This is an oldie post of mine, but I've been asked a lot lately about books on writing. So, here we go!
I don’t remember where I heard this great Somerset Maugham quote, but it has stuck around inside my head for years. It goes:
“I write when inspiration strikes. Thankfully, it strikes every morning at nine a.m. sharp.”
I’ve never considered myself the most talented writer, and I’m not saying that out of insecurity or modesty. When I started my first real writing program in college, I was able to pinpoint writers who I knew were flat-out better than me. The ease of their skill was apparent, and I knew I wasn’t at that level. They had a certain eloquence to their work and a clarity of voice that takes most writers years to perfect, assuming they reach that point at all. Don’t get me wrong, my compulsion to write was just as strong as theirs, if not stronger, but what kept me in the race then, and now, was my commitment to seeing writing not as a gift granted by the muses but as a skill that needed to be developed, fostered, practiced, failed at, practiced more, and, eventually, controlled. I always like to think of the tool belt analogy—talent is your tools (and I believe that if you’re compelled to write, you have talent; this world couldn’t possibly be so cruel to provide the former without the latter). But tools are only as good as your ability to use them. Sure, drills are a ton of fun; but until you learn now to use it, all you’ll do is make holes in things.
My writing philosophy, needless to say, is very blue collar. I come from a Teamster family that has a standard for success set by how much and how hard you work. That said, I believe that there’s only one sure way to become a skilled writer, and that’s by learning how to write. And part of learning how to write is by doing it—repetition, routine, commitment, practice, practice, practice. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour rule. But there’s another equally important part, and that’s learning craft from the masters.
Going back to the tool belt, one of the most elusive tools that is essential to learn and deploy is voice. Voice is equally the easiest and hardest thing to discuss when it comes to writing. What is your voice? Well, that’s easy. It’s the characteristic of your writing that makes in unmistakably you. Think about great voices throughout literature. Kurt Vonnegut, Junot Diaz, Thomas Pynchon. You pick up their work and identify their voice without knowing beforehand. Vladimir Nabakov put it best when he said that the best novels teach you how to read them through the actual reading experience. Every voice is different, therefore every book needs to educate you on its intricacies.
But, at the same time, what makes these voices unique? What’s the quality that makes Lorrie Moore so different than Jonathan Lethem? Sure, there’s a case to be made for content and stylistic tics, but beyond that, how is this voice not that voice? After all, it’s just words on a page. Words, sentences, paragraphs. That isn’t meant to diminish voice, but rather to point out how mysterious the idea of voice is and, therefore, how hard it is to guide a writer into finding their voice. Because, after all, voice is you—your experiences, your history, your beliefs, all of you—coming through the stories you tell and how you choose to tell them.
That said, one of the greatest strengths a writer can possess is having control of their work, understanding the choices that need to be made—in style and content—and how best to make them. This is where the aforementioned masters and their thoughts on craft come into play. Many writers have written about writing and, I can promise you, I’ve ready far too many of these books over the years. There’s a few that have, like the Maugham quote, have stuck with me through their ability to illuminate what’s happening on a page and how you can use that knowledge better your own work.
Here’s a look at the books that I’ve held close—dog-tagging them, highlighting, writing notes in the margin—on my path to becoming a writer:
1. Finding a Form, William H. Gass: Darth Vader once said “you underestimate the power of the dark side.” To me, the same goes for William Gass—most people underestimate the power his fiction, as well as his thoughts on fiction, hold. Gass is understood to be a capital D Difficult writer and somewhat curmudgeonly about it. After all, it takes some gall to write an essay saying that the Pulitzer is basically a bunch of bullshit. Nonetheless, when it comes to understanding and executing a precise and controlled form in fiction, there aren’t many people who can hold a candle to Gass. Form, for Gass, is everything, and reading his thoughts is a potent reminder of the power every macro decision has on impacting the whole. Every word choice, every deployment of a particular sentence, must serve the ultimate benefit of making something supremely worthwhile in itself. It’s a high standard to meet, but reading Gass does grab you by the lapels and give you the shake that is sometimes needed.
“I believe that the artist’s fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy is employed in the activity of making. Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea of local observation, ever bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day.”
2. On Writing, Stephen King: The best, ever. Period.
“Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
3: Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose: One of the best way someone can learn to write is to read. A lot. And read everything. Prose tackles the subject of whether a writer can be taught or not, and she does so through insights into her own development as a writer and the books that have educated her over the course of her career. Using numerous examples from a wide range of novels, Prose illustrates how to craft dialogue, build character, delicately choose words, and so on. She’s passionate, exuberant, and wise, being alongside her on her journey through reading and writing is truly a joy.
“One essential and telling different between learning from a style manual and learning from literature is that any how-to book will, almost by definition, tell you how not to write. In that way, manuals of style are a little like writing workshops, and have the same disadvantage—a pedagogy that involved warnings about what might be broken and directions on how to fix it—as opposed to learning from literature, which teaches by positive model.”
4: Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster: No writer has taught me more about crafting characters than Forster. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of wisdom to absorb from this book, particularly Forster’s thoughts on story and plot (which are pretty hilarious, in addition to insightful). But Forster’s thoughts on flat vs. round characters struck me in the gut when I first read it. I think all young writers are taught that their writers should feel real and exist beyond the page, but that’s all very nebulous and doesn’t give you a concrete sense of when a character does and doesn’t feel real. Forster elevates the discussion in a very concrete way through his discussion of flat and round characters.
“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way.”
That one sentence speaks volumes to me, for two simple reasons: surprise and convince. A character you’re not invested in will never surprise you; they might shock you, but that’s a totally different thing. Cheap thrills don’t make for genuine surprise. You have to really know a character for them to surprise you because what you’re recognizing is that they’re behaving in a way that isn’t them. “Oh no, Harry Potter would never do that!” You can only own that statement by understanding what Harry WOULD do. Should he act in a way that defies that—because you feel you know him—is what brings about genuine, and impactful, surprise.
And you have to be convinced. If Harry Potter suddenly got fed up with Ron Weasley and took an axe to his head, well, we wouldn’t buy it (also, this would be a shock, not a surprise). Surprises must be earned; even though a character is behaving in a way that, again, goes against their grain, you have to look at the behavior and feel that it’s warranted. You have to understand why he or she is doing this. Even though it’s not literature (though it’s very literary), the first two seasons of Breaking Bad delivered a master class in surprising its audience in a convincing way. No matter how low Walt sunk, no matter violent and ruthless means he used to achieve his ends, the audience was immersed in his reasons for doing so. I remember the moment where Walt watched Jessie’s girlfriend overdose, choke, and die in her sleep and, as horrifying as it was, my mind said “yeah, but I get it.” Walt’s quasi-paternal relationship to Jessie was so thoroughly executed that his girlfriend’s death, while tragic, probably saved his life in the long run. As Walt watched her die, I was convinced of his reasons for doing so.
5. Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury: No matter how miserable writers may be, they need to love writing. And no one, as far as I can tell, loved the act of writing more than Ray Bradbury. I recently went back to this book, and it hit more than it ever has. Maybe it’s my older age that makes me appreciate the joy of writing more than I ever have. When I was in my twenties, it was easy to stay convicted to my writing career as the stakes were remarkably low. I didn’t have kids, a mortgage, and other things to fill me with crippling fear every minute of the day. Now that I do, staying committed to writing is more difficult, though it’s also much more rewarding as I enjoy the actual process more than I ever have. I absolutely have to, as the life and career of a writer isn’t easy (I can write about the vicissitudes of a career in writing at length); what is easy, though, is loving the work and the outcome. Bradbury has taught as much, if not more, than any other writer. And now, he’s taught me something new, something that all writers should remember: writing is a delight, not a burden. And for all the lessons on craft, form, and everything in between, none of it means all that much without that love.
I’ll let Bradbury close things out with the exuberance only he can bring:
“Zest. Gusto. How rarely one hears these words. How rarely do we see people living, or for that matter, creating by them. Yet if I were asked to name the most important items in a writer’s make-up, the things that shape his material and rush him along the road to where he wants to go, I could only warn him to look to his zest, see to his gusto.”