Liars Club


by Merry Jones on June 1, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Life

For me, this is a tough topic to blog about, but here it is, the latest Liar’s topic: to recommend a book about writing that I like.

Truth is, I find most books about writing hard to read.  In fact, reading about writing makes me nervous.  Even irritable.  Maybe I’m one of those left or right or middle or lame brained people who learn experientially instead of theoretically.  Maybe I’m just stubborn and don’t like to be told what to do.  But I rarely open books about writing, and when I do, I’m probably looking for ideas for in-class exercises to assign my writing students.

In fact, in the fiction and non-fiction writing courses I teach (at Temple University), I don’t use a textbook.  I’ve considered some that are quite good, as books about writing go.  Alice LaPlante’s THE MAKING OF A STORY is good for both fiction and non-fiction.  CREATING NON-FICTION, by Becky Bradway and Doug Hesse is well-done. As is WHAT IF? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter, for fiction writers.

They are all three good.  Even so, I can’t bring myself to assign students to study these or any books that attempt to define and set parameters on how to write, what makes good writing, what works, what doesn’t and why.  Or to formulate and quantify the nuances of language, the pacing of events, the structure of plot.  Or to theorize about rhythm and specificity of prose, or the complexity and consistency of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s characters and motivation, or the intensity of mounting conflict, the release of climax and resolution.

See my point?  Even here, just listing those topics makes them seem forced.  Technical.   Academic.  Affected.  And let’s face it: Boring.

Good writing, on the other hand, is visceral.  It’s alive, like a virus that spreads from the writer’s heart and mind to those of its readers.  It invades, penetrating readers’ thoughts and feelings, overcoming and replacing them with the writer’s.  Afterwards, when it’s finished, good writing remains with the reader, again like a virus, dormant and waiting to resurface.  Sometimes it makes a permanent mark, like a scar.

So the question is: can there be that kind of good writing about writing?   Yes.  Marie Lamba mentioned one such book in her blog–Scroll down to see it.  Even so, in my mind, it’s just as valid to improve writing skills by reading well-written books that do not focus on–or even mention the process of writing.  Books about psychology.  History.  Sociology.  Criminology.  Books that represent fine literature.  Books that reflect popular culture.  Books of fiction, non-fiction.  In any genre.  Reading good writing, for me, is a good way to study writing.

But reading about how to write, to me, is like reading about how to scream.  Better just to scream.  Or to write.

Merry Jones is the author of the Zoe Hayes mystery series (The Nanny Murders, The River Killings, The Deadly Neighbors, The Borrowed and Blue Murders) as well as several humor and non-fiction books.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cordelia Frances Biddle June 1, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I agree wholeheartedly, Merry. I also teach creative writing – at Drexel. The assigned reading I provide gives my students the opportunity to discover remarkable authors of fiction, to delve into their approach to character development, to understand choice and voice and political impetus.

But that’s only part of the week’s assignment. For the remainder, they write their own narratives. They explore. They make mistakes, circle back and find new layers of conflict and story-telling. They experience their fictional characters’ times of anguish and joy. Writing is existing in other folks’ skins. It’s not holing up in some mental attic, or following another person’s “rules”. It’s an impassioned embrace of humanity.

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