Skip to main content
  1. Posts/

Reading about Writing

I think it was as shocking to me as it was to Garrett when I confessed “I really want to be a writer,” on our second date. It was one of those thoughts that you’re not really aware of until it leaves your mouth. The really suprising part is that after it was out there, and I realized what I’d just said, I did nothing to back pedal. It was just out there, and Garrett accepted it as one of my dreams, one that he’s supported, quietly, ever since.

Shortly after “the confession” I heard Stephen King interviewed on Fresh Air , talking about his book, “On Writing.” I rushed out, picked it up and read it cover to cover, twice. I’d never really considered what being an author entailed and King’s discussion of the process and the pitfalls made it a little more real to me. It also began to disabuse me of the notion that the only way to be a writer was to be an Author, capital “A”, words for the ages. Lately I’ve been thinking more about writing and, as a result, reading about it as well.

First, there’s William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, with it’s subtitle of “the classic guide to writing nonfiction.” I didn’t notice the subtitle when I picked it up on a whim, and it’s probably a good thing. The back compares the book to The Elements of Style, which is a bold assertion. Zinsser lives up to the claim with a practical and readable volume. Zinsser divides the book into four parts, but he ends up talking about two themes: how to write and what to write. While the focus is definitly non-fiction, I think the principles can be applied to all writing. I finished the book feeling like I could tackle any writing assignment, all the while plotting revenge on my middle school english teachers for making grammer and syntax seem so, well, difficult.

While I was still working my way through On Writing Well I heard Chris Baty as a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation . Baty, for those unfamiliar, is the founder of National Novel Writing Month , or “NaNoWriMo”. NaNoWriMo participants committ to writing a 50,000 word novel in the space of 30 days. Baty is the first to admit that some of the results are real pieces of shit, but the focus has never been on quality. Baty’s theory goes something like this:

* Lots of people say they want to write a novel. * Far fewer people do it. * People work better under deadline. * If you force 50,000 words out of someone, at least some of them will be interesting. * The point isn’t to be a published author, but to gain the confidence that comes from saying, “I wrote a novel.”

So while in San Francisco earlier this month, I wandered through Borders and picked up No Plot? No Problem!, Baty’s “low stress, high velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days.” I finished reading NP?NP! by the time I returned to Indiana, and was really inspired by Baty. After reading the book, and thinking about it some more, it seems to me that too often we’re cowed by our fear of failure into believing that we can’t or shouldn’t try something new. I know I am. The local Civic Theatre was in desperate need of actors for a production of “Footloose” last year. I’ve never acted in my life, but the idea really appealed to me. But I didn’t even audition. And I regret that.

I don’t remember how, but shortly after finishing NP!NP? I ran across Believer , an “an amiable yet rigorous forum for writing about books”. And it is. It’s published by McSweeny’s , the same folks who bring you the quarterly short story collections. I can’t even told you why, but I ordered a subscription, probably convinced by the promise of a free copy of Nick Hornby’s new collection of essays, The Polysyllabic Spree. The essays first appears as his monthly column in The Believer, and all center around the books he bought versus the books he read during the month. As someone who can only be described as a hoarder of books, I definitly sympathized with his struggle to read all he bought. I also felt validated by his honesty in admitting that with certain books, he wasn’t going to read them. Not any time soon. Anyway, regardless of your authorly aspirations, TPS is a funny, charming read, and it’s already changed my book buying habits. I’ve taken the time to investiage the local used book store, Hyde Brothers, and predict I’ll be spending lots of time and money there in the future.

So there you have it. What I’ve been reading the last 30 days. The theme has been writing, but it’s got me thinking about creativity and creation more generally. And yes, I’ve started some writing and plan to do National Novel Writing Month this year. It’s November, by the way, although I’m a little more anxious, so I may make an early attempt. I’ll be sure to let you know.