So Many Books About Writing
If you’re a writer like me, one of your vices is probably books about writing.
I call it a vice because reading a book on writing is one helluva way to avoid actually doing any writing. I know this from experience.
Publishing companies seem to know that aspiring writers tend to buy books on writing like one of my great aunts liked to buy Hummels. A search of ‘fiction writing’ books on Amazon.com yields a result of 47, 843.
How Do I Choose?
So how to pick your next writing book? I am particularly obsessive about finding the one treatise on plot that can rule them all! I have a number of contenders, but I still haven’t found the one great book on story structure.
In the mean time, I want to know which books on writing my favorite writers recommend, so then it’s internet and another first-class time suck. It’s okay. We all do it..
Great Writers’ Favorite Writing Books
As I trawl the interwebs in search of the best books on writing, one in particular, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, shows up frequently, alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, Natalie Gold’s Writing Down the Bones, Save the Cat, and so on.
I must admit I avoided Bird by Bird because of the title. It seemed overly precious, and I wondered why the author would pick that, since it seemed to have nothing to do with fiction writing. That shows how much I judge a book by its title.
I finally decided to see what the fuss was about, so I downloaded Bird by Bird from Audible.com.
I love Audible.com. I require a steady stream of compelling audiobooks because traffic turns me into a Viking berserker. Unless I have some compelling distraction, I might ram my Toyoto Echo into that douche of a BMW who just cut me off on my way from the 5 to the 134.
This book definitely helped me keep my driver’s license.
Best Books on Writing: The Life
There are many books on technique, on how to build character, how to show not tell.
Bird by Bird has great pointers on plot, character, description, but what it mostly has is relief-giving advice on how to walk through life as a writer, the kind of advice that when you hear it, makes you sigh, feel understood, and, most vitally, feel motivated to go on and do what you are here on the planet to do.
Because if you are a writer, you know it ain’t easy.
Writing is a solitary affair, and the best ideas can be killed by that evil laughing hyena of a critic, that bitter maniac we all carry around inside of us.
The Audible version of Bird by Bird is ably narrated by Susan Bennett (also the voice of Siri!). The prose is precise. The way Lamott describes her own process, the obsession, the procrastination, the ADD, the hypochondria–it’s hilarious. Her narrative voice is strong and encouraging.
This quote below made me cry “yes!” as I was hiking up over the Silver Lake hills, listening to it on my iPhone.
“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.”
Ah, the need to be seen and heard. Thinking about it still brings up an old old ache behind my eyes and at the back of my throat. Yep, there’s my old friend.
So many things are quotable and tee-shirt wearable in this little book.
“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism.”
“Messes are the artist’s true friend.”
And then, there are the practical suggestions, which I’ve woven into my own writing practice.
“…write down all your memories as truthfully as you can.”
Now from time to time I have told myself that I will never write my memoirs because my life is not terribly interesting. But Lamott’s book has given me the permission to write down as much as I can remember, and it feels like it’s opened something up inside me. And it keeps my daily thousand word goal going strong. I think it’s making me better. And I can thank Bird by Bird for it.
Here’s Lamott on character:
“…a person’s faults are largely what make him or her likable.”
On just sitting down and pumping out that shitty first draft:
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.”
On truth and using your own voice:
“You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.”
Here is how she explains character-driven plot:
“That’s what plot is: what people will up and do in spite of everything that tells them they shouldn’t, everything that tells them that they should sit quietly on the couch and practice their Lamaze, or call their therapist, or eat until the urge to do that thing passes.”
A key point on dialogue:
“…remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says.”
I was halfway through listening to Bird by Bird, and I knew I needed to own it on paper. I knew I was going to want to thumb through it, highlight parts of it, and tab pages.
Lamott is truthful about her own experience, about how overwhelming it can be to sit in front of a blank screen everyday and try to fill it up with something other than drivel. About how the choice to write surfaces massive insecurity.
Her solutions? Shitty first drafts, short assignments, the one-inch picture frame. I’ll never forget those. My brain can latch onto them. They work.
For the record, I still think it would do better with another title.
The anecdote it’s based on answers the question, how do you write when it’s such an overwhelming task? The answer is, the way Lamott’s father advised her brother to write a report on birds he had to do for grade school. “Bird by bird.”
Yes, that is true with writing. You just take it one bit at a time, and suddenly you are in the fictional dream, seeing and feeling it all.
“Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.”
Her book will help you do that.