I have a friend who loves his barbeque so much that he has accumulated 100 books on grilling. In the same way, if you’re a writer, either a committed amateur or one who’s been published many times, you probably like to acquire all sorts of books about writing.
The three I review here might suit you, or one might be more congruent with your inner voice than the others. Each does what it claims to do: help you fulfill your passion in more satisfying and productive ways.
The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, by Priscilla Long, a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, is expertly compiled and expanded from lessons the author used when teaching all levels of writing students. Having been revised over a period of years, these lessons have the advantage of being learner-tested.
While Long does have a few “rules” for writers that I may disagree with (handwriting somehow allows you to connect in a superior way to the page of a writer’s notebook?), the majority of what she espouses rings true for me, based on my own writing and the vast amount of research I did when preparing my own book about writing.
I especially appreciate Long’s instruction to do the exercises in the book “in relation to some piece you are working on.” That makes so much sense to me, and it’s about the only way I’d ever spend much time doing an exercise in a how-to-write book.
Here are three more pieces of advice from The Writer’s Portable Mentor:
1. The Lexicon Practice: Gather words and phrases that you will eventually try to use in your own writing. “Writers who don’t do it in one way or another are pretty much stuck with television words, newspaper words, cereal-box words,” Long writes. When writing my novel Kylie’s Heel, I added delicious words to a list, words I encountered as I read other books of literary fiction. There’s a unique gratification in finding the right spot for a word you love, such as my own favorite, reliquary.
2. Put Verbs to Work: Take a page you’ve written and circle all the verbs. Question each one and change some. Then circle the adverbs, and see if you can make their verbs do more work so you don’t need so many adverbs.
3. Fragments Are Fine: Don’t overdo it, suggests Long, but forget what you learned about sentence fragments being inadmissible in good writing. They can add verve and verisimilitude to what might otherwise be a string of plain sentences, because that’s how we talk and think.
Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature, by Tina Welling, novelist and outdoorsperson, is aimed at those who seek “a direct pathway into a stronger relationship with wildness, both inner and outer.”
I’m not an outdoorsperson myself, but hey, I can say that when I’m out and about in a natural setting, everything I encounter is fresh and new to my normally desk-found vision.
Welling goes into depth about her three-step process: naming, describing, and interacting. Her narrative style is reassuring, non-judgmental, like having your hand held as you begin walking on a rickety bridge over the canyon of deep feelings. I appreciate that friendly aspect, but I had a harder time connecting with some of her nature metaphors (howl like a wolf, for example).
Some of her suggestions for more real writing are excellent. Here are two:
1. Don’t sleepwalk—wakewalk. Welling suggests taking “spirit walks” in nature in which you name the things you see, describe one using all five senses, then interact with it. Write down some internal connection prompted by the object, some memory or experience. She calls such a walk a writer’s form of meditation.
2. Drain or Gain? Some of the activities that keep you from writing can be dumped. Consider every task or appointment on your calendar and decide if it’s a drain on your energy or a gain for your inner voice and ultimate goals.
Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life is by Robert Benson, the author of more than a dozen books on spirituality and life. While my feelings about so-called spirituality are mixed (okay, they’re tilted heavily to the skeptical), I found this small brief (175 pages) book to be both inspiring and practical, without depending on anything unscientific.
Nothing dramatically new here, but Benson's voice is encouraging and humorous, and he conveys his points with anecdotes and quotes that go down smoothly. Sometimes you only need a little bit of encouragement to get moving. Two examples:
1. Don’t think about the fact that you’re “writing a book.” That’s too heavy and you may end up frozen. Just get into your writing room and do some work. Write a few hundred words, every day.
2. Keep a journal, especially when you’re not actively working on a book. “A journal forces a writer to listen to his life," notes Benson
3. Use a professional when it’s time to revise after a couple or more drafts and having shared the work with friends. Just like you’d go to a mechanic or a dentist for their kind of competence and expertise.