Anne's anecdotes are helping me get to know her and making her a rounded character in my mind. Both women have self-deprecating, funny, endearing styles that make themselves into interesting characters I love spending time with. Just like most people find in a good novel, I'm enjoying my time in Bird by Bird more so today as I read the second half and feeling like I'm getting to know Anne along the way. I've been hoping to learn to be a better writer from this book, but that doesn't seem to be Anne's aim. She likes to focus more on learning what it's like to be a writer, and adjusting one's expectations about the process, the craft, and the business.
She says, for instance, "seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: Anne's aiming squarely at the same type of people who attend her workshops, groups of people who "want agents, and to be published". I wonder if I would have taken more from the book if I'd read it earlier—perhaps when I was still in school, or getting ready to start my first writing job.
Before starting the book I read the blurb and all the quotes on the front and back covers. I read this one: I've set myself a goal of half a book per day. This should get me through 5 books in 10 days. Robin's focus is on three types of immersion writing: I hadn't realised "immersion writing" was a thing before I picked up this book, but reading the blurb I realised it was spot on for the type of writing I like to read and want to start doing myself.
By around 4pm I haven't quite finished the first half, but I'm tired so I take a nap on the couch. After my nap I have a quick shower to wash off the stickiness of the warm day. In the shower I write a paragraph or so in my mind for a book I have the vaguest ideas about. It's something that's hazy in my mind—a foggy apparition that's slowly getting closer as I uncover more details about what it might look like. Anne's polaroid metaphor comes to mind here, though I'm reluctant to admit it has any merit.
I'm sure Anne will forgive me for thinking her idea is silly at the same time as I'm learning to use it myself. Standing outside the shower wrapped in a towel I muse on the "writing" I just did in my head. It's not unusual that I would rehearse an email response or a conversation in the shower, but this was different. The writing was so rich and full of rhythm that even as the words came to me I didn't recognise it as my own writing.
All day I've been bumping into Josh around the house, as I'm wont to do when we're both at home working and taking our various little breaks throughout the day. Each time he ventures downstairs for a drink or to step outside into the courtyard he finds me in a different position: Each time Josh appears he asks how I'm doing. When I say "fine" he says, "But have you learned anything yet?
I've been highlighting stuff, I say. I've picked up some good quotes. I've added a bunch of books to my reading list. I've read some good examples of great writing. Josh frowns and looks at me intently, as if I'm holding back the truth. I think about it, but I can never come up with much.
2. Quit altogether
It seems like, maybe, I just won't get any practical writing tips from these books. Perhaps you can't write practical advice about the writing process itself. Maybe I'm looking for something that can't be found in a book. And then I'm standing in the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, exploring the writing I just crafted in my head in the shower, and I realise my mistake. Whether or not you can write practical advice about the banalities of the writing process in a book, I don't know. Whether they'd be applicable to me as someone who's not new to the process of writing but wants to stretch myself and improve my craft, I'm even less sure.
But whether you can improve your writing through immersing yourself in the books of the best teachers available I realise is absolutely true.
Simply by exposing myself to wonderful writing, great examples of the craft, honest accounts of the writing process that speak to me with finesse and polish so the words sink in is my education. My writing is improving through osmosis. I'm picking up on how to craft a better sentence, how to reach a reader, how to employ language to the best of my ability. I'm taking it all in, even if I can't highlight it on the page. And although it seems bizarre to spend hours reading every day so I can breeze through 4 books in just over a week, perhaps that is exactly what will make this project work so well.
I'm prone as any young, green writer is to adopting the style of a writer I admire. Reading a book—or several—can imbue my brain with the style of another author so much that it comes out in my work, but it doesn't last. It's not my style. It's not my voice. In fact, my voice becomes buried under the superficial trimmings of that writer's style, which are, after all, all that I've been able to take from them and apply to my work.
Being inspired by someone else can so easily become a mask, or a shiny bow to put on my own work, rather than something deeper that truly changes my own style. But perhaps in reading so many authors in quick succession, I'll be lucky enough to pick up their lessons without any one style overtaking my own. Right now I can feel that the style of what I'm writing isn't quite mine. And yet, it isn't quite anyone else's, either. It isn't the style of Robin Hemley, who I've spent many hours with today. It isn't the style of Anne Lamott, with whom I spent the past two days.
But it's a little bit of each of them, in a way. Today Robin's making me feel even more excited about pursuing immersion writing. He's helping me grasp more concrete ideas of the different types of immersion writing I've been flirting with, and work out which ones suit me best. I like the idea of personal experiments, which Robin's had his own experience with. He wrote a magazine article once about his experience going back to summer camp in his 40s. The article later became a chapter in a book Robin wrote, covering various experiments of "do overs" from his childhood.
I'm getting the feeling Robin's a pretty fun guy to be around. He's also incredibly respectful—even reverent—of his fellow authors. One of whom, A. Jacobs, comes up often as we discuss the experiment approach to immersion writing. An experiment for a book obviously needs to be a lot bigger than one for a single magazine article, but they both need to have one thing in common, according to Robin: Robin talks at length about making your reader care about your experiment.
Belle Beth Cooper
These type of books seems like gimmicks, and are sometimes called "schtick lit", he says, because they all risk being gimmicky. The only thing saving an experiment from being a gimmick is what's at stake. The writer also needs to choose something difficult, Robin says. No one really wants to read about an easy quest. He presses the points about difficulty and putting something at stake firmly but kindly, and they stick with me as I think about what I might write in the future.
Robin also helps me come up with an exciting read: When I was 15 I lived in Oklahoma for a year as an exchange student. During that year I lived on a goat farm, got kicked off the goat farm, moved in with two people I grew to love dearly, joined a Baptist church, considered suicide, went to Prom, and took up my first paid writing job. Halfway through the year I was desperate to go home to Australia. By the time the year was up I was desperate to stay. I'd love to go back to Oklahoma for a year and explore what's changed in the people I know there in the past 12 years, what's changed about me, and try to get back into the mindset of myself at 15 in a foreign country on the other side of the world.
Robin tells me what's involved in putting together a book proposal. This is helpful practically, but it also shows me how big an undertaking it is just to write a proposal. Luckily he assures me I don't have to have a publisher before I start writing. He wrote a book about his sister without having a publisher onboard, and says it made more sense in that case to sell to a publisher after the book was done, as he was able to write it at his own pace and in the way he felt comfortable. He says this rule applies to more than just his experience: I like the sound of the no-proposal approach, but I also know I'm looking at a big undertaking and a book advance might help make it happen.
Robin goes into more detail than Anne did though I enjoyed Anne's honest anecdotes about burning through her book advances while trying to salvage a manuscript her editor wouldn't accept. Robin says magazines can take months to pay, and often won't pay enough to even break even when you count expenses and your time. He also says not to hold out for a big book advance, because even if you're lucky enough to get one unlikely , you're then under pressure to earn even more from your book when it's published, or risk not being able to get another book contract in the future.
It's good to remember that if I want to do more traditional writing, I'll probably be giving up a good chunk of the salary I get for doing content marketing. I've spent almost two days with Robin now, and his use of his own work as examples is starting to wear on me. His book Do-Over about redoing embarrassing moments from his childhood sounds fun, and makes for useful examples of how to pitch a book proposal and how to develop an essay or book from an experiment.
But Invented Eden , a book about the disputed history of the remote Tasady tribe, is clearly Robin's pride and joy. He's brought this book up so many times I'm starting to feel like I don't even need to read it to know what it's all about. He's also made at least three references so far to that one time he was held at gunpoint while researching the book. Okay, Robin, I get it. And maybe a bit foolhardy. Give it a rest, already. So far the combination of Robin's Field Guide and Bird by Bird have helped me rekindle my love of reading, and of reading physical books in particular.
I've enjoyed marking up the pages, taking photos of my favourite quotes to share, and shuffling through the marked pages to find an apt quote later. I've also started to feel a connection to writers in general, through the conduits of these two authors in particular. I've nodded along as they've described why they write, how they write, and how to do it best. It's confirmed my bias that writing is cool, and noble, and worth spending my time on.
Day one with Stephen King. I'm not looking forward to spending time with another fiction writer, but this book is so commonly recommended for writers that I have high hopes it'll be worth my time. I also heard from a content marketing peer of mine recently who said he got a lot from On Writing despite the fiction focus. Fingers crossed I'll feel the same. Once I get through the many forewards what book needs three forewards? Somehow I'd missed that the review on the front cover from the Guardian says " Part biography , part collection of tips for the aspiring writer" emphasis mine.
So the first or so pages are actually memoir. Memoir in the sense of disjointed blobs of memory detailing various events from Stephen's life. Over time Steve talks more about his development as a writer and his career—and this is actually interesting. I've enjoyed these kind of anecdotes from both Anne and Robin so far, and I don't mind being given some insight into what the making of Stephen King was like.
And Steve certainly has a knack for telling fun stories. His anecdotes are sometimes funny, sometimes memorable. But by the time I'm done with this section I'm really hankering for some writing advice. That's what I'm here for, after all. Gimme the good stuff, Steve. After the biography section surprised me by being more entertaining than I expected, the rest of the book is a massive let-down. But not for the reason I'd expected. When I finally start the main chunk of the book, titled "On Writing", I actually get what I wanted from this project for the first time: Only it's not all it's cracked up to be.
I thought I wanted someone to tell me how to write. I thought practical advice would help me create better prose. Maybe it's me, and my ideas are all wrong, or I've been disillusioned by my day three epiphany that I'm becoming a better writer by imbuing excellent writing and feeling as if I have great mentors on my side. Or maybe it's Stephen's approach. He disappoints me by homing in on the specific, picky details of writing. The grammar, the spelling, the phrasing.
He's a big fan of William Strunk, famous for writing The Elements of Style , and quotes the book often. Prescriptivists tend to be angry and forceful over something unnecessary. Strunk, for instance, is famous for saying "omit needless words", which Steve draws attention to.
5 books, 10 days: my DIY writing education
Granted, this is a useful guide for any writer. On the other hand, Strunk and his co-author, one E. White, call foul on a variety of words they disapprove of, which I doubt Steve would agree shouldn't be used today. Claim , for instance, according to Strunk and White can be used in terms of claiming a piece of land, but not to assert the truth of a statement—i.
I can't claim that The Elements of Style is a load of nonsense on stilts. The two also forbid the use of hopefully in a sentence like "Hopefully it will arrive tomorrow". They also create these rules arbitrarily, according to their own whims and fancies. Like many prescriptivists, Strunk and White believe writing is correct only when it adheres to their personal set of grammatical rules. Prescriptivists tend to be upset that language is changing, forever thinking language was at its height of "correct" usage when they were in school, and has been declining ever since people have been using that argument since And Strunk's popularity among writers and teachers forcing prescriptivist ideas on their students only turned me further off him.
So every time Steve quotes Strunk I shudder a little. When Steve says Strunk's rules in The Elements of Style are "offered with a refreshing strictness", he sums up exactly what turns me off On Writing. Being more of a descriptivist myself, I believe there's no point in fighting the natural evolution of spoken English, which in turn informs the rules for our written language.
Steve goes on to cite this example: Personally I believe there's no right answer to this conundrum, and it simply comes down to a style issue. Not to mention Steve doesn't bother to bring up the difference between adding a possessive s to a singular word or a plural. I tend to think execution means writing that's readable, clear, and enjoyable to read. Writing well doesn't necessarily mean writing correctly. I hate Stephen King. What am I doing? I've wasted three days struggling through the first half because I'd planned to finish every book I started for this project, regardless of how much I enjoyed them.
Outside the project I'm more ruthless than most people about not finishing books I don't enjoy. I'd rather spend my reading time having fun and learning than struggling through what feels like a chore. Today is Sunday, so I potter about the house doing errands, housework, and finding other ways to procrastinate while Steve glares at me from the corner of the room. I struggle through a couple more pages but every time I pick up the book I feel so tired I just have to have another nap When Josh sees me staring at Steve's book, hoping the words will somehow make it into my brain without my actually putting in any effort, he asks how it's going.
I rant about how much I hate Stephen King and how this was a stupid project idea in the first place. Josh says simply, "stop reading it then". Of course I'd thought of that already. I just didn't have the guts to give up on Steve until Josh suggested it. Sure, says Josh, read the next book in the stack.
5 Unconventional Ways to Become a Better Writer (Hint: It’s About Being a Better Reader)
As if it's no big deal, he wanders off as I dash upstairs to find the next book waiting to be read, relief dripping off me. Today I spend hours with Jack Hart, author of Storycraft. After the frustration of spending the past three days with Stephen King or, more accurately, avoiding SK while pretending I'm paying attention to him , I'm looking forward to a change.
Jack's a former managing editor of the Oregonian who played writing coach to several Pulitzer Prize winners. I'm keen to get his advice on the journalistic side of writing narrative nonfiction. At first we focus on storytelling heavily, which is a breath of fresh air. I've barely touched on storytelling fundamentals throughout this project, and hadn't even realised they could be applied to nonfiction until Jack brings them up. Jack posits that storytelling is such a fundamental part of human nature that we can't afford to ignore it, even if we're writing nonfiction.
The myriad ways we use story to cope with the world make it hard to imagine that narrative isn't part of our fundamental nature. Jack also points out research has shown "that narrative delivers a clearer message to the majority of readers, and that readers prefer narrative presentations. We're suckers for stories, and Jack insists nonfiction writers need to take this to heart. He starts by summarising the essence of a story as simply as he can. At its most basic, Jack says, "a story begins with a character who wants something, struggles to overcome barriers that stand in the way of achieving it, and moves through a series of actions—the actual story structure—to overcome them.
As the day wears on, Jack explores each element of story in more depth. Action is the one he drills the hardest. Stories are about action, he says. Action moves a story forward. His examples tend to come from newsrooms, where he's gathered most of his experience. A cop chasing a criminal is an example he keeps coming back to. It's a useful example that illustrates his points, but its continued use reinforces my growing concern that Jack's principles don't apply to my style of writing.
I'm not reporting on people getting lost at sea or a lady who nearly died in a flood. There's no existing story to pull together into a narrative. I'm creating a narrative based on experiences—my own experiments, or varied experiences pulled together by a common thread. It's beginning to feel very different to the style of writing Jack's trying to teach me to be good at.
As I get further into the journalistic weeds with Jack, he starts to focus on the idea of scenes.
He's talking about narrative nonfiction like it's a movie on the page, with camera angles, points of view, and scene after scene of action. He even uses terminology taken from videographers, like "jump cuts". I have no problem with an analogy, but Jack is pushing this movie angle too far for my comfort. He wants me to zoom in, pan the camera, and look down from high above. He wants me to plan my story like a movie; a storyboard made up of scenes that move the action forward.
I keep thinking about how I'll write this essay about my reading project, and I can't shake the feeling that Jack's style just doesn't fit. I stop reading just shy of halfway. I'm not looking forward to slogging through the upcoming chapters on action, theme, and dialogue tomorrow.
- Heart of Hurts.
- My Lonely, Fear Driven Life.
- Lost Heart (Hearts Book 2).
- The Life and Most Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe;
- 1. Skip sections.
I last less than an hour with Jack today. I procrastinate most of my morning away in-between one- or two-page reading blocks. I'm bored and frustrated with the lack of relatability in his book, but having given up on Stephen two days ago I'm reluctant to not finish a second book in the stack. Sometimes all you need is permission from someone else to do what you wanted to all along. Late in the morning I whine to Josh about how much Jack's book is dragging. He immediately suggests I move on to a new book. I think the fact that he didn't choose any of these books helps him be more objective about my not finishing them.
He never pushes me to finish a book I'm not into, but he's decidedly more reluctant to suggest I give one up if he suggested I read it in the first place. I spend a happy half hour browsing the Kindle store what better way to take my mind off hard work than shopping? Phillip's focusing on personal essays, which checks two big boxes: Everyone else so far has focused on books, and to a lesser extent, magazine articles. Not only is Phillip ready to dish the dirt on writing personal essays, he's clearly in love with the form.
We consume much more than we create, we read much more than we think, and it should be the other way around. We have to make sure we consume the things that truly matter to us, but only so that we have time to create something that matters to someone else. One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. Scarcely any one lives wisely or fully. Reading is meant to be a fun activity. Of course, when I did start giving fiction stories and biographies the time of day, I realized not only how good they are, but how much I can learn from them as well.
There was a time in my life when I read voraciously, and then again times when work did not permit me to take a single book in my hand, apart from professional literature. That was a shame. Here in recent months I have been reading a lot, even books which probably would not interest me outside, but it is a big and important task to read everything valuable, or at least much that is.
Nicholas Sparks writes that all writers should read, and shows how useful his varied reading habits have been:. Second, you must read, and read a lot. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation.
I came across this post by Shane Parrish recently that explains a trick to getting more out of the books you read. While on the flight to Omaha, he was reading. He took notes on the material itself, and every time he completed a chapter he pulled out a sheet of white paper and wrote a single page summary on what he had just read. He places the paper in another folder. This is how he gets his learning deeper and this also enables him to refer to summaries in the future. This helps you to test your comprehension and give your brain a chance to assimilate the information before you continue reading.
Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them]. Before I take pen to paper, I read.
These usually go into the Swedish journal, except for the occasional sentence that shimmers on its own, and then it goes into the handmade Vermonter. I move to Proust; three pages read in English, the same three in French. Then I turn to my journal, where I feel free to write whatever narcissistic nonsense comes into my head.
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
5 books, 10 days: my DIY writing education
We love to share our recreational activities. We love to have an opinion on everything, including what we read. If what you read makes you angry, or sad, or frustrated, or whatever—use that. Finding something you care about is worth cherishing. This will make your brain work really hard, as you analyze their ideas and form your own in response. It can even take place as marginalia —the notes and marks we make in the margins of our books.
Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.