Go Read a Book, or Why I Almost Never Write About Writing

I get a real kick out of teaching writing workshops. Not just because I get to meet interesting new people, but because I get to spend the weeks leading up to it trying to figure out (again and again) how to teach people to write.

Sometimes I forget how to write. It’s kind of like when I first learned how to ride a bike. I’d be riding along, just fine, but then I would realize ohmygod! I’m riding a bike–without training wheels. And so I’d have to stop for a minute and catch my breath and go through the process of setting up the pedals, balancing, etc. all over again.

Yesterday, I was working on a chapter, and I suddenly got very, very worried. I read over the last few lines I’d written, and I didn’t recognize them as anything, well, readable. I dared not continue. I had to confirm that it was at least in the same language as other authors were writing in, that it looked the same, that–if it didn’t compare favorably to the work of a writer I admire and hope to emulate–it at least compared. (Good news. It did. I went back to work.)

How in the world does one teach such a thing?

Writing is taught by writers like my brilliant husband, Pinckney, and other esteemed faculty in creative writing programs. Also by commercial workshop writers–often authors like CJ Lyons and Margie Lawson and Bob Mayer teach day or week-long workshops. One can learn from how-to books and blogs (like the one by Alexandra Sokoloff, who really knows her stuff–pay attention, writers!). Writing advice and how-to is so prevalent on the Internet, in fact, that I’ve come to be very, very grateful that I started writing long before all that information was so casually available. Every time I turn on Twitter, I’m overwhelmed by the number of thought-provoking links on how-to-write and for whom and how to publish and how to develop characters and setting and how to develop characters within their settings and how to make sure their dialogue sounds authentic, and, and, and…..

For the truly curious, I recommend two books: Stephen King’s On Writing, and Patricia Highsmith’s How to Plot Mystery and Suspense Fiction. King’s book is fun. He is a superb storyteller and the autobiographical bits illustrate how misfittedness can make a writer. He also has some hands-on lessons and examples. All useful. Highsmith–well, in true Highsmith fashion, she says what she means very plainly. And you think you understand it, but then you think about it and realize she’s said a lot. The book is eccentric and specifically about her writing methods. Very intimate, yet not. She has a this-worked-for-me attitude. It worked very well for her, indeed.

Early on, I took a few writing workshops and did an independent study or two. But the most beneficial lessons I received were all from books. Not how-to books, but novels, short stories, and histories and biographies and memoirs by many hundreds of different people. I learned to write by internalizing rhythms and mimicking. Learning new words and being particular about my choices. Read poetry for the language, crimes and mysteries for plots, read children’s books for imagination, read memoirs for character secrets, read histories and cultural anthropology for background subtleties. And don’t forget cereal boxes and gossip websites, too. (Two of my favorites)

If you want to write, I strongly recommend that you do the same. At an actual workshop, we talk about books and do challenging writing exercises and discuss plot, character, setting, etc. But a writer who is a true reader already knows all that stuff. He or she just needs permission to implement it. And that’s what I’m here for. Permission. It’s the best thing I could ever give you.

But some of you will insist on rules. Definitions. Something you can post on the wall above your desk. (My sign is “Progress Not Perfection”) Okay. Here’s what Kurt Vonnegut says about writing short stories. I think his rules definitely apply to novels as well.

Happy reading, and writing, if you will.

6 thoughts on “Go Read a Book, or Why I Almost Never Write About Writing”

  1. carmar76 says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more about learning all you need to know about writing by reading! Though I do really enjoy writing workshops & creative writing classes. I think those are good for exercising your creative muscles anyway. : )

  2. The King book is essential. I frankly HATE being asked how to write. For all my alleged ability to string words together, when I attempt to explain how I do it, the words fail me. Thanks for this excellent post!

  3. Jeff Abbott says:

    Agree that the King and Highsmith books are superb. The other one I always recommend is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming A Writer, I think written in the 1930s. Excellent on learning how to manage one’s time, on looking at the world with fresh eyes, on inculcating creativity on a regular basis.

  4. One of the things I love about the writing workshop I attend is that we DO write, right there in workshop. It’s a great motivator because it gets the creative juices flowing and then, once I’m back home, I want to continue whatever I’ve started.

    Great post, Laura.

  5. JT Ellison says:

    I haven’t read the Highsmith book yet, I’ll need to add that my my post Christmas purchases.

    Excellent thesis though – I’m in complete agreement. I can’t imagine sifting through all the advice now. Especially since I do enjoy a moment of “what the hell am I doing?” every once in a while.

  6. Carrie–My workshops are almost exclusively exercises followed by a workshopping of what everyone has written. The time flies in a really good way.

    Alex–I’m so with you. The HOW eternally escapes me. The first thing I ask someone who wants to know how to write is, “Have you sat down to try it?” The surprising answer is often no, oddly enough.

    Jeff–I’ll definitely check out the Brande book. Time management is a huge problem for me and I’m always curious how some writers manage to accomplish so much and still have a life.

    Julie–I’m so pleased you continue to be part of a group that you work with and trust. It is so awfully energizing, isn’t it? Glad to hear from you!

    JT–It’s on its way to you. You’ll fly through it and want to read it again in a few weeks.

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