Note: I wrote this a few years ago for a company I was working for. I still think it's one of the best things I ever wrote, and wanted to share it again, here.
It's around 3pm on Sunday afternoon when I slam closed my paperback copy of Stephen King's oft-recommended writing guide, On Writing. I don't have a problem dog-earing a book or bending its pages—I learned to love books and reading from my dad, who often battered a book before reading it to give it that "lived-in feel"—but I can't bring myself to throw one across the room. I briefly entertain the idea but settle for the satisfaction of removing my bookmark, signalling its new state of abandonment, as I proclaim, "I can't read any more! I hate Stephen King!"
A little harsh, perhaps, but I'd been struggling through his book since Friday and have decided I unequivocally am not a Stephen King fan.
A little over a week later, I change my tune.
When I started this project, there was a lot at stake. I'd just spent a week convincing our CEO, John, and the rest of the Ghost team, that I was ready to take Ghost's content in a bold new direction. A large part of convincing John to let me move from writing three blog posts per week to just two per month (at the most) was making him believe I could write content that was worth that investment. Weeks of my time would go into each Ghost Magazine article, and the pay-off had to be bigger than any content we'd published before, if it was going to be worth it.
I honestly wasn't sure I could pull this off. I've never worked in a magazine environment before, and I've never written for the kinds of online magazines I wanted to emulate—the likes of Nautilus, The Atlantic, and NYMag. I convinced John to let me take a shot at it, but of course that only increased the pressure. Now that I had to actually prove myself, I was battling self doubt and procrastination like there was no tomorrow (how ironic).
As a kind of meta-approach, my first Ghost Magazine is based on an experiment. I decided to give myself a quick-and-dirty DIY writing education in just over a week. I grabbed a stack of books on writing—some I'd been told to read many times, others seemed especially appropriate to the style of writing I wanted to learn about—and read them all in 10 days.
After spending five solid hours every day in the company of writers much more accomplished than myself, my brain is full of ideas, questions, and theories about my own writing and how to improve it. Come along for the ride and I'll tell you what happened during the 10-day project and which of these books you should read for yourself.
I'm starting with Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. This book is easily the most commonly recommended book about writing I've come across. Every writer I know tells me to read it. It was even on the recommended reading list for my last acting class.
I've had Bird by Bird on my Amazon wishlist forever, but never got around to reading it. This seems the perfect opportunity.
Because it's been so often recommended to me, I have high expectations going in. I'm expecting to discover a lot of practical advice to improve my writing—after all, that's the point of this project. I'm hoping Bird by Bird will start me off on a high note.
For the first half of the book, which I read on day 1, I'm quite disappointed. It's not bad, but I don't feel like I'm picking up much of use for my daily writing work. The lessons Anne's imparting aren't really new to me. The main lessons seemed to be that writing is hard for everyone, just getting started is always the answer when you're stuck, getting published won't fix your life (and writing should be a reward in itself), and to relax and just "let it happen".
Anne really pushes this last lesson: to let things happen by themselves. I've never much liked the way some fiction writers say their characters write themselves, as if the writer is just a conduit for a story that already exists somehow, somewhere. I'm sure they do feel that way about their writing; I just don't like it. This sentence, for instance, makes me laugh, but I'm also thinking by this stage that Anne's a little self-deluded:
Over and over I feel as if my characters know who they are, and what happens to them, and where they have been and where they will go, and what they are capable of doing, but they need me to write it down for them because their handwriting is so bad.
Anne brings up this idea of "just letting it happen" in a couple of ways. Your intuition, she says, will tell you what to write. There's no writer's block, and nothing to worry about. Just listen to your intuition and let it guide you. Listen to your characters too, she says. "If your character suddenly pulls a half-eaten carrot out of her pocket, let her," says Anne, "Later you can ask yourself if this rings true". I know I'm bashing Anne's ideas a bit here, but I hope we've spent enough time together that she won't mind me saying this: I think she's talking about running with ideas your imagination comes up with, rather than anything a character is doing. But each to their own, I guess.
Anne also has this idea about polaroids, where you see the picture (or story) developing slowly, a little bit at a time. You just have to listen and wait and watch the polaroid develop, she says. Don't force it—don't do anything, essentially—just let it happen. "You can't—and, in fact, you're not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing", according to Anne.
All this waiting and listening makes the writer seem very passive. And not very logical. In fact, that's part of the point. Anne's pushing against my desire to use logic and rational thought to get my work done. Without intuition, she says, "you're going to sit down in the morning and have only your rational mind to guide you. Then, if you're having a bad day, you're going to crash and burn within half an hour."
Perhaps it's because I'm a nonfiction writer (and not a fan of fiction), but Anne hasn't convinced me. I try not to be too judgemental about her approach, but I'm starting to wonder if people love her book because of this "airy fairy" approach to imparting wisdom, rather than practical advice that you can only use by sitting in your chair and writing something. There's something delightful about listening to an artist discuss the most intangible aspects of their craft, but it's not something you can take home with you and put to use—which lets you off the hook from doing any work. You can pretend for a little longer that spending time with Anne Lamott made you a better writer... somehow.
Anne also talks at length about other devices that make more sense for a fiction writer—dialogue, characters, and plot. I find these a slog to get through because I don't relate—I don't ever plan on writing fiction, and I don't even enjoy reading it—but when I look back through the book in the afternoon, I'm surprised to find I've made highlights in all these chapters. It was actually the chapters full of anecdotes and examples where I'd barely highlighted anything, even though I found these the most fun to read. Her chapter on jealousy is easily one of my favourites. Anne's refreshingly honest about how jealous she gets of her friend, who keeps calling to share how successful her latest book is. The whole chapter is a story of one of the most horrid human emotions, and yet one we all feel from time to time (me at least as much as anyone). And yet, somehow, Anne comes off as the person I'd want to be friends with by the end of her chapter. Even though she's full of raging jealousy, her friend sounds like a nightmare:
My friend, the writer I was so jealous of, would call and say, like some Southern belle, 'I just don't know why God is giving me so much money this year.'
Anne's knack for anecdotes demands respect, and helps me understand what kind of writing I like best. One of the aspects I love most about her writing is how open she is with the less desirable parts of her behaviour or personality. Which, of course, are the most relatable. It's a huge relief to hear Anne say she's jealous of other writers, or that when she asks for feedback she's hoping her friends will offer just one tiny change and otherwise rain praise on her work. Of course, feedback from the right people rarely works like that.
My first response if they have a lot of suggestions is never profound relief that I have someone in my life who will be honest with me and help me do the very best work of which I am capable. No, my first thought is, "Well. I'm sorry, but I can't be friends with you anymore, because you have too many problems. And you have a bad personality. And a bad character."
This is Anne at her finest, and probably the moment I was sure we'd become best friends.
Anne's anecdotes are helping me get to know her and making her a rounded character in my mind. She reminds me a lot of Ann Patchett, whose book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage I've just finished reading. Both women have self-deprecating, funny, endearing styles that make themselves into interesting characters I love spending time with. Just like most people find in a good novel, I'm enjoying my time in Bird by Bird (more so today as I read the second half) and feeling like I'm getting to know Anne along the way.
I've been hoping to learn to be a better writer from this book, but that doesn't seem to be Anne's aim. She likes to focus more on learning what it's like to be a writer, and adjusting one's expectations about the process, the craft, and the business.
She says, for instance, "seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere." While I agree, having been a writer of sorts for the past few years, and not being someone who's dying to get an agent and a traditional publisher, a lot of these lessons don't hit home for me. Anne's aiming squarely at the same type of people who attend her workshops, groups of people who "want agents, and to be published". I wonder if I would have taken more from the book if I'd read it earlier—perhaps when I was still in school, or getting ready to start my first writing job.
Before starting the book I read the blurb and all the quotes on the front and back covers. I read this one: "Beautifully written, wise, and immensely helpful, this is the book for serious writers and writers-to-be." and thought, "sounds like the book for me!" By day two I'm thinking it's more for writers-to-be than already-serious writers.
I've set myself a goal of half a book per day. This should get me through 5 books in 10 days. Today I start A Field Guide for Immersion Writing by Robin Hemley. Robin's focus is on three types of immersion writing: immersion memoir, immersion journalism, and immersion travel writing. I hadn't realised "immersion writing" was a thing before I picked up this book, but reading the blurb I realised it was spot on for the type of writing I like to read and want to start doing myself. "Immersion" refers to the idea of immersing yourself in a situation before writing about it—whether it's an experiment, a journey around the world, or simply hanging out with a group of people for a while before reporting on them and their world.
By around 4pm I haven't quite finished the first half, but I'm tired so I take a nap on the couch. After my nap I have a quick shower to wash off the stickiness of the warm day.
In the shower I write a paragraph or so in my mind for a book I have the vaguest ideas about. It's something that's hazy in my mind—a foggy apparition that's slowly getting closer as I uncover more details about what it might look like. (Anne's polaroid metaphor comes to mind here, though I'm reluctant to admit it has any merit. I'm sure Anne will forgive me for thinking her idea is silly at the same time as I'm learning to use it myself.)
Standing outside the shower wrapped in a towel I muse on the "writing" I just did in my head. It's not unusual that I would rehearse an email response or a conversation in the shower, but this was different. The writing was so rich and full of rhythm that even as the words came to me I didn't recognise it as my own writing.
All day I've been bumping into Josh around the house, as I'm wont to do when we're both at home working and taking our various little breaks throughout the day. Each time he ventures downstairs for a drink or to step outside into the courtyard he finds me in a different position: upright in a dining chair with highlighter poised over the pages of the book; laying on the couch with a mug on the coffee table beside me; wrapped in a blanket in the recliner, cosying up with whatever anecdote I've happened upon in this chapter.
Each time Josh appears he asks how I'm doing. When I say "fine" he says, "But have you learned anything yet?" Each time it's the same answer: not really. I've been highlighting stuff, I say. I've picked up some good quotes. I've added a bunch of books to my reading list. I've read some good examples of great writing.
Josh frowns and looks at me intently, as if I'm holding back the truth. "Nothing to help you write better?" he asks, and looks dubiously at the book in question. I think about it, but I can never come up with much. It seems like, maybe, I just won't get any practical writing tips from these books. Perhaps you can't write practical advice about the writing process itself. Maybe I'm looking for something that can't be found in a book.
And then I'm standing in the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, exploring the writing I just crafted in my head in the shower, and I realise my mistake. Whether or not you can write practical advice about the banalities of the writing process in a book, I don't know. Whether they'd be applicable to me as someone who's not new to the process of writing but wants to stretch myself and improve my craft, I'm even less sure. But whether you can improve your writing through immersing yourself in the books of the best teachers available I realise is absolutely true.
Simply by exposing myself to wonderful writing, great examples of the craft, honest accounts of the writing process that speak to me with finesse and polish so the words sink in is my education. My writing is improving through osmosis. I'm picking up on how to craft a better sentence, how to reach a reader, how to employ language to the best of my ability. I'm taking it all in, even if I can't highlight it on the page.
And although it seems bizarre to spend hours reading every day so I can breeze through 4 books in just over a week, perhaps that is exactly what will make this project work so well. I'm prone as any young, green writer is to adopting the style of a writer I admire. Reading a book—or several—can imbue my brain with the style of another author so much that it comes out in my work, but it doesn't last. It's not my style. It's not my voice. In fact, my voice becomes buried under the superficial trimmings of that writer's style, which are, after all, all that I've been able to take from them and apply to my work. Being inspired by someone else can so easily become a mask, or a shiny bow to put on my own work, rather than something deeper that truly changes my own style.
But perhaps in reading so many authors in quick succession, I'll be lucky enough to pick up their lessons without any one style overtaking my own. Right now I can feel that the style of what I'm writing isn't quite mine. And yet, it isn't quite anyone else's, either. It isn't the style of Robin Hemley, who I've spent many hours with today. It isn't the style of Anne Lamott, with whom I spent the past two days. But it's a little bit of each of them, in a way.
Today Robin's making me feel even more excited about pursuing immersion writing. He's helping me grasp more concrete ideas of the different types of immersion writing I've been flirting with, and work out which ones suit me best. I like the idea of personal experiments, which Robin's had his own experience with. He wrote a magazine article once about his experience going back to summer camp in his 40s. The article later became a chapter in a book Robin wrote, covering various experiments of "do overs" from his childhood. I'm getting the feeling Robin's a pretty fun guy to be around.
He's also incredibly respectful—even reverent—of his fellow authors. One of whom, A.J. Jacobs, comes up often as we discuss the experiment approach to immersion writing. A.J.'s known for writing books about experiments like living according to the Bible for a year, and reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica from A-Z. An experiment for a book obviously needs to be a lot bigger than one for a single magazine article, but they both need to have one thing in common, according to Robin: there must be something at stake.
"We have to care about the protagonist of the story," says Robin, "and we can only do so if we see what's at stake, what your motivations are, and how your project compliments sic your life—or, more frequently, troubles it."
Robin talks at length about making your reader care about your experiment. These type of books seems like gimmicks, and are sometimes called "schtick lit", he says, because they all risk being gimmicky. The only thing saving an experiment from being a gimmick is what's at stake. "An experiment can easily become a gimmick book if there's nothing at stake," he says, "if you're simply entering into the project because no one has done it before."
The writer also needs to choose something difficult, Robin says. "In order for a quest to be of interest, it's got to be a bit cockamamy and it's got to be difficult. No one really wants to read about an easy quest." A quest is a bit different to an experiment, but they're such similar types of writing that I take pretty much all the advice Robin offers and drop it all into the "immersion writing" bucket in my brain. He presses the points about difficulty and putting something at stake firmly but kindly, and they stick with me as I think about what I might write in the future.
Robin also helps me come up with an exciting (read: audacious and maybe crazy) idea for a book I'd like to write. When I was 15 I lived in Oklahoma for a year as an exchange student. During that year I lived on a goat farm, got kicked off the goat farm, moved in with two people I grew to love dearly, joined a Baptist church, considered suicide, went to Prom, and took up my first paid writing job. Halfway through the year I was desperate to go home to Australia. By the time the year was up I was desperate to stay.
I'd love to go back to Oklahoma for a year and explore what's changed in the people I know there in the past 12 years, what's changed about me, and try to get back into the mindset of myself at 15 in a foreign country on the other side of the world.
Robin tells me what's involved in putting together a book proposal. This is helpful practically, but it also shows me how big an undertaking it is just to write a proposal. Luckily he assures me I don't have to have a publisher before I start writing. He wrote a book about his sister without having a publisher onboard, and says it made more sense in that case to sell to a publisher after the book was done, as he was able to write it at his own pace and in the way he felt comfortable. He says this rule applies to more than just his experience: "some of the best books would have made no sense as proposals". I like the sound of the no-proposal approach, but I also know I'm looking at a big undertaking and a book advance might help make it happen.
But then Robin reinforces a message I got from Anne in Bird by Bird: don't expect to make a lot of money from writing. Robin goes into more detail than Anne did (though I enjoyed Anne's honest anecdotes about burning through her book advances while trying to salvage a manuscript her editor wouldn't accept). Robin says magazines can take months to pay, and often won't pay enough to even break even when you count expenses and your time. He also says not to hold out for a big book advance, because even if you're lucky enough to get one (unlikely), you're then under pressure to earn even more from your book when it's published, or risk not being able to get another book contract in the future. "If you're fortunate enough to get a big advance, your troubles have just begun," he says. It's good to remember that if I want to do more traditional writing, I'll probably be giving up a good chunk of the salary I get for doing content marketing.
I've spent almost two days with Robin now, and his use of his own work as examples is starting to wear on me. His book Do-Over about redoing embarrassing moments from his childhood sounds fun, and makes for useful examples of how to pitch a book proposal and how to develop an essay or book from an experiment. But Invented Eden, a book about the disputed history of the remote Tasady tribe, is clearly Robin's pride and joy. He's brought this book up so many times I'm starting to feel like I don't even need to read it to know what it's all about. He's also made at least three references so far to that one time he was held at gunpoint while researching the book. Okay, Robin, I get it. You're very brave. And maybe a bit foolhardy. Give it a rest, already.
So far the combination of Robin's Field Guide and Bird by Bird have helped me rekindle my love of reading, and of reading physical books in particular. I've enjoyed marking up the pages, taking photos of my favourite quotes to share, and shuffling through the marked pages to find an apt quote later.
I've also started to feel a connection to writers in general, through the conduits of these two authors in particular. I've nodded along as they've described why they write, how they write, and how to do it best. It's confirmed my bias that writing is cool, and noble, and worth spending my time on.
Next up, Stephen King's classic, On Writing!
Day one with Stephen King. I'm not looking forward to spending time with another fiction writer, but this book is so commonly recommended for writers that I have high hopes it'll be worth my time. I also heard from a content marketing peer of mine recently who said he got a lot from On Writing despite the fiction focus. Fingers crossed I'll feel the same.
Once I get through the many forewards (what book needs three forewards?), I'm already disappointed by page two. Somehow I'd missed that the review on the front cover from the Guardian says "Part biography, part collection of tips for the aspiring writer" (emphasis mine).
So the first 100 or so pages are actually memoir. Memoir in the sense of disjointed blobs of memory detailing various events from Stephen's life. Over time Steve talks more about his development as a writer and his career—and this is actually interesting. I've enjoyed these kind of anecdotes from both Anne and Robin so far, and I don't mind being given some insight into what the making of Stephen King was like.
And Steve certainly has a knack for telling fun stories. His anecdotes are sometimes funny, sometimes memorable. But by the time I'm done with this section I'm really hankering for some writing advice. That's what I'm here for, after all. Gimme the good stuff, Steve.
Spoiler: he doesn't. After the biography section surprised me by being more entertaining than I expected, the rest of the book is a massive let-down. But not for the reason I'd expected.
When I finally start the main chunk of the book, titled "On Writing", I actually get what I wanted from this project for the first time: practical advice about putting words on the page. Only it's not all it's cracked up to be. I thought I wanted someone to tell me how to write. I thought practical advice would help me create better prose.
Maybe it's me, and my ideas are all wrong, or I've been disillusioned by my day three epiphany that I'm becoming a better writer by imbuing excellent writing and feeling as if I have great mentors on my side. Or maybe it's Stephen's approach. He disappoints me by homing in on the specific, picky details of writing. The grammar, the spelling, the phrasing.
He's a big fan of William Strunk, famous for writing The Elements of Style, and quotes the book often. After reading You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene a few months ago I've been turned off Strunk and other prescriptivist grammarians (of which Steve seems to be one). Prescriptivists tend to be angry and forceful over something unnecessary. Strunk, for instance, is famous for saying "omit needless words", which Steve draws attention to. Granted, this is a useful guide for any writer.
On the other hand, Strunk and his co-author, one E.B. White, call foul on a variety of words they disapprove of, which I doubt Steve would agree shouldn't be used today. Claim, for instance, according to Strunk and White can be used in terms of claiming a piece of land, but not to assert the truth of a statement—i.e. I can't claim that The Elements of Style is a load of nonsense on stilts. The two also forbid the use of hopefully in a sentence like "Hopefully it will arrive tomorrow". They also create these rules arbitrarily, according to their own whims and fancies. Like many prescriptivists, Strunk and White believe writing is correct only when it adheres to their personal set of grammatical rules.
Prescriptivists tend to be upset that language is changing, forever thinking language was at its height of "correct" usage when they were in school, and has been declining ever since (people have been using that argument since 1490). And Strunk's popularity among writers and teachers forcing prescriptivist ideas on their students only turned me further off him.
So every time Steve quotes Strunk I shudder a little. When Steve says Strunk's rules in The Elements of Style are "offered with a refreshing strictness", he sums up exactly what turns me off On Writing. Being more of a descriptivist myself, I believe there's no point in fighting the natural evolution of spoken English, which in turn informs the rules for our written language.
Steve goes on to cite this example: "the rule on how to form possessives: you always add 's, even when the word you're modifying ends in s — always write Thomas's bike and never Thomas' bike". Personally I believe there's no right answer to this conundrum, and it simply comes down to a style issue. Not to mention Steve doesn't bother to bring up the difference between adding a possessive s to a singular word or a plural.
But beyond my own irks with his choices of examples and rules he believe EVERY WRITER MUST ADHERE TO, I'm inclined to hark back to Robin's advice in Field Guide about execution mattering more than ideas. I tend to think execution means writing that's readable, clear, and enjoyable to read. Writing well doesn't necessarily mean writing correctly.
I hate Stephen King. What am I doing? I barely get through another 10% of the book in-between laying around, napping, and procrastinating.
In retrospect I should have given up on Stephen King's On Writing two days ago. I've wasted three days struggling through the first half because I'd planned to finish every book I started for this project, regardless of how much I enjoyed them. Outside the project I'm more ruthless than most people about not finishing books I don't enjoy. I'd rather spend my reading time having fun and learning than struggling through what feels like a chore.
Today is Sunday, so I potter about the house doing errands, housework, and finding other ways to procrastinate while Steve glares at me from the corner of the room. I struggle through a couple more pages but every time I pick up the book I feel so tired I just have to have another nap... or watch some more Netflix... or lay around and think about how annoying Steve's book is and how I don't need him to tell me how to be a good writer because I don't even like mainstream horror stories and isn't that all he knows about?
When Josh sees me staring at Steve's book, hoping the words will somehow make it into my brain without my actually putting in any effort, he asks how it's going. I rant about how much I hate Stephen King and how this was a stupid project idea in the first place. Josh says simply, "stop reading it then". Of course I'd thought of that already. I just didn't have the guts to give up on Steve until Josh suggested it.
"Really?" I ask him, hoping he'll stick to his idea and give me an out. Sure, says Josh, read the next book in the stack. As if it's no big deal, he wanders off as I dash upstairs to find the next book waiting to be read, relief dripping off me.
Today I spend hours with Jack Hart, author of Storycraft. After the frustration of spending the past three days with Stephen King (or, more accurately, avoiding SK while pretending I'm paying attention to him), I'm looking forward to a change. Jack's a former managing editor of the Oregonian who played writing coach to several Pulitzer Prize winners. I'm keen to get his advice on the journalistic side of writing narrative nonfiction.
At first we focus on storytelling heavily, which is a breath of fresh air. I've barely touched on storytelling fundamentals throughout this project, and hadn't even realised they could be applied to nonfiction until Jack brings them up.
Jack posits that storytelling is such a fundamental part of human nature that we can't afford to ignore it, even if we're writing nonfiction.
The myriad ways we use story to cope with the world make it hard to imagine that narrative isn't part of our fundamental nature.
Jack also points out research has shown "that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations." Stories also helps us remember facts more easily, and are better at persuading us of arguments.
We're suckers for stories, and Jack insists nonfiction writers need to take this to heart. He starts by summarising the essence of a story as simply as he can. At its most basic, Jack says, "a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them.
As the day wears on, Jack explores each element of story in more depth. Action is the one he drills the hardest. Stories are about action, he says. Stories require action. Action moves a story forward.
His examples tend to come from newsrooms, where he's gathered most of his experience. A cop chasing a criminal is an example he keeps coming back to. It's a useful example that illustrates his points, but its continued use reinforces my growing concern that Jack's principles don't apply to my style of writing. I'm not reporting on people getting lost at sea or a lady who nearly died in a flood. There's no existing story to pull together into a narrative. I'm creating a narrative based on experiences—my own experiments, or varied experiences pulled together by a common thread. It's beginning to feel very different to the style of writing Jack's trying to teach me to be good at.
As I get further into the journalistic weeds with Jack, he starts to focus on the idea of scenes. He's talking about narrative nonfiction like it's a movie on the page, with camera angles, points of view, and scene after scene of action. He even uses terminology taken from videographers, like "jump cuts".
I have no problem with an analogy, but Jack is pushing this movie angle too far for my comfort. He wants me to zoom in, pan the camera, and look down from high above. He wants me to plan my story like a movie; a storyboard made up of scenes that move the action forward. I keep thinking about how I'll write this essay about my reading project, and I can't shake the feeling that Jack's style just doesn't fit. I stop reading just shy of halfway. I'm not looking forward to slogging through the upcoming chapters on action, theme, and dialogue tomorrow.
I last less than an hour with Jack today. I procrastinate most of my morning away in-between one- or two-page reading blocks. I'm bored and frustrated with the lack of relatability in his book, but having given up on Stephen two days ago I'm reluctant to not finish a second book in the stack.
Sometimes all you need is permission from someone else to do what you wanted to all along. Late in the morning I whine to Josh about how much Jack's book is dragging. He immediately suggests I move on to a new book. I think the fact that he didn't choose any of these books helps him be more objective about my not finishing them. He never pushes me to finish a book I'm not into, but he's decidedly more reluctant to suggest I give one up if he suggested I read it in the first place.
I spend a happy half hour browsing the Kindle store (what better way to take my mind off hard work than shopping?) and download samples of three books. Of the three I choose To Show and to Tell by Phillip Lopate.
Phillip's focusing on personal essays, which checks two big boxes: it's the type of writing I'm working on for the Ghost Magazine, and I haven't read much about this format yet. Everyone else so far has focused on books, and to a lesser extent, magazine articles.
Not only is Phillip ready to dish the dirt on writing personal essays, he's clearly in love with the form. His passion for essays exudes from the page, and I can't help but feel like we're on the same team, thrilled to be sharing our passion, and at the same time feeling slightly superior to everyone else who thinks they're not missing out.
Phillip starts by defending the personal narrative style he plans to teach me about. He never apologizes for it, but seems heavily defensive, once again reminding me I'm not choosing a well-thought-of literary profession by working on autobiographical writing—memoir or not. "Personal essay collections," he says, "...are often relegated to a Books in Brief column, as though the genre were merely a dodge to get around writing a real book."
I'm feeling a bit unsure now. I expect, since his book is about personal essays, that Phil's onboard with my chosen direction, but he's making it very clear that many others in the literary world wouldn't be. It's this quote that really makes me excited to hear what Phil has to say:
But even if a student is content with the lower status of nonfiction, she will undoubtedly encounter those creative writing instructors along the way who tell her to 'put everything in scenes,' for instance, or to use lots of images and sense details...
He's talking about Jack! At least, that's the impression I get. I've just given up on Jack's scene-based, movie-on-a-page approach, so I'm relieved to have Phil tell me I did the right thing. He goes on to say he's in favour of using plot, suspense, characterisation, and even character development in nonfiction, but that he doesn't support the idea a nonfiction writer should "render everything in scenes with dialogue and sprinkle sense details everywhere so the text will read as 'cinematically' as possible, while staying away from thoughtful analysis because it sounds academic or 'abstract'."
With that out of the way, we move on to discuss the essay form itself: how to end an essay, how to structure one, what they're made up of, and how the reader should feel when reading a great essay. Like Paul Graham(http://paulgraham.com/essay.html), Phillip insists on the idea of the essay as "a try", harking back to the French origin of the word. An essay is a chance for the writer to work out their thoughts on the page, he says. "The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out."
Phil makes me feel comfortable in sharing my thoughts and opinions in my work. He says he's drawn into nonfiction by "the encounter with a surprising, well-stocked mind as it takes on the challenge of the next sentence, paragraph, and thematic problem it has set for itself." He's also a big fan of style. "The other element that keeps me reading nonfiction happily," he says, "is an evolved, entertaining, elegant, or at least highly intentional literary style. The pressure of style should be brought to bear on every passage." Sheesh. No pressure, right Phil?
Unlike Robin, who was a fan of starting a nonfiction work from an obsession, Phil's a bit more sedate in his approach, which comes from curiosity. "It may sound more tepid than obsession or passion", he says, "but it is vastly more dependable in the long run." While I'm fairly good at being obsessed with things (I have a pretty extreme personality—I like to do something constantly, every chance I get, or not at all), I do like the idea of adding to my writer's toolbox anything I can rely on long-term. Phil says "bringing one's curiosity to interface with more and more history and the present world" is the solution to avoiding the potential for narcissism in autobiographical writing.
And here I get a clue of where Phil's passion really lies: in history. He's an old soul, is Phil, as I'm just beginning to find out.
Although my time with Phillip started strong, the second half of the book is less so. It's as if I've inadvertently started him off about topic after topic he loves to lecture on at length, and he's missing the fact that I'm checking my watch every few minutes not-so-subtly.
Phil's love for history is coming to the fore now, and he's started drawing heavily on the history of the essay and its masters. Although intellectually I see the merit in this approach, I get tired of Phil bringing up Michel de Montaigne all the time—the so-called "father of the essay" whom I've never heard of. I'm unable to find a love for Montaigne through Phil's enthusiasm despite being open to discovering a great essay writer, but instead find myself smiling benevolently at Phil like one might smile at a child who's proudly showing off the Lego house they built because they think it took great skill and imagination. I'm humouring him because his enthusiasm is endearing, but I'm not buying in.
As we go on, I'm treated to an entire chapter about essayist Charles Lamb, as if the constant references and examples of Montaigne weren't enough. Again I've paid too little attention before diving into a book, failing to realise the entire second half is called "studies of practitioners", with one chapter per famous essayist I've never heard of. I try to open my mind to the possibility that a history of one writer's work will be more illuminating and useful that it sounds, but when I find myself reading about Lamb's life for half the chapter as if I'm reading an incredibly long, dry Wikipedia article, I lose most of the small ray of hope I'd been clinging to. I've had such high hopes for this book since it began that I don't want it to be a waste of time. I push through the rest of the Lamb chapter, which, apart from a mini biography, mostly discusses Lamb's tendencies in his writing, rather than techniques I could apply to my own work. Four more writers I've never heard of have their own chapters following Lamb's, but I skip these in favour of getting back to some one-on-one time with Phillip.
We finish up with a look at memoir, and why critics are so harsh toward this genre. I'm left with the feeling that critics are rude, and memoirs aren't all bad, but it's not a great way to end my time with Phil. If I could do it over, I'd read the second half of the book first, and end on the high note of Phil's boyish enthusiasm for the essay form.
As I'm working on the draft of this essay I go looking for a damning example with which to continue lambasting Stephen. I'm sure he admires Cormac McCarthy's writing somewhere in the book, which would seem to contradict his insistence on pushing his grammatical prescriptivist agenda, but I can't find it. After flipping through the half of the book I've read, twice, I try flipping through the next few pages after where I'd stopped reading, in case I've put the bookmark in the wrong place.
I still don't find it, but in reading snippets of the pages I'm searching, I realise the grammatical lecturing has stopped. How did I not realise I was only a couple of pages away from the end of Steve's prescriptivist ramblings? His more generic writing advice, while not mind-blowing, is easy to read (I imagine his fiction is too) and not a huge turn-off. I decide to give the book another chance—perhaps having a break and getting more than 5,000 words of my draft done will give me the fresh mind I need to get something useful from Steve this time around.
I read another 70 pages this afternoon, strolling with Steve through his ideas on description, plot, a writing routine, and dialogue. As in Bird by Bird, I'm fairly bored by anything fiction-specific, which a lot of his advice is. But I do find it interesting how often he agrees with the other writers I've been spending time with. He's starting to sound more like the sensible, down-to-earth man I got to know in the biography section at the start of the book.
He's not a fan of plot, for instance, but rather likes to focus on a situation and let the story evolve on its own. In this way he reminds me of Anne in Bird by Bird. They both seem to think stories and characters exist already, and it's the writers job to simply put on paper something that unfolds without much of their input. It's all very hazy, and thus I find it hard to draw the line between how much input the writer has and how much of the story really "unfolds" on its own.
Steve keeps insisting the writer must be honest about the characters and how they behave in given situations. But what does it mean to be honest about something made up? Does he mean one must make up something plausible, so the reader thinks it's "honest"? Or does he mean a writer can literally "see" the story happening in their mind and must simply write down what they've seen honestly, without fabricating any details? I find this idea too far-fetched to believe, but then, I'm not a fiction writer (and maybe that's why).
When I mention this to Josh, he draws a connection between honesty and internal consistency. He think Steve's getting at the idea of setting up characters and then only writing behaviours that suit the idea of each character you've created. If he's right, he did a much better job of explaining it than Steve.
Steve and Anne have another theory in common: that readers are drawn in by stories they see themselves in. Like Anne, Steve believes a reader becomes more invested in a story that contains echoes of their own life. And this, he says, is what sells books. (If there's one thing I will trust him on, it's what sells books. Not that I want to write and sell books like his, but I can't deny he must have some idea of what works in mainstream fiction by now.)
Throughout this project I've found the mentor-mentee relationship designed by some of the writers is my favourite by far. It's the writers who made me feel I was getting one-on-one instruction from them, individual reading recommendations, and getting to know them personally whose lessons sunk in the most.
This is something I noticed early on in Bird by Bird. Anne, who was open about her past in the introduction but didn't spend a significant chunk of the book talking about her life, showed me I could trust her early on. She was gentle but to-the-point about the hard truths of writing for a living, and eased me into this crazy project with a mixture of entertaining anecdotes about her writer's life and fiction-specific lessons I learned to wade through.
By the time I finished Bird by Bird I felt as if we'd become friends. We'd laughed at her writerly hijinks and had D&Ms about the times she had it tough but made it through. She'd given me tough love when it came to making the call on whether I really want to do this writing thing, and whether I'm willing to put in the work to do it well. And she reminded me that money, fame, or a sense of worth probably wouldn't come from writing—or if they did, they wouldn't be nearly as good as I'd hoped.
I was sad to say goodbye to Anne. I felt I'd had a glimpse into the benefits of having a writing mentor, and it felt good. It made me hungry for more, and since Anne insisted we say goodbye and a bunch of other writers were lined up, I gave Robin a chance.
Robin sucked me in early with his anecdotes about a magazine story he wrote detailing his experiment of going back to summer camp in his 40s. His crazy idea to spend a week reliving his childhood camp experience, and the fact that he actually went through with it, made me want to learn everything I could from him.
His sense of humour is fun, and he's not afraid of gentle self-deprecation—something I've come to appreciate more and more in auto-biographical writers. Although I get the sense he's a fun dad and a silly guy sometimes, he's also got a serious side that's interested in the world and passionate about sharing what he knows.
His book does indeed read like a field guide, with Robin as my friendly local tour guide. He points out the pitfalls before I hit them, and takes me down laneways only a local would know about, giving me an authentic experience I'll remember for years to come.
Robin's only fault is leaning too heavily on his book about the Tasaday people. By the time I leave Robin behind, I'm left frustrated—wondering whether the Tasaday scandal was in fact a hoax, or not (he seems to be hinting at the fact that it was a bit of both, which is almost less satisfying than not knowing). Even worse, I've heard so much about the book now that I don't want to read it to find out the answer.
But I forgive Robin this misstep. He gave me so many insights I can hardly hold it against him. We've had fun, and he's stacked my reading list with 30 or more books I can't wait to read. He's imparted his passion for immersion genres and those who do great work within them, and even inspired me to plan an immersion memoir-style book.
Even Phillip Lopate became a friend of sorts over time. Though Phillip and I grew further apart as he became bogged down in the weeds of his love for Montaigne and other great essay writers from history, I'll always remember the time we spent together earlier on. Phil did a great job of showing me why personal essays are worthwhile and, like Anne did for fiction, he helped me see that no writer has it easy.
Of all the writers, I struggled most to connect with Jack, who employed the type of writing he wrote about: keeping himself out of the story for the most part, and focusing on the information. Jack's clearly a news guy, and it shows. I barely got any idea of what he's like as a person, or what any of the writers he mentioned are like. The only characters who really came to life for me were the ones who existed in stories Jack used as examples—the woman who nearly drowned and lost her prized breeding puppies in a flood; the policeman who watched a woman in a car accident rescued by the Jaws of Life after catching fire twice.
I'll probably remember the woman in the flood for a long time, because she became such an interesting character to me. But I'll forget about Jack, because I know nothing about him.
And while Steve certainly wasn't my favourite writer to hang out with, he did become a major character in my story. He refused to quit when I did, and came back to draw me in again, over a week later. He told me fun stories about his childhood (and one horrific one about having a needle in his ear that I'll never forget). He told me about his struggles with addiction, and how poor he was before his writing took off. Through these stories Stephen grew on me, and I reluctantly came to see that he'd be interesting to spend time with.
A bit like realising a teacher you've come to like is a huge racist, I was shocked and disappointed when Steve and I came to loggerheads over his arrogant views on grammar and "correct" writing.
But, like a tumultuous relationship between neighbours who both have strong ideas about whose dog is making the other one bark, Steve and I came together again once he stopped trying to force prescriptivist ideas down my throat. We connected over his ideas about description (he doesn't like too much; I don't like any at all) and helping the reader see themselves in your story.
I humoured him as he pontificated about characters telling him the story, and kept my ideas to myself for the sake of getting through the rest of our time together in peace. In the end, we agreed to disagree, and I took away a little from his writing advice, but a lot from our ups and downs along the way. It's been fun, Steve.
So, am I a better writer than when I started out? I certainly didn't find what I was looking for. I expected to take a list of practical tips from each book, and start applying them to my daily work immediately. But I think I got something better. Squeezing five books into ten days helped me realise how much better my writing can become simply from spending time with talented writers whom I respect. Definitely ten days well spent.
No doubt you're hankering for your own one-on-one time with Steve now. If he, or any of the other authors take your fancy, here's a link to each of the books I read:
- Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott
- The Field Guide for Immersion Writing, Robin Hemley
- On Writing, Stephen King
- Storycraft, Jack Hart
- To Show and To Tell, Phillip Lopate
I came across many books that would have fit this project but that I didn't have time to read—either mentioned in the books I did read, or suggested to me by other people. If you want to try more books about writing, here are the ones I still have on my "to read" list:
- The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, Julia Cameron
- Save the cat, Blake Snyder
- Henry Miller on writing, Henry Miller
- Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
- Ernest Hemingway on writing, Ernest Hemingway
- On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction(), William Zinsser
- The craft of research, Wayne C Booth et. al.
- The Dramatic Writer's Companion, Will Dunne
- Writing for Story, Jon Franklin
- Writing life stories, Bill Roorbach
- Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, edited by Bill Roorbach