Why You Should Read These Writing Books
Here are my top three favorite writing books and what’s great about them.
1. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
What I like about Bird by Bird is that it’s perhaps the only book that’s been truly instructive for me—for the most part, all of the discussion in other writing books about story mechanics and diagramming have covered what I’ll call the “symptoms” of good writing, not the way you get there. And in all honesty, the way I get there is how Lamott describes her process: it’s not so much about outlining the plot or having a formula as it is about being disciplined and not worrying until the second draft about whether my writing is any good.
For me, outlining a plot and cleaning up my drafts came much, much later. I had been trying to be a novelist for nearly thirty years before I could draw a diagram on my wall and shift things around the way some other books have instructed (see #2 below).
Lamott writes honestly about sitting there, quieting (or at least harnessing) the demons in your head, and forcing yourself to write something—anything, especially at first. You take writing one little agonizing step at a time, or, as she illustrates from a childhood memory, you take it “bird by bird.” From this book, I understood that being a writer means being one who writes. Being a writer is not about having an outlandish wardrobe, or sitting around in a coffee shop thinking deep thoughts, or watching “films,” or drinking wine, or hob-nobbing with the cultural elite. It is about one thing: writing.
Lamott also shares that one of the great things about being a better writer—perhaps even better than being a writer—is that writing a lot makes you a better reader, helps you enjoy reading more. And this is met by her students with the kind of pouty skepticism that children exhibit when told that vegetables are good for them. But it’s true! Writing makes reading a great book even more satisfying than it was years ago. (It makes me more picky about books as well, but that’s another subject.)
As an aside, writing a lot gives me more humility by increasing my respect for anyone who can finish a creative writing project. Back when I was a freshman at UNM, I had big plans to be a novelist, and I turned my nose up at many other people’s attempts to write a novel…ironically enough, I myself had not yet written one at the time, but for some reason, I didn’t connect the dots on that. Writing a novel turned out to be incredibly difficult, and the first one I wrote (at the age of 23, several years past my projected timeline) was awful, and even I knew it. After that, I had a ton more respect for any one with a finished short story or novel. That’s a very good first bar to set for oneself—if you can finish a novel or short story, or even an essay, my props to you. It’s not easy.
I’m grateful to Lamott for this book, and I’ve bought many copies to replace the first one that my aunt Sheila gave me twenty years ago because I keep giving this book away to others.
2. The Anatomy of Story by John Truby.
This one’s deep, folks. My mom gave me The Anatomy of Story for my thirty-first birthday, and it took forever to get through because each passage I read would send me backtracking through whatever story I was working on to analyze it and better understand it.
Meryl Streep once told a story about her husband helping her out of an existential crisis over a new role by telling her, “Don’t you know this about yourself yet? You have to deconstruct yourself before every role.” This is how it is for me about story: any art is the repeated deconstruction of the self. It takes some time to get used to that and be accepting of it. I don’t always like what bubbles to the surface in my writing, and I can choose whether to see that as a worthwhile theme, or to be ashamed of it and slam the laptop closed.
Truby’s book helped me be more aware of this deconstruction and value my thematic symptoms, even develop them. Like I said, books like this were for me, especially early on, more symptomatic. But at thirty-one, I was ready for the analysis. I was ready to delve into some of the more technical aspects of my stories.
In particular, with “Denouement,” The Anatomy of Story helped me see that I only needed four characters in the house because they formed a complete character web. Originally, there was another character in this story named Paul, a biomedical researcher and idealist who can’t overcome the sorrow he feels after accidentally rendering an invention of his commercially unviable. When I first drafted the story, Paul, not DDA, was the father figure to the other characters.
Because my process is like Lamott’s, I didn’t plan to write a story in which the characters formed a neat little archetypal family. I just sat down and started writing, forcing myself to move forward. A year into the writing, I got stuck because DDA was, in his nascent form, so evil he was unwieldy, and when writing output slowed to a scribble, I read a little, picking up, among other things, Truby’s book, which has been on my nightstand for the last six years and is full of underlines and flops open to pages where I’ve smashed it open on a desk while stopping to go over my own work. I re-read the passages on character, and suddenly saw that I had a pretty good character web going, and that, lo and behold, it fit a family archetype. Also, I saw that DDA’s character could be fixed by making him the father figure.
That, in turn, meant I had a darling to kill. I was very proud of Paul’s backstory, and I hated to see him go. But The Anatomy of Story gave me a greater understanding of how my characters worked together, and crystallized what was needed and what was not. I expect this book to stay on my nightstand for many more years to come.
3. Fiction Is Folks by Robert Newton Peck.
I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Fiction Is Folks, the first writing book I ever read. My mom had this on our bookshelf, and I think I was in about fifth grade when I first picked it up. The character sketches in Peck’s book were the first real writing exercises I ever did, and I immediately understood the way details like a has-been’s ratty robe and tattered, faded photo make him who he is, how a football player comes to life when you give him a girl he wants to marry and a ball coming toward his hands that could mean, if he catches it, an NFL career, and an injury that jeopardizes everything.
Because this book was so matter-of-fact and full of lively characters, I enjoyed reading it, and that proved its own point to my little brain. It was instrumental in guiding me toward what Truby describes as character-driven story, and helped me diversify the characters in the wanna-be Sweet Valley Twins drivel that I turned out regularly in about sixth grade: instead of four girls who all liked shopping and clothes, I thought hard about what made each one a unique, memorable character (one had divorced parents and was rebellious and cool, another got in fights, another played sports, another liked to cook and wanted freedom from her pesky little brother). I credit Peck for challenging me, early on, to make my characters realistic. I returned to this book as recently as a month ago to help me better visualize a character in a story I’m currently working on.
Those are my top three. What are yours?