Book lovers never go to bed alone.
Confession time. Sometimes, I spend too much time reading about writing instead of just doing the work. Of course I know that there is no magic wand, and that the only way to be a writer is to actually (gasp!) write something. But still, the allure of the how-to or the how-I-did-it tome from an “expert” is hard for me to resist.
So, yes…the actual writing is an integral part of things. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be learned from the wisdom of others. My collection is extensive, but there are a few volumes that I return to, again and again. These are the books that I’m passionate about, the ones I want you to read too, so we can talk about them. These ones are my favourites.
1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. This one is a no-brainer. It was the first book I ever encountered that talked about how to be a writer, and I’ve read it more times than I can count. King’s style is conversational and friendly; I always come away from this one feeling as though I’ve just had the most incredible class with my favourite teacher.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.” – Stephen King
2. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. I think I’ve read this one annually since I discovered it, around five or six years ago. Again, I’m drawn to the voice — she’s nurturing, but doesn’t sugar-coat a damn thing. She wants us to do the work. Lamott encourages the aspiring writer to produce “shitty first drafts”, because you can’t edit an empty page. And also? Everyone, even the most successful, best-selling author on earth, starts with crap (well, except for a few truly obnoxious writers, who – she assures us – nobody likes, anyway). So why should we expect anything different from ourselves?
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” – Anne Lamott
3. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. & E.B. White. This one is on my list partly because it reminds me that there is so much I don’t know about grammar, but mostly because of passages like this:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” – Strunk & White
4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. Goldberg introduced me to the idea of “writing practice”. An athlete, she points out, warms up and trains hard, running his drills every day. A musician wouldn’t expect to perform flawlessly without hours and hours of scales under her belt. So why should writers be any different? Writing Down the Bones taught me how important it is to keep up a writing practice, and guided me on how to do it. The free-writing techniques outlined in this book have provided me with plenty of material over the years, and I return to the “I remember…” exercise during almost every writing project.
“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” – Natalie Goldberg
5. Do the Work! by Steven Pressfield. Fitting that I’d end the list here. This is the guy who kicks your ass and tells you to get down to business, already. He’s the one who tells you that, if you’re ready to run away, that’s just a sign that you’re doing it right, so you sure as hell better not quit now.
“Don’t prepare. Begin.” – Steven Pressfield
So. What are your favourite books on writing? I’m always looking for recommendations…
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain
I’ve been spending some time digging through my personal archives recently, re-reading old stories to see how they’ve aged while I wasn’t paying attention. On top of generating some new pieces, one of my goals this summer is to revisit (and revise) some older ones. If I’m going to take them out of storage and send them out into the world, I’ll want them to look their best.
As I pull tales out of the stacks and identify those I believe worthy of receiving a make-over, I shuffle the files into my “For Revision” folder and add a new item to my task list. Yes, I have some work to do. But in the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs from five stories, as they currently stand.
Margaret lay upon a tangle of plaid bedspread and nubby flannel sheets, as still and as quiet as a photograph. The bed was a twin, but seemed bigger; the empty space around her grew larger as she diminished.
The poster just inside the main entrance features four middle-aged guys decked out in jeans and cowboy hats: The Desperadoes, an Eagles tribute band. One Night Only! says the hand-lettered sign plastered across the corner of the billboard. Tickets $8 in advance, $10 at the door.
Shelly pushed the sand into piles with the bright blue shovel, made windows out of tiny pebbles and flagpoles with twigs and bits of grass. There were children on the other side of the playground, laughing and squealing, racing and tumbling like puppies in the grass. They made her dizzy, those children — vivid shapes dancing at the edge of her awareness. She shifted around to put them behind her in self-defense.
On the day Edward presented her with a brand new label-maker, Denise left a trail of dog-eared Post-it notes behind her in criss-crossing trails all through the house. She tossed them to the ground in a yellow and pink and blue over-sized confetti celebration. They said things like DISH SOAP and BANDAGES and SPOONS. They were replaced with white strips of plastic lined with solemn black letters.
A Saturday morning shift at Video Delight always started the same way, and today was no exception. After unlocking the door, I shoved the overnight drop box out of the way, dumped my belongings in a careless heap on the floor, and raced for the alarm. I had to move fast, and there was no margin for error.
Okay, I have a confession to make. That last one? It’s not actually finished yet. So if you’ll excuse me, I’d better be going now. I have some writing to do…
I wrote a novel once.
Well, not really. I wrote 50,000 sort of connected words that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m not sure I’d actually call it a “novel”, simply because it was basically an enormous piece of crap that will never (ever, ever, EVER) see the light of day.
It was my one and only experience with Nanowrimo, where people all around the world attempt to write a 50,000-word novel from beginning to end through the month of November, and while I freely admit that the finished product wasn’t exactly a literary masterpiece, there’s more than one way to define success. That November, I spent every spare moment of every day writing one continuous tale. It was an incredibly liberating experience. If you’re a writer, I highly recommend it.
In order to win, I had to make writing a regular (daily!) habit. But not only that, I couldn’t let my horribly judgmental (and, if I’m being honest, super bitchy) internal editor know what I was up to, or it never could have happened. After all, she’s the one who makes me second guess every comma. If I had let her stick her nose into things, I would never have made it past the first five pages.
On the last day of November, I typed “The End”. And then I stuck my horrible novel in a digital box and shoved it into a virtual closet. But what happened after is not the point. The point is, I finished. I finished despite that bitch looming over my shoulder, making me doubt myself.
I did it once. That means that I can do it again.
“We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
I have a confession to make. I am a closet fan of Marc & Angel Hack Life. This page offers “practical tips for productive living” in the form of short, inspirational articles. I recently acquired their audiobook, “1,000+ Little Things Happy Successful People Do Differently”, and I’ve been listening to it on my commute for the last couple of weeks. I’ve really enjoyed the experience – it’s been a little like having my own personal life coach giving me motivational pep talks on a daily basis.
Marc & Angel are big on cutesy phrases like When you appreciate what you have, what you have appreciates in value and If you cannot put your heart in it, take yourself out of it. Yeah, I know…corny, right? But give them a chance; I did.
One of their favourites, a saying they return to often, really resonated with me as I listened to the book: If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. Obvious, of course — but how often do you actually stop and consciously think about something like that? The answer, if you’re me, is not very often. So this past week, I’ve been trying to mindfully incorporate this concept into my life. Here are five ways I’ve attempted to do so.
So — as we’ve established, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting. I can’t wait to discover what changing what I’m doing will bring about.
Who wants to play Truth or Dare?
When we are young, this game is endlessly fascinating. For starters, there is the allure of discovering the deepest, darkest secrets of another (truth) or perhaps witnessing our friends doing things completely out of character (dare). But if we are honest with ourselves, knowing we risk these same things is the bigger thrill.
What experiences will we be forced to share — or to engage in? The rules of the game take the pressure off: we have no choice; we have to follow through and do things that, under normal circumstances, we would never even consider. It’s a free pass to do something well outside our comfort zone, and sometimes we need that.
This past Saturday, I turned off the light and settled into bed just after midnight. I usually drift off fairly quickly, but I’d overloaded on caffeine and my brain was buzzing with thoughts, plans, and ideas — so sleep was slow to come. On top of this, my young neighbours from across the way were outside chatting and laughing with their friends; their voices echoed loudly through the otherwise empty street, making it even harder to find my way to dreamland.
What on earth are they up to out there? I wondered. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me. I hopped out of bed, headed to the window, and peeped out at the scene below.
My young neighbours – a couple of guys in their early twenties – were standing at the bottom of their driveway with four or five friends, smoking cigarettes and laughing about who-knows-what. Not very exciting. I was just about to turn away from the window and return to my bed when suddenly, everyone began to strip. Shirts were pulled off and dropped to the ground. Shorts were unzipped and allowed to puddle around ankles before being carelessly kicked off into the shadows. This was the last thing I was expecting to happen. It goes without saying that I kept watching. Who wouldn’t?
It was late and the night was dark, but the streetlights were doing their job and I could see well enough to note that the girls were down to their bras and underwear, while the guys wore boxers and nothing else.
More laughter, more taunting — words that I couldn’t quite make out — and then one girl, a blonde, undid her bra and flung it aside. Her companions clapped and cheered. Then, accompanied by my two neighbours, she began running down the street, naked but for a pair of panties. She ran with her arms outstretched, like a child, whooping and laughing all the way.
As she disappeared down the road, I chuckled and shook my head, marveling at the joyous rebellion that I had just witnessed.
I am pretty sure I caught the tail end of somebody’s Dare on Saturday night, and I’m also pretty sure that blonde girl was loving every minute of it.
Sometimes we need a push to do something we’re scared of. And sometimes, we need to put ourselves in a situation where we are most likely to get that push. My neighbours and their friends were kind enough to remind me of this fact.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played Truth or Dare. For the record, I don’t have any secret urges to run down the street without my clothes on. But there are other ways to feel naked.
This week, I dared myself and I voiced a goal: I want to publish an eBook of my short stories. I have opened myself up to the possibility of failure or ridicule, and I’m doing it out where everyone can see.
So now you know my secret; you’ve seen me naked. Now I’m running down the street with my arms open wide. The truth is, it’s scary as hell. But, damn, what a thrill!
What would you do if you weren’t afraid of failing?
I asked myself this question recently, and the answer was this: I would announce that I am a writer, and then go be one.
I find this idea pretty damned scary, mainly because it seems somewhat presumptuous of me to declare such a thing. Plus, I have this nightmare-like fantasy where people read passages of my work to each other in silly voices and then scream with laughter because I had the nerve to think my writing was good enough for public consumption…
Fear – of failure and of ridicule – has held me back before; taking the safest path is an old habit. But this time, when I thought about my dreams and goals, I had an epiphany: Sure, someone might laugh. But, so what?
People might not like my writing. They might decide I am a delusional fool for even trying. So what?
I’m going to try, anyway.
Some people are born knowing and embrace it; others suspect, and spend their lives running from it. And then, there are the rest of us: confused and a little uncertain, but searching for it anyway.
What is “it”?
The spark. The thing that makes you happy. The thing that makes you, you.
But somehow, you persevere. You find it; you find the thing! It’s strange, and a little scary-looking and, to be honest, it sort of freaks you out. You could pretend you didn’t notice it. It’s okay, nobody will every know. You could forget all about that thing and the butterflies you felt bumping around in your belly when you saw it; forget it and head back to safe and familiar landscapes of your life.
Or, you can take a deep breath, smile, and reach out your hand…