Monday, January 30, 2006

A Dirty Little Secret

Hey, the advertisers and magazine editors do it all the time—lure you into reading something with a juicy headline and then let you down when you learn that the “one surefire thing that really turns men on” is truly caring about him or some such commonplace thing.

I do actually feel like I’m revealing something about myself I’m not totally proud of, although if you come to my house and check out a certain bookshelf, you’ll get the message loud and clear. The thing is, well, I have an addiction of sorts. I haven’t bankrupted my family yet in pursuit of my craving—it seems fairly under control most of the time. But just when I think I’m cured, I find myself doing it again, against my better judgment, against the voices that cry—it won’t be different this time, once the thrill is gone, you’ll just be left with a broken dream and an ashy morning-after taste in your mouth!

The addiction of which I speak is—sit down and prepare to be disappointed—a compulsion to read, and all too often buy, books about writing. Why do I find this habit slightly-somewhat-darn right shameful? Well, this might be disordered thinking, too, but part of me feels like a writer should just sit down and write. And read, too, but actual stories, not books on how to write stories, which, no matter how wise, can never really capture the magic quality that makes a decently written story into a masterpiece that is worth reading and remembering. Another part of me feels like a dupe because publishers know wannabe writers are also readers and bookbuyers, and in fact many writers have made more money from their how-to books than their novels or story collections. So, by purchasing the latest tome on how to overcome writers’ block or meditate my way to a saleable book or finish my novel within a certain amount of time, I am really just confirming the market research of the very publishing houses that would throw my efforts in the recycle bin the moment they arrived over the transom. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

Now, I do try to curb this habit by getting my fix from the library or borrowing from friends, but almost half the time I find myself wanting to own the book anyway, so I buy it in the end. I also should add that writing books are not all fluff. Certainly at the beginning it’s good to get a sense of the “insider’s” rules. For example, no matter how clever or deeply-felt your story is, editors won’t get past the first paragraph if you don’t start with a bang, go sparing on the adverbs, and avoid at all costs opening with your protagonists turning off his alarm clock or looking out over a large body of water and thinking something profound. (Like all rules, these can be broken, but you have to have won several major literary prizes first if you hope for publication). And, okay, now I’m rationalizing here, but writing is lonely work, and these folks who write books for writers do often seem like friends who understand the terror of confronting a blank computer screen, the discouragement of getting yet another fortune-cookie-size rejection, especially following nice ink from the same journal last time, and the absurd joy of getting an “encouraging” rejection. (Non-writers always look really confused when I’m thrilled by a rejection—usually kind words from a top-tier journal. The thing is, anything that makes you feel as if you’ve been heard and respected is rare and wonderful in this business).

That being said, I thought I’d use my new Amazon linking skill to mention a few of my very favorite books on writing, which I would recommend to anyone and which I’m proud to own. This is only the tip of the iceberg. I own many others which have provided comfort, inspiration and good advice, but I wouldn’t want to play pusher and get anyone else started on down the dangerous path I have taken.

The first on my list is The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron. This book really did change my relationship to my creativity. (I wouldn’t really recommend her follow-up books, although, of course, I own them, too). I read it when I first started writing and it brought home to me what a consuming activity any creative passion is, how it penetrates into every part of life. Or rather, how other parts of my life inform my work. A lot of these noisy editorial voices are pretty mean and discouraging. The inside editors are even crueler than the outside ones, I’d say! But Cameron’s 12-week program helped me identify the source of much of this anxiety, if not exactly conquer it completely. A few things that stand out in my memory are the exercise of identifying voices from the past that are enemies of one’s creative self-worth (any creative writer needs to deal with all of them, nit-picky teachers, parents who worry art isn’t practical, envious writing workshop colleagues, and so on), her suggestion to fill the well with good self-care and artist dates, and her generally wonderful affirmations about the power of creativity, like a river which flows through the universe from which we can drink and be nourished (I’ve messed with her image a little, but I do like this idea of creativity as force greater than one ego). Although I didn’t do any of the collages she suggested, I did do most of the other exercises by myself and with a friend and I think it really helped me at a vulnerable time in my rediscovery of writing.

Another book I’d put at the top of my list is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Lamott’s humor is what makes this a cut above most writing books. Things I still remember are the concept of the shitty first draft (all first drafts are shitty, she assures us, and it sure helps you just sit down and write something), the scene where she’s trying to convey the spiritual elements of a writer’s journey and all her students want is to know how to get an agent (that always makes me smile wryly because parts of me play both roles), and her wrenching experience of writing a novel she thought was good and being told by her agent—see, having an agent doesn’t mean all life’s problems go away—that it was no good and that she had to rewrite it. Ouch. But these things even happen to writers who have “made it.” How nice to know we don’t have to worry about losing our humanity if we manage a bestseller!

The last entry in my top three is a writing book about a different genre, screenplays. I know that screenplay writing is what the coolest and richest writers do. You’ll certainly reach many more people with your work, if you consider what is left of your ideas after the producers, directors, and random studio bigwigs mess with it your work. Maybe I’m just chicken or more likely I don’t know or like movies well enough to even attempt to imagine I could write a screenplay. So, that is not why I got myself a copy of Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee, a well-known and “award-winning” film consultant and teacher of “story structure” in Hollywood. I was prepared not to like him at all, but I was totally inspired by his book. Part of it was the freshness of approach for me. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but an effective structure is an essential element of all story-telling genres, and it was fascinating to see that and compare screenwriting and short story writing. Plus, McKee’s analysis of Chinatown and other films enriched my understanding of the spectator’s role and my ability to appreciate well-made movies, when they happen to come along, which of course is not too often. Film making is the media that matters in our society, and this book also helped me see its inevitable influence on my own imagination.

I have a few dozen more on the shelf, but this is probably enough for now! It was also interesting to see that all three of these books are still selling quite well on Amazon, though none are particularly new. I guess they have passed the ultimate test in the art world--they've endured. But I also remember that they did something else for me: they all made me feel like sitting down and writing with enthusiasm and hope and a sense of mission, for lack of a better word. No morning after regrets...which is another test altogether.

No comments: