This blog is about telling stories.
Everyone has stories to tell. The sea stories I heard in the Navy sometimes had me laughing so hard I squeaked. That’s when you push all that stale air out of your lungs and take a deep breath, and go right on laughing until your eyes water.
I did take a class in writing novels once upon a time. I found that, for the money I spent, I could have stocked up on typing paper (now printer paper), typewriter ribbons (printer ink) and pens and pencils, plus some notebooks and files to keep everything semi-organized. I’d have been better off taking a senior class in college-level English.
So instead of spending any more money on classes, I started building a small, but very useful, library of nonfiction books on writing. Some of them I’ve given away, because they were retreads of others, but those that I found to be the most useful are the following, with the reasons for why they are so useful included.
Here we go:
If You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland. I have the 2nd edition version of this. She taught writing classes in Minnesota for many years, and this book is to writers what “The Joy of Cooking” is to foodies. Why is this book so important, and considered to be a classic on the process of writing, long after the author has passed on? Ms. Ueland had two rules: tell the truth and don’t do anything you don’t want to do. ‘Tell the truth’ means keep it clear, simple and don’t use one superfluous word.
You see, it’s not the number of words in a sentence, nor the number of sentences in a paragraph, nor a massively impressive vocabulary that will make you a better writer.
There are people who are obssessed with counting words in a sentence, and sentences in a paragraph because they think that there is some rule, some hardline regulation, that says ‘only XXX words and XXX sentences are allowed’. I’ve met those people in person. I’ve asked them if they ever read ‘Green Hills of Africa’, in which Hemingway takes up two pages with one sentence, one extremely long sentence, that comprises an entire paragraph by itself, and it still makes sense. It is Hemingway’s understanding of phrasing and punctuation that make it work.
It is not the number of words or the length of your sentences that counts, nor is it the number of sentences you have in one paragraph. It is how you present them to your reader. When Ms. Ueland says ‘tell the truth’, she is nudging you to be true to yourself. Do what you expect of yourself, not what others expect of you.
‘How To Write a Damn Good Novel’ – James N. Frey. He teaches writing classes. He teaches structure and content in his classes. It’s a down-to-Earth, practical guide to getting your story or novel written, cranked out, and finished. And he points out, as Brend Ueland implies without saying it specifically, that the production of a finished piece of work has less to do with talent, equipment, software and taking classes, than it has to do with being a writer in your heart.
Writing is hard work. You get stale and annoyed and bogged down, but you soldier on, because you have to tell this story muddling around in your head and you want, desperately, to get that story to other people. If you do not have this nearly desperate need to get your stories written to completion, whether or not they ever get in front of people, then you aren’t really a writer. You only WANT to be a writer, and that’s the truth of it: you either are, or you are not. As Yoda said, “There is no try. There is only do… or do not.”
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury. It starts with ‘The Joy of Writing’ and ends with ‘…on Creativity’. It is NOT about how to write a damn good novel.
It IS about jumping out of bed in the morning and stepping into a pile of icy slush, and wondering how on Earth that got there. It wasn’t there last night when your head hit the pillow and you found you couldn’t sleep because your brain was still cranking out copy. And then you had that argument: should I get up and go back to what I was working on? Or should I just let it go and tackle in the morning?
Bradbury’s point, and Jim Frey’s also, is that if you stay up FAR past your usual bedtime, never look at the clock, forget breakfast, lunch and dinner and don’t realize that you’re still in your pajamas and it’s now 2PM the next day, you’re a writer.
I’ve done this with just making notes about what/who/when/how/why; with paintings at an easel and a dog that needed walking; and with finishing the last additional chapter of the draft I’ve been working on for weeks, along with all those short stories off to the side.
The photo of the bee in the flowers at the top is the best illustration I could come up with. The bee doesn’t count the miles from the hive, the pollen grains in its leg baskets, or the amount of nectar it collects. It just does this work, because it is a bee.
You stop counting time and the cost of materials, and simply write. When you get that piece of writing done, the elation of finishing your story for better or for worse is almost like having really great sex: you just want to do that again.
I have other books that I found useful which I will add in the future, but in the meantime, to see what I mean (and Brenda Ueland meant) by simplicity, clarity, and truth, get a copy of Henry Beston’s ‘The Outermost House’. It’s his observations during a full year in 1928 on Cape Cod. You will be glad you did.