What better way to enjoy writing (other than actually writing) than to read about writing! The two books that come up repeatedly for their contribution to “books on writing” were Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. It began to seem that if I was going to call myself a writer I needed to read these two books so that I would have some, uh, “writer’s cred.” So I bought them both and started reading.
Both writers have backgrounds in fiction, although I am only familiar with Lamott’s nonfiction pieces. Their styles are different, the kind of advice and life experiences they include are different, the type of writing that they produce is different. One similarity is a proficiency in swearing – which, in reading both of them, became distracting at times. But that’s a small thing to consider when the rest of the content, different in many ways, rings true and useful in the important places.
King reads like a buddy hanging out and shooting straight – the guy that everyone likes but who isn’t really close friends with anyone at the table, the guy who has the know-how to get it done but only on his time. He’s a hard teacher but not unfair or unkind, just tough.
I found much of the information in On Writing to be practical and immediately applicable. Even the first part, primarily memoir about his journey as a writer, produced a zap of reality. Simply: it takes a while to “make it.” Get a job. Keep a job. Live life. Don’t stop writing, but knock out the sentimental nonsense that you’re five minutes from the Man Booker Prize.
While personal stories continue to appear throughout the book, the next section gets down to the mechanics of writing. His advice: start a toolbox. It will have a few shelves, but he cautions against too many which would make the toolbox unwieldy and awkward to haul. On the first shelf: vocabulary and grammar. If those two scare you away, you probably shouldn’t read the rest. Those two will take long enough to tackle.
The third section in On Writing is a combination writing-lesson and memoir. King pulls examples from his own shelf of success and incorporates his opinions and suggestions for navigating the writing profession. All of which make this book not just a good one-time read, but a valuable resource time and again.
My favorite piece of advice was King’s admonishment to “Read.” Plain and simple.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.” (p.145)
Even better: He doesn’t say “read” and then leave the obvious question unanswered. In response to “What do you read? (italics mine),” King includes two giant booklists in the back of the book. I’ve not read all of them, nor will I, but they are great to go through and pick out new titles for the TBR pile. I do believe there is a connection between the quality of one’s writing and the quality of his or her reading. It is the main reason I maintain a page with my reading lists on it – albeit, much smaller lists than those King includes. Lists! Reading! Writing! What’s not to love?
Lamott is gracious, encouraging, and empathetic. She pulls her stories from so many varied stages and places in life that she relates easily to a range of people. The arc and tone of Bird by Bird reflects a trusted mentor encouraging a new writer. Lamott organizes her advice according to the steps and processes that are at once tantalizing and horrifying: writer’s block, researching ideas, getting feedback, possibly publishing and two-hundred pages of other ins and outs. Her personal stories and perspectives decorate every chapter.
Much of Lamott’s advice is inspired by common questions she receives from her students. It is more about the process than the nuts and bolts of grammar and such. She deals with the dreaded and over-hyped “writer’s block” with a couple simple suggestions. She does not pretend to think that everyone will be published by the end of her class or book, and is honest about the odds of “making it.” She challenges her writers to write for the sake and benefit of writing and not with the lone goal of publishing.
One of Lamott’s early pieces of advice comes after chapters such as “Shitty First Drafts,” “Perfectionism,” and “Short Assignments.” And this is how it goes: “So: sometimes when a student calls and is mewling and puking about the hopelessness of trying to put words down on paper, I ask him or her to tell me about school lunches…” She proceeds to write a full chapter about school lunches complete with thoughts on the hierarchy of sandwiches and acceptability of carrots. At the end she concludes that the whole piece is likely something she will toss, but that in those pages about lunch in school cafeterias a nerdy boy against a fence appeared. And that boy, invisible before, prompted questions about his situation, background, and family that could enhance quite a character.
I stopped briefly to think about the challenge and was surprised by how quickly the smell of the school cafeteria came back: a mix of grease and clorox – a subtle but penetrating smell that had staying-power to override several lunch sessions of opened bologna sandwiches, banana peels, and fruit punch mishaps. The mix of grease and clorox that made everyone unsure as to whether the pizza might not have been sanitized or if the sheen-and-slide on the table was cleanliness or greasiness.
In any case, now if someone asks “Should I read King’s book, On Writing, or Lamott’s book Bird by Bird?” I’d say: “Yes.”
If you’re convinced one has to be better than the other, I’ll make a recommendation based on the type of writer you might be or the type of advice you might be seeking. Lamott gives a birds-eye (Forgive the pun. Or not, whatever.) view of the writing process. Her advice and perspective are good for new-ish writers who are up against the potentially destabilizing enormity of writing well. Start writing – get it down on paper – you probably won’t use most of it but something might come out. King gets dirty pretty quick: work hard, read hard, do good work then do better work, here are some tools to use, and buck up. He’s good to read if you’re getting ready to edit, or if you’ve been traipsing through writer-world thinking your poo don’t stink. If you just read that sentence and thought “Well, I know my poo stinks, but I also know my writing is brilliant.” Read King. He’ll take you down a couple levels and make you want to be better. Lamott inspires (You can do it!). King motivates (Sit your butt down and do it).
So, what have you read lately? And, what comes to mind when you think about school lunches?
Happy reading! Happy writing!