This is a picture of the books that have kept me company when I wasn’t entirely convinced that the book in my head would take shape outside of it. These are some of the writers I turned to.
When I was living in Toronto I got to work with Janet Berton. Actually, I made her work, as she’d taken a bit of a fall and needed better mobility. She wasn’t always happy with the exercises I had her do, but she was always happy to talk about writing, editing and journalism. Her eye for detail, a sign on a wall or the structure of an entire book, was uncanny.
She knew I liked to write and would always ask how my writing was going, and if I’d picked up a copy of The Joy of Writing by her husband Pierre Berton yet. I dragged my feet on picking up that book as he’s a prolific writer, steeped in history, tradition and research, so really, what would I have in common with that kind of a writer? But that’s the point of the books here and her point to me – That you won’t write the same as anyone else, nor should you, but you might learn something from any one of them, so why wouldn’t you?
The Joy of Writing is a peek behind the curtain. It’s candid, curious and full of history. It explores every aspect of writing a book, while reading like a ‘notes in the margin’ memoir. He’s bold and confident and for me that always makes for a good read. I told Janet that it finally had a place on my shelf, beside my favorite Berton book, the Secret World of Og, she smiled as she rolled her eyes.
The Autobiographer’s Handbook with it’s pretty boring title sits there mainly to remind me of Nick Hornby’s advice that “any life can be made interesting by jokes. If you’ve had a normal, boring life, then be funny about it.”.
The Gay Talese Reader is a collection of articles by Talese. In an instant, from a few sentences, he captures people onto pages. You’re already working from a picture of them in your head before you’ve read what they’re doing or where they’re headed. His pieces on famous Joes’ like DiMaggio and Lewis sit as equals beside his portrait of an average Joe, the tailor. It’s an approach that melds the ordinary into the extraordinary. Just one or two of his articles will be enough to blow your mind, so find them online.
Telling True Stories is packed with writers and journalists giving their best advice on writing through examples of stories they’ve researched, bungled or nailed. Nothing is overblown or overstated, it’s just plain good. Katherine Boo said “The hardest thing is figuring out how to keep the reader from throwing it down and getting a beer instead”. That’s a true story.
Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing tosses out a bunch of rules everyone should follow, unless you’re as good as the example he gives of a writer who’s nailing exactly what he says not to, then you can break his rules. He’s a master of dialogue, scene setting and keeping both to a minimum. He’s written for over two decades, he’s had his hand in movies and a show where you’ll hear the tightest, whip smart dialogue, devoid of any extraneous crap (unlike the last 5 words of this sentence). “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” That’s classic. “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” That’s clutch.
David Lynch’s Catching the Big Fish is not that weird, so that’s the surprise. It’s definitely different and interesting, as are his ideas on creativity, meditation and methods. What’s not surprising is that with just one page, you’re somewhere else and sometimes that’s all you need.
Stephen King’s On Writing is really good. It’s another memoir styled book on writing. The take away for me will always be this idea, squished into one paragraph near the end of his book: “Do all opinions weigh the same? Not for me.” King writes for one person, besides himself, “the one I want to wow.”
That’s what I try to remember.