I told myself I wouldn’t buy another book about writing until I actually started to write. I don’t know what it is, if it’s fear or laziness, but I keep preventing myself from writing what I want to write. I’ll sit down with the intention to jot down the story in my head, but I either run away from the empty page, or write a few pages worth of stuff, get anxious, and run away. I don’t know what my problem is.
When I saw McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer in the bookstore, I couldn’t walk away from it. I was pulled toward it. I picked it up. I skipped the intro and read the first essay, I held it away from myself wondering if I should buy it, I walked around the store with it in hand, I paid and left with it. The title harkens to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I read off and on one summer in New York, and that made McCann’s book seem promising. He will surely get me writing, I thought.
But McCann is frank about what he can’t do for us and what we can do for ourselves. He mentions in his introduction a statement he includes on his syllabus at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where he teaches in the MFA program — that he can’t teach his students anything. He can’t teach us how to write (or make us write), but he can guide us and allow us to do what we most want to do. And in this book, he is sincere, though frank, as he advises us on writing.
I love to read books on writing but I love even more to read books on books. For the past few months I’ve read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Kevin Smokler’s Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, and attempted to read How Novels Work by John Mullan.
If you’re familiar with my posts, then it’s no surprise that I read Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor. His first book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, was a delightful read and I closed its covers having digested various tips to enrich my reading. How to Read Novels Like a Professor was just as enjoyable. Foster’s quips on the novels he discusses were entertaining. And what a lot of novels he covers! He hardly discriminates, including both contemporary classics like Harry Potter and those of old like Don Quixote. You will end this book with a long list of books to include in a reading challenge, such as the Classics Club’s reading challenge.
Foster’s book is not only for readers and students (student-readers). I highly recommend this book to writers as well. Reading relates to writing so as Foster discusses how to read better he essentially discusses how to write as well. He covers plot, character, dialogue, and all the obvious parts of a story and then some, such as the history of the novel. He discusses how its form came about and how the novel has changed over time. Reading his book is like taking his class. I’ve never taken his classes before (he is a professor of English at University of Michigan, Flint) but because of the wealth of topics covered and how he conveys them, it’s like taking a class with a very friendly professor who knows how to relate potential boring information while keeping the pupil’s interests high.
Seeking inspiration to start writing? Then pick up Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg encourages her readers to begin writing and stop planning to write, stop complaining that they can’t write, and stop procrastinating on their writing task. To become a writer, to be able to write, one must first begin to write.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Goldberg helps her readers buckle down and start writing by offering tips and some tricks to get started. She also quotes words of wisdom that she picked up from her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, and applies them to the art and life of writing.
You can’t help getting swept up in this book and lifted by Goldberg’s inspiring words. By the end of it, you will immediately want to pick up a pen and begin to scribble away. Like Dorothea Brande, Goldberg makes you believe that writing is possible. All it takes is for you to get started.
I especially recommend this book for beginning writers. Goldberg makes you want to start writing and keep writing. Here are a few words of advice that stood out to me: