Reading writers…

March 13, 2010 § 11 Comments

(Note that my pen in the above picture is NOT on fire, for safety, and also, symbolically)

I read books about writing. I love reading books about writing. I can’t help it. I am always looking for a truth, or a hint, or an eye opener of some un-designated sort, and support….and perhaps the Muse, sitting among the pages.

I have one huge over-stuffed shelf full of  books all aimed at writing:
   how to write novels, poems, stuff;
   what makes good writing;
   writing exercises;
   writers on writing;
   readers on writing;
   writing workshops; and,
   the craft of writing, including grammar like Strunk & White,  and Lynne Truss’s hilarious hit on grammer as well.
   And more.

As of the beginning of February, I am on a mission to actually read and write my way through all these books. I am also on a mission to use and fill some of the more than half dozen journals I have been given (or, purchased in a weak moment).   I have, ’til now, saved my journals, thinking each one should be dedicated to something particular. Pooh. They sit there looking pretty, artsy, fat (which is a good thing in paper world) and patient. I am now responding to their siren call. Same with all the writing books whose presence has, at least, been supportive if nothing else as they sit silently on the shelf near my writing table.
So, my mission began with a 6″x9″ journal (way too small, by the way) and with Pen on Fire by, um, well, you can see her name in the picture above, and while I enjoyed it, partly for the aesthetics because the book’s paper and font were both above average and the cover not so bad and the author’s tone nice and upbeat, still I found it a bit more for beginners. 

She writes well-named chapters and plenty of them with titles including “Writing Like There’s No Tomorrow,” “Stolen Moments,” “Celebrate Your Otherness,” “Plot or Not,” “That Black Hole: TV,” and “Marketplace Madness.”  That’s just a smattering.

Each chapter has a bit of her in there (sometimes too much for me yet not that compelling although assuredly her life IS full of writing and writing moments but it’s the way she tells it that leaves me a bit uninspired). Each chapter has some lessons of sorts which are good and supportive, which is a HUGE reason that writers read about reading.

And then each chapter is followed by writing exercises.  These I found far too general, not accenting the craft but more abstract -general-silly-organizational bits like “go out and gather pieces of nature and write about them.” Well, not those words exactly, but those kinds of things.

So having finished this first book on my mission, I can say that I prefer the challenging exercises that John Gardner and even Natalie Goldberg will present. (I read them voraciously several years ago and then wrote following their exercises.) More focused, more pointed, more expecting something out of you. More about craft. More about charging ahead and writing and then looking back to find something in one’s writing wake.

So, I recommend Pen On Fire for those who need a little support , a bit of a push, a very wee bit of an idea, and who are maybe just starting out with writing, whether in journaling or blogging. I didn’t find anything new here. No, I’m not jaded or negative. I’m just saying. Oh, and she did point me to yet another book about writing that I hadn’t heard of before – definitely a great thing.

Still, following some of her suggestions (cuz I skipped more than half of them), I am filling up that little 6×9 inch journal .  

Next: I will choose another journal and have already chosen the book which will be Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away (her most recent – maybe three years old?) iand will see how things roll or change or move following its exercises.

Stay tuned…


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§ 11 Responses to Reading writers…

  • Lisa D says:

    I have never written a book about writing. After blogging for nearly 2 years, I should pick one up & start working on some exercises. Blogging has definitely shown me that I really love to write but I definitely struggle to get my thoughts into eloquently written posts… So hopefully one of those books would help me!

    • oh says:

      Dear Lisa D, You are already doing the right thing – you are writing all the time. Which is the ultimate exercise. And you are finding and developing your own topics as you go. And you shine through every entry.And people read you.

      If you wanted to read a book on writing, it has to be one that you find helpful, funny, written by someone you enjoy listening to, or, at least believe. You might really enjoy Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD. She doesn’t offer up exercises though. Just good stuff on writing and well written. For exercises that at first glance seem banal but they really aren’t, you could try Natalie Goldberg’s WRITING DOWN THE BONES. It’s a nice book, short chapters, good points and some exercises that really open up the writing doors in a way (but not about grammar, syntax, etc.) Have a look.

      Above all, keep blogging. That’s your best “exercise.” And isn’t easier to do now than it was when you first started blogging?

  • typehype says:

    In this VERY small world we live in, I read your post, smiled, and agreed wholeheartedly with your assessment of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett! I haven’t read Pen on Fire, but would occasionally listen to her eponymous radio show out in L.A., via podcast download. 90% of the time, I was disappointed with the interview. I came to realize that it was the interview questions that were the problem. I know what you mean when you say she’s not pointed or focused. She tended to ask facile questions, like: When do you like to write? In the morning or the afternoon? That sort of drivel.

    To this day, my favorite books on writing (and, like you, I have a shelves of them!) are still “The Situation and The Story” (Vivian Gornick) and “Artful Sentences: Syntax and Style” (Virginia Tufte) — in case you haven’t read them and have a little space left to cram them into your shelves!

    • oh says:

      Dear T,

      And so you’ve heard DeMarco-Barrett’s radio show? She mentions it often in her book. It seems to be the basis for allowing her to write the book on writing.


      … I am telling myself that if I finish two things this morning, I can dash to the library (just as a gesture) and then to the bookstore looking for your abovementioned titles. No! I don’t have them but am now itching to see them, page through and purchase?! The Gornick one for sure, but no, Tufte’s as well! How have the escaped my shelf? I am so glad to know of them. It’s like when you hear a song you’ve never heard and you love it and you say, how do they keep coming up with another song, working with the same 8 notes over and over? And so there are more worthy books on writing yet to be discovered – yay, I say!
      Here’s to the enduring beauty of art and having the (book)sources that help to study its various crafts. Thanks for the recommends.

  • Linda says:

    I have such a shelf. Have I done the exercises? No, but you’ve inspired me to give it a shot.

  • seachanges says:

    Aahh yes, books on writing, and essays on writing and podcasts on writing. Like you, I have a shelf full of them and even ‘did’ the creative writing course by the OU, a couple of years back. The best thing is to find time to write and actually do it. I.e. give up finding excuses as to why I haven’t got the time to do it. No, I really have not got the time / energy / inspiration at the right time (etc. etc) to sit down or ly down or whatever and WRITE… 🙂 One of these days, I keep telling myself, one of these days when I give up work, retire, whatever. But you are so right – whatever you write, whenever, it’s all helpful, including blogging, the odd notes in your notebook, etc. I’d love to see the range of notebooks you have lying around! And I’m sure you are a much more faithful writer than many of us! Keep at it!

  • jeanie says:

    Wow — I’m impressed. That is far more focused than on my intermittent way to cook my way through a variety of cookbooks (or at least one or two new dishes a month!). That’s dedication in pursuit of your craft, your art, your work and that’s pretty impressive.

    I appreciate the review of the book and also the dialogue in the comments. I look forward to hearing more!

  • oh says:

    thanks, Jeanie. I’m off to do my 10-minute exercises from Goldberg’s book. Now, why can’t I be that committed to doing a fitness workout? Phew. Must figure that one out.

  • Carrie says:

    Why don’t I write more? It really is my great love. I feel normal when I write. Well…at least like I’m not on the ledge.

    I too have read several of the aforementioned books and each has been inspiring in its own way, but I’m sad that I don’t have my weekly writing group anymore. To actually write with others is magical (as long as its a safe environment). My blank journals are staring back at me saying, why did you buy me (…and the new pen, and The Pocket Muse) if you’re not going to use me?!

    Ugh! Glad to know so many others struggle with similar issues!

  • Barbara says:

    Sorry you’re unhappy with my book and my show
    Sounds like you listened to only one show because that question you quoted doesn’t even sound like me. Give it another chance?

    • oh says:

      Dear Barbara, I am totally delighted you stopped by to leave a comment.
      So glad to meet you.
      PEN ON FIRE stays, absolutely, in my office!
      And I have to see what else you’ve writte. It’s all about connecting.

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