What would compel a woman (described by some as in the “twilight of her career” although I would like to point out that in certain countries twlight can last a very long time and is often considered the most fabulous time of the day, not that I am bitter or defensive, not at all) — anyway, as I was saying, what would compel such a woman sitting in a comfortable chair in her own home in the quiet of a winter afternoon to start shouting “WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!” like a nut?
Yet another bad book about writing, that’s what.
Bad books about writing are seductive, stupid, condescending, ignorant, expensive, and plentiful enough to make anybody sink into despair. Especially if anybody reads a few of them in a row as anybody prepares for her nonfiction creative writing course.
I bought stacks of such books; dozens of them I got from the library. Several I requested from interlibrary loan. Two of them were loaned to me by more experienced teachers.
Maybe four of them proved both useful and interesting. Two out of these are ones I borrowed.
Hey, it’s good to follow advice — from the right people.
Often those writing the advice books about writing aren’t the right people.
Often, it seems, they are authors whose primary accomplishment lies in telling others that lighting candles around a desk can act as a catalyst for constructing either poetry or prose. From this advice the nascent writer should run away — fast. Candles are nice at dinner parties and early in relationships before you are afraid to face one another in the light. Candles offer light, which is different from illumination.
Some bad books about writing offer about as much illumination as you’d get from a used match.
Many of them have titles like The Artist’s Diary of Hidden Potential for Writing From The Secret Heart of Your Inner Home or The Journaling Notebook for Divining Maps of Creative Inspiration From the Wellspring of Personal Memoir Narrative. Most recently, a genre best identified as the If That Slob of An Author Makes Big Bucks, So Can You! school of writing instruction is also taking up a lot of room on the shelves.
What’s wrong with these books? What do they tell readers about writing?
They make it seem as if “feng shui” is more significant than spellcheck. As if “digging into the garden that is your soul” is more important than making a deadline. As if “forging a community of like-minded writers with who (sic) you feel comfortable sharing your work” is more crucial than syntax.
As if having an idea is more important than the way you choose to express it.
Sure, the idea driving any piece of work is important. But when the idea is “good triumphs over evil,” “sadness adds character to an otherwise nondescript individual,” “I used to drink, smoke, and drive around in a Volkswagen bus,” the concept itself doesn’t matter as much as how the story is presented.
That’s why you cannot copyright an idea. Or a title, for that matter. A work is defined not by the intention behind it — or the title, or the design of cover around it — but by the words constructing it. There’s a chemical reaction when you put words on a page, a specific reaction. Words and the spaces between them (never ignore the spaces between them) are hand-picked and so put into an equation as particular, as original, and as potentially explosive as E=mc2.
The worst part about bad books on writing is the promise that everyone can do it. They make it sound as if a room of one’s own — if you throw in a couple of candles — is enough to create a writer. It isn’t true. Put a person in a soundproof room with a violin and she doesn’t automatically play Vivaldi. Silence and space are not enough. Education, experience, and hard work make a difference. Understanding, loving, and respecting what others have accomplished helps. Above all, reading is what matters.
Good books about writing? Yes, they do exist. Tell me your favorites and I’ll tell you about mine in a later post.