Every writer has a handful of books that have helped him or her along the tough journey to becoming a writer.
I can still remember my battered red Roget’s Thesaurus that sat on my shelf alongside my stereo back when I was a teenager.
I’d had the misfortune of an early writing teacher who told me that there was no point in using the adjective “blue” when something more precise, like “cerulean,” would do.
Luckily, a professor in college set me straight. She dencounced multi-syllabic Latinate words. I was cowed. “Blue” returned to my lexicon.
Once I’d graduated from English grammar books, which trained me in the correct way to construct a sentence, I was away and running. Books on the writing life flooded my shelves.
Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Terry Brooks’ Sometimes the Magic Works (yes, I confess to an early love of fantasy), even Piers Anthony’s hilarious book (the name escapes me now) that consisted of an early manuscript he submitted to publishers and the various critical notes editors had scribbled in the margins.
But there are three books that have stood way above the rest.
They’re not about the publishing process or about the right way to write a sentence. They’re short on Latinate words and long on Anglo-Saxon. And they’re books that need to be on every serious or budding writer’s bookshelf, because they’re just plain great.
I owe this gem to my friend Jennifer. She introduced it to me in college, and I’ve been grateful ever since. This is the kind of book that friends and parents buy as gifts for wanna-be writers.
Expect an informal, casual conversation about life, love, words, and the process of writing. Anne Lamott will feel like your best friend by the time you’re done. Wrapped up in a compelling story of a dying father is the story of a writer’s awakening. Inspirational, unforgettable, and essential reading for beginning writers.
I took a workshop from Julia Cameron in London one summer, and I was taken aback.
If you don’t know who Julia Cameron is, suffice to say she’s a LEGEND. The Artist’s Way turns creativity into spiritual practice. She’s changed lives. Revitalized careers. Inspired art.
And yet, in person, she’s quiet and a bit mousy.
Perhaps it was this particular workshop. She was there to talk about her latest novel and answer questions about morning pages, the spiritual practice at the core of her philosophy. She seemed unsettled, as if uncomfortable to be standing in front of us.
No matter. WE knew what an artistic giant she was. The Artist’s Way is the work that will always define her.
If you’re not writing as much as you should, or if you spend more time criticizing other people’s writing than doing your own, this book is for you. It will make you face up to some very hard truths, such as the fact that all that time you spend reading (the writer’s addiction) is time you could be spending on your own creative work. Cameron believes that most of us get some payoff by being creatively blocked. If you don’t risk trying, you don’t risk failing.
The book is structured as a 12-week course, containing at least an hour’s worth of exercises a day. Although the exercises are easy, the emotions they’ll dredge up are not. You’ll cry, you’ll make difficult realizations, you’ll get angry. And you’ll WRITE … which is the whole point.
I have Peter Jackson to thank for this gem.
I’d purchased his biography on sale in the New Zealand equivalent of Wal-Mart, and I was captivated by his story of how he and Fran came to develop the script for “Lord of the Rings.”
If it weren’t for Jackson attending a workshop by screenwriting’s king, Robert McKee, the “Lord of the Rings” movies may have never become blockbusters.
Yes, Story is about screenwriting, but it’s about much more than that. It’s about the principles of storytelling, fired with McKee’s passion for movies. McKee breaks down the art of storytelling into a powerful formula designed to create critical and commercial success.
I wish I could absorb Story by osmosis, because plot has never been one of my strong points. I’m much more drawn to images and scenes that float in the air, never going anywhere. That’s a weakness of mine, and I’ve been working on it. I even went back for a master’s degree to help me figure out plot, only to realize that my professors had no clue, either. I should have spent all those thousands of dollars on attending one of McKee’s workshops.
Warning: Story is intimidating. The amount of information can crush you. But sit with it. Let it simmer. You don’t have to write a blockbuster. You just have to understand the basic mechanics of plot. And for that, McKee is the master.