Sunday, 22 May 2016

Books on Writing: Spicer's Picks

Several of my favorite books on writing, such as Stephen King's On Writing and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, have already been discussed on Novel Spaces over the past weeks. My approach to writing differs somewhat from the "craftsman" approach mentioned by Kevin Killiany in "Kevin's Picks: Books on Writing". I like to believe mine is more holistic--embracing both the preeminence of craft and the mysterious, subliminal, sometimes magical nature of writing.

Stephen King puts it well: “At its most basic we are discussing a learned skill (writing), but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations? We are talking about tools and carpentry, about words and style... but as we move along, you’d do well to remember that we are also talking about magic.” Spanish writer Luis Buñuel writes: “Mystery is the basic element of all works of art.” And Jorge Luis Borges views writing as "Nothing more than a guided dream."

I'm not King or Borges, or Buñuel, or Steinbeck who famously said, “I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.” But I'm in good company. When Joan Baez claims "...those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page” I feel the hairs raise up on my arm because this has been my lived experience. My very best stories come to me in an intuitive flash and these rare gifts invariably eclipse the ones that I consciously, deliberately and laboriously craft. It makes sense that the books on writing which I choose to read are eclectic rather than craft-heavy. Here are two of my favorites.

Page After Page by Heather Sellers is one writing book that I hardly ever see other writers mention. It's for those who are just starting out and it does an excellent job of dispelling the illusions with which most of us begin. Sellers is a teacher of fiction, poetry and nonfiction writing workshops and she brings a wealth of experience in coaching writers to the table. There are chapters on the state of mind you bring to starting something new, on balance, on tools for getting the work done, on reading, on the influence of parents on your work, on managing anxiety, on daring to suck, on mentors, rejection, workshops, ambition... In short, it covers everything beginning writers need to know about what they're getting themselves into. I'm glad I read it early on. Bonus: There are exercises at the end of each chapter. I admit I did very few of them.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield (author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, Tides of War and Last of the Amazons) is all about breaking through the blocks to creativity, or put another way, about overcoming potentially paralyzing fears and doubts. Pressfield says:

"There's a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing part that's hard. What's hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance."

He defines the many forms that resistance takes, shows how to combat it, then discusses the powerful psychic forces that sustain artists on their journey.

I've given away one writing book because I knew I was never going to read it again. That was Zen in the Art of Writing, a collection of essays by Ray Bradbury. There are others languishing on my bookshelf: A Writer's Space by Eric Maisel, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and Letters to a Young Artist, also by Julia Cameron. I have no idea when or if I'll read them. I called a moratorium on buying books on writing, but given all the intriguing suggestions I've seen on the blog this month, my resolve is crumbling fast. Thank you Novelnauts for introducing me to all these resources!

~Liane Spicer