselves to write badly in order to write well. Her term for what we churn out when we first being writing a piece is "shitty first drafts". Her advice has heft for me, as a writer and as a teacher. In my own work, I can appreciate that the first words on the page are not going to be the best and I’m better able to face revisions. As a teacher, I see that students have to be willing to be bad at something before they can be good. Band students understand this because they’ve been the sweaty middle school clarinet player whose horn made odd hoots that sounded like their classmates' changing voices. Lamott, who has made a career out of writing about her worst qualities in the best way, is a writer who helps us give ourselves permission to be bad, very bad, so we can get better.
I have been reading Stephen King’s fiction for almost forty years. His reflection on craft, On Writing, gave me new appreciation for his work as well as confirmation that reading is never a waste of time for a writer. Long ago, in an introduction to Harlan Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, King wrote about how writers are like milk at times, and they take on the flavor of what’s beside them in the refrigerator.  For writers to find their own voice there has to be a lot of stuff in the refrigerator.  King’s book is more about craft than it is about motivation, and part of honing craft for a writer is reading other writers.
Rosemary Daniell’s The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself has a special place on my shelf, too.  Again, this book had a binary influence on me, as I read it both as a teacher and a writer.  Much of the book concerns her work as a Poet in Residence in schools throughout Georgia, her experience as a writing teacher in prisons, as well as stories of her own writing experience.  This book lit up the part of my brain that is always at a slow percolation, thinking, “How can I teach…” while it also inspired me to write more myself.  One drawback to Daniell’s books is that I feel that a lot of her energy comes from the deep work she’s done on her relationships with her family and the men in her life, and my life just isn’t that dramatic.
Another writer whose genre fiction I have enjoyed is Rita Mae Brown. The mysteries she ‘co-wrote’ with her cat Sneaky Pie are my favorite kind of fiction because they are both entertaining and informative. Brown’s book on writing, Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual, outlines her concept of a conservatory for writers and includes a list of books she thinks every writer should read. Her list is largely classical, but spans genres and would make a good liberal education for anyone, not just a writer.
I have to warn you, though, that READING about writing isn’t writing. It might be tempting to live vicariously through these other writers’ experiences instead of sitting down and writing something yourself.  If you read all of these books and still don't put butt on chair, pen to paper, or fingers to keys, then reading any of them hasn't really mattered at all.

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