writing about writing

Because no one asked, here’s a list of my top five books about writing–the ones I go to when I need encouragement or advice (or just want to procrastinate and feel productive about it). They are my comfort foods for writer’s block worry. And it is high season for comfort foods.

1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Once I attended a Bernie Sanders rally and the women standing to the right and left of me–one 70 and one 17–became wildly unhinged, crying and swooning in his presence as he came through to shake our hands like he was Mick Jagger. Or Elvis. Or Justin Beiber. It was disturbing. I liked the man’s message, but I wasn’t going to put up a full-sized poster in my room, you know? But I think that’s exactly how I would act if I ever got to meet Annie Dillard. She is a literary goddess and I worship at the altar of her sentences. Is that too much? Oh well. Sometimes we are all a little much. Her book on writing is poetry and truth and quite frankly, a classic.

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

2. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was a prolific delight. He basically merged the literary and sci-fi genres into his own, new genre. His exuberance is catching and makes me remember that writing can be wildly fun.

But how did I begin?…I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen….If this all sounds mechanical, it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it, you see. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.

3. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

I think the only way to obtain this small, self-published book is to track down the author and buy a copy with cash. It is the single best condensed practical guide to writing fiction I’ve ever read. It always snaps me back on track. Bonus: Almond is hilarious.

When I really admire an author, someone like Bellow or Austen or Toni Morrison, I don’t think of them having a style. They’re not writing to impress the reader, but to implicate them. They’re not throwing beautiful words at the page and hoping to produce truth. That’s not how it works. That’s the exact opposite of how it works. The effort to capture complex and painful feeling states is what lifts the language into beauty. Style, in other words, is the redidue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.

4. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro has written four or five memoirs, all of them spectacular. This book on writing, for me, reads like yet another angle of memoir. Her insights are rich and I paced myself on purpose the first time I read it, savoring the delight, not wanting it to end.

The page–if you spend your life in deep engagement with it–will force you to surrender your skepticism. It will keep you open and undefended. It doesn’t promise comfort. But if you hurl yourself at it, give it everything you’ve got, if you wake up each morning–bruised, bloody, aching–ready to throw yourself at it again, I’ll make you a promise: it will keep you alive to what you see and hear and taste and touch.

5. The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett

This is not a book; it’s an essay. But it’s “everything [Patchett] knows about writing”, and it is dynamite.

If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap.

Please add to my list! What are some of your favorite writers on writing?

We are living in an era of screen addiction and capitalist pornography. As a species, we are squandering the exalted gifts of consciousness, losing our capacity to pay attention, to imagine the suffering of others. You are a part of all this. It involves you. This is the hard labor we’re trying to perform: convincing strangers to translate our specks of ink into stories capable of generating rescue.

–Steve Almond, This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey

I’m pretty sure the only way to get a copy of this book is to pay Steve Almond cash for it. So my advice is to track him down immediately. You won’t be sorry. 

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