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It’s All So Simple if One Goes for a Concentration of Taste

May 4, 2010

Literary great James Baldwin

Reader Requested Post!

Do you ever read books about writing? If so, which ones (if any) have you found useful?

Short answer: Not as much as I used to.

You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world….The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way…people look at reality, then you can change it.

James Baldwin

My literary yearnings began as a result of reading and having parents who loved literature; not by picking up books on the subject of writing. While I’d rather not be prescriptive regarding their use, I will say they have not been particularly helpful to me. That isn’t to suggest they haven’t been helpful at all, but in terms of shaping my writing craft they haven’t had much impact.

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.

James Baldwin

Reading great writers and terrible writers has given me far more rigorous writing instruction than the ten minute timed writing exercises I do every morning.

Now I have tried all kind of writing books – that’s how I know they don’t work for me – and I’m sure there are great ones out there, which might benefit me. But ultimately anything that keeps me from actually putting thoughts on the page or screen is really not going to appeal to me.

Have I found some gems in the few manuals I’ve read? Yeah. Here they are:

  • Take a media holiday. I find this great when I’m doing more reading, archiving, researching, analysis than actual writing. A week usually does the trick.
  • Write stories modeling craft elements observed in work you enjoy. I love doing this! It’s a lot easier to isolate story elements when you try to recreate them rather than having someone tell you what they are. It’s that whole “teach you to fish” thing.
  • If a subject close to you makes you terribly uncomfortable you should probably be writing about it.
  • It’s not the most talented who end up being successful, but the ones who write, aren’t unbearable (as writers) and who meet their deadlines who become successful. I’ve heard this sentiment both uttered in disgust and stated pragmatically.
  • Be kind while drafting and cruel while editing.
  • If it sounds familiar someone else already said it and quite memorably.
  • Every writer is writing what they believe is their “truth”, even the bad ones. Honor that about them. Few actively seek to write a terrible work. Honor that too.

But at the end of day all those manuals stress one thing – discipline. The thing that no book can teach you. A skill you develop – if you’re committed – with some bitterness watching others around you doing fun things while you sit at home or in your car or at some cafe writing about people doing fun things. Pretty much all those books have taught me is that if you just don’t feel like writing your truth you can always write down the best tricks to do so for other who might be inclined to try. It’s still writing, so I guess there’s something to be said for that.

Or as Erika Lopez said:

Really, I want to get this individualistic-thing down. I want to walk across the football field alone without looking like the last one picked to play soccer. I never was a cheerleader, I was a slut on my own with the thinking that if a tree has a good time and no one’s around to hear it, it’s not a slut. But sometimes you do need another tree around to double-dare you, or else you might end up doing nothing but watching TV when no one’s around.

I’m pretty certain you can learn a lot more from this quote alone than all the conflicting theories housed between the pages of all those writing guides.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2010 5:56 pm

    Every writer is writing what they believe is their “truth”, even the bad ones.

    I noticed this during the last NaNoWriMo, pertaining to me as well as many other aspiring authors of the unseasoned variety. You are very generous of spirit.

  2. hsofia permalink
    May 4, 2010 6:51 pm

    How does the saying go? There’s nothing to do but the doing. Thanks for keeping it real, per usual.

  3. May 5, 2010 12:34 am

    Oh man, I need to come here and read this every week. Or print it out and post it on my wall.

    The part about the discipline: YES. Now to get through my head and make it stick.

  4. lemonadeandlemoncake permalink
    May 8, 2010 3:33 am

    i have a quote from Ned Vizzini, author of my very very very favorite book It’s Kind of A Funny Story, once said that you shouldn’t write a book when you’re young because it takes an immense amount of discipline. so true! haha. i have about 3 serious attempts at novels, just sitting there half done. well, two actually. yeah, two.

    one that i am still interested in. lately i have the dedication to write fan fiction, and that’s really it. there’s a short story i need to do a draft on. but i love writing fan fiction because you get creative liberty and you can post it on wordpress because really? who is going to steal it. really?

    gee i am rambling.

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