Books on Writing, or—about Literature: Anne Lamott, Kevin J. Hayes, Dorothea Brande

“…good writing is about telling the truth.”

I have an annoying habit of immersing myself in books on literature and writing when I want to make myself commit to writing. It’s a trap I always fall into since I hardly notice when it occurs. It sneaks up on me and gradually distracts me from my self-appointed assignment until I totally give up on it and instead gorge on literature and writing books. Such was the case recently when I decided to read Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott, A Journey through American Literature by Kevin J. Hayes, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

The way this habit of mine begins is by whispering to me that since I need to improve my talent before attempting to write, I must first do some research. After all, research always helps to point a person in the right direction. I find this statement to be true so I go along with the suggestion. I began with Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

“Not enough!” my devilish habit exclaimed. So I went ahead and began reading Hayes’ A Journey through American Literature. My habit was appeased for the moment.

Meanwhile, Lamott’s book fed me bits of advice, which I quickly devoured. I think her most important advice is one that her father gave to her brother when he was ten and was intimidated by a report that he waited until the last minute to do. Her father told him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Writing is intimidating and most times I run away from it (my habit helps). But what I should do is breathe and, minding Lamott’s father’s advice, take it bird by bird. I should just jot down each word until they are all on the page.

Lamott’s book is hilarious. She sometimes uses her odd jokes to ease the jittery writer-reader’s nerves when she discusses the quagmires that writers can sometimes fall in as they go about their craft; for example, facing an impenetrable writer’s block. Lamott is pro-writer’s groups and states that such gatherings will help writers get pass their obstacles since it forms a sort of support system for the writer to rely on. Writing is such a solitary task that it’s great to have others who share that experience and the difficulties that arise from it to speak to.

“American literature is about identity.”

While being mindful of Lamott’s suggestions, I would also soaked in the literary analyses in Hayes’ book. Hayes takes the reader through American literature like a tour guide at a museum. Literary forms are our vehicle of exploration. The chapters are divided by form – travels, autobiography, short story, poetry, drama, and the great American novel – for which Hayes discusses the works of notable authors known for each particular form. Though I’m glad to have read Haynes’ book, it left me feeling intimidated. I read of the greats in American literature and Hayes highlighted their magnificence. I began to despair that I would never measure up to them, no matter how hard I try (this is another writing quagmire).

Noticing this, my habit pushed me to purchase and read a book I had stumbled upon some time ago, How to be a Writer by Dorothea Brande. So off to Amazon I went to order Brande’s book and have it express mailed. I needed to become a great writer quickly so that I can finally begin to write.

I’m glad to have purchased Brande’s book. This is one that all beginner writers should read; especially those easily intimidated by the task. Though Lamott mentions troubles that writers usually run into, Brande tackles those obstacles that beginner writers face and shows how to overcome them.

An important fact that Brande mentions is that most problems stem from personality. So before the person can begin to write, she must first tackle these problems. Brande offers tips on how to do this.

“…the first step toward being a writer is to hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm.”

Brande offers a wealth of advices that are valuable to a beginner writer. She even discusses my problem with my habit, or rather, my conscious mind. Like all writing books, Brande advises that the conscious mind should be pushed back while the writing process is taking place. But she goes a step further by providing tips on how to mute it until the shy unconscious has finished getting the material down on paper, or on the screen.

As for me psyching myself out about not being able to measure up to the greats, Brande offers advices for that as well. Her advices are words of inspiration that make you believe that you are able to write. She pushes you forward towards making your intent to write a reality. Despite being separated by 78 years (this book was first published in 1934), Brande was able to relate to me and sympathize with the writing problems I currently face.

I’m glad to report that my mind is now at peace. The incessant chattering of my conscious mind, in regards to writing, has stopped. I think it wore itself out. But that chattering along with reading the 3 books almost at the same time, and going through the motions of each has turned my brain to mush. I think I will take a day’s break from reading and draw instead.


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