I used to be a sucker for books on writing. Every time I’d see one in a bookstore, free box or bargain bin, I snapped it up, hoping I would come across that magical nugget of advice that will make writing easier than it usually is. And maybe more enjoyable in the process.
Most writers must be tortured in this way; otherwise, there would be no market for “how-to” books on writing.
Francine Prose apparently has tossed her hat into the books-on-writing ring. She offers “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them.” (What is it about books on writing that makes the authors choose lengthy titles? It’s as if they have to clarify what they are trying to write about. Funny.) Emily Barton reviewed this for the New York Times. (Do read Conversational Reading’s perceptive skewer on this review, plus the recommendations for books on writing.)
Barton says: “At the start of her new book on writing, Francine Prose dispatches with The Question — the five words that inevitably confront writers who teach, writers who don’t teach, and possibly even nonwriters who do neither: “Can creative writing be taught?”
To me, that is not only an arrogant question for Prose to pose (how’s that for lousy alliteration?), but it misses the mark entirely. I really do not think anyone who is serious enough about writing to pick up the book believes for one second that it will teach the craft. Writers just want some reassurance that yes, writing is as horribly difficult for everyone else as it is for them, and that yes, the horrors can be overcome, even if only temporarily, by completing a silly exercise, practicing hypnosis, starting a journal, placing green apples on your desk, or downing a bottle of Scotch every morning.
Beyond the smug attitude Prose seemingly adopts in this book, carefully distancing herself from any suggestion that creative writing could possibly be a taught skill like forging anvils or building car chassis, she does have a point here, as Barton explains:
Prose also recommends savoring books rather than racing through them, a strategy that “may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you.”
Reading for delight: This is ultimately the reason I gave up reading about writing, and moved to reading for reading’s sake and writing for the hope of connection. It’s a lesson struggling writers tend to forget. If you want to love to write, you must love to read.
Here are some of the many books on writing in my collection, in no particular order. I do like dipping into them now and again for inspiration, reminders, compassion and wit. Any favorites you would like to share?
Dorothea Brand, Becoming a Writer: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit
Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write
Oakley Hall, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing
Gail Sher, One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers
Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
Anne Lamotte, Bird by Bird
Stephen King, On Writing
David Bayles, Ted Orland, Art and Fear (not strictly about writing, but the same principles apply)
John Gardner, Art of Fiction
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Ursula LeGuin, Steering the Craft
Eudora Welty, On Writing and One Writer’s Beginnings