Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Heart and soul books on writing

Two of my favourite books on writing - Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (1995), and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (1986) - fall into a category I call ‘heart and soul’ books on writing rather than those that focus on the more technical aspects of craft.

Each of these books has kept my spirits up when my motivation was flagging, when the odds of finishing something, let alone sending it off somewhere in the hope that it might be published seemed (and seems) insurmountable, and when I get stuck in the middle of a piece of work and can’t find a way through.

I must have read Bird by Bird, cover to cover, at least four times and dipped into various chapters and sections countless more. Lamott is a truly funny writer, especially when she shares not just her insights on writing but her own experiences. One of the things she does that I particularly like is refuse to buy into that elitist attitude or tone you sometimes get in books (or in writing courses) where the published writer/tutor preens in front of the unpublished and uses the reader/student as a mirror to polish their own superior status – something I have, unfortunately, experienced more than once. Lamott is quite the opposite. She is warm, generous, full of emotion, and truthful – writing is work, unlike lying on the beach which is recreation. And although not a technical book, it is still full of practical suggestions, like the chapters on short assignments and plot.

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg is probably more well known – it is really a series of meditations on different aspects on writing, often interspersed with quotes from Katagiri Roshi, a Zen Master Goldberg studied with. Writing as a Practice is one of the chapters and provides insight into her teaching and writing attitude and focus. She is quite different in tone to Lamott, yet they share something precious in common – the ability to cut through pretence and ego, to talk about the process and the work, and to address the reader/student/writer with respect.

A couple of my favourite quotes from Goldberg:

“Don’t worry about your talent or capability: that will grow as you practice.” (p30)

“Be willing to look at your work honestly. If something works, it works. If it doesn’t, quit beating an old horse. Go on writing. Something else will come up. There’s enough bad writing in the world. Write one good line, you’ll be famous. Write a lot of lukewarm pieces, you’ll put people to sleep.” (p161)

Both books are available on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Trish and James, I've finally had a chance to read over Island Drafts. It's a great endeavour so keep up the awesome work. I might contribute something in 2011 if you're interested.