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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Books on Writing

Some artists who are interested, like I am, in reading about process -- in the case of literature these are books on writing. For the interested here is a brief list of what to get and what to avoid.

On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner

These two make up a library. The first is highly inspirational. It discusses the life and growth of the writer. The second gets more into the nuts and bolts of writing. Gardner was a great writer who although somewhat romantic/modernist in slant, can be trusted.

Believe it or not, Stephen King whose flippantly suspenseful novels can never sit on the top shelf, actually wrote a decent book on writing, titled appropriately enough, On Writing. It's really two books in one, but what it says is fun and enlightening. I always wish he would just hide out and focus, and like J.D. Salinger maybe take a well crafted book into the bank vault every four years.

The Sound on the Page, Ben Yagoda
This one is fascinating, focusing on the necessity for a unique voice, called style -- in fact he says this is one of the most important elements in writing. I recall the Hemingway line, something about how we can either compete in the style of dead writers or invent something new.

Other interesting books include: Fiction Writer's Handbook, (Hallie and White Burnett), Self Editing for Fiction Writers, (Renni Browne and Dave King), The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, (Writer's Digest). None are particularly great, but they are interesting in parts.

Now for the BAD and the bad is very very bad.

Topping the list has to be Natalie Goldbert. Writing Down the Bones is probably the worst book on writing I've ever seen. It's a collection of anectodes mixed with contradictory advice (write at home, no write in a cafe) (Decorate your home office, but not too much then you might not feel comfortable.) (When writing in a restaurant don't take the free refill). Her points are I study Zen therefore you can be a decent writer. Don't try to be a good writer, just do a lot. Well quantity does not make quality, and her book proves it. At one point she even has a desk dancing with a bride's mother. Terrible writer, dumptrucks full of junk.

Lawrence Block on Writing. Ugh! Another horrific book that is a collection of his self aggrandizing rambles once published in Writer's Digest or similar magazine. Do you need to know that writing fiction means imagining? Well if that surprised you, you might just like this trash.

Writing Themes About Literature, E.V.. Roberts -- Whatever information is in this book is so general and known as to be forgettable. It was only three or four weeks ago and I don't remember a single element in it, but my notes say "blah." In contrast I remember Gardner's work nearly verbatim.

Slightly off track and not worth buying is Twyla Tharp's new book on creativity. For those who don't recognize her name, she headed up a dance company in NYC. Lots of junk in this one. But there is a gem too -- for two reasons, it dismisses myth and it is aligned with what I've been saying for years. Mozart, had a genius for remembering musical passages. It is said that he could hear a concert, go home, and recreate the entire piece from memory. And he could play piano. But he didn't have a natural genius with composition. (Many researchers have said this, they cite early works that were rehashings of works by his contemporaries.) What I say, and Tharp says, is that his real genius came from hard hard work. His fingers were deformed by aged 30 from playing piano so much. There was intense competition in his family to be good, etc. Read that part (in fact portions are on the net.)

Happy new year, enjoy and keep writing.