Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Craft Books

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Like any good little writer-in-the-bud, I amassed a solid collection of ‘how to hone your writing craft’ books and dissected them, instead of actually sitting down and writing. Far from obscure, some of them have become classics and bestsellers in their own right: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! for screenwriters and not only them; Natalie Goldberg’s poetic Writing Down the Bones; the energetic and legendary agent Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication and Stephen King’s memoir-interlaced-with-writing-advice On Writing. I love all of those, but here are some less well known ones which have inspired me just as much.

John Gardner: On Becoming a Novelist

This is, in some ways, the anti-craft book, because most of what Gardner talks about is the innate nature of a writer: the sensitivity and love for language, the observant eye, the storytelling intelligence and demonic compulsiveness. My eye-opening moment when I first read him was this passage:

A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love; shame about one’s origins… or embarrassment about one’s own physical appearance: all these are promising signs.

Perhaps I should add here that John’s younger brother Gilbert was killed in a freak farming accident as a child and that John himself was driving the tractor. But he never mentions that in the book.

Instead, he warns of the dangers of over-relying on writing courses and MFAs ‘The world has far more writing teachers than it needs’ and there is a danger that only certain kinds of writing are appreciated and emulated, so the whole experience becomes ‘workshoppy’. Yet he understands that each writer can become better through practice, through feedback and through faith in his or her own abilities.

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or way, an alternative to ordinary ‘life in the world’. Its benefits are quasi-religious – a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand – and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid

In a series of conversations with poet Genine Lentine and adorned with gorgeous photos by Marnie Crawford Samuelson, the late great American poet muses about his garden and his poetry. A beautiful complex metaphor about creativity, this book deserves constant underlining. It was recommended to me by Naomi Shihab Nye, at the very first poetry workshop I ever attended.

In so many instances, the poem is muddied by too much explanation, too much exposure. What one is aiming for is the indication of an energy, or a spirit, below the surface, in the secret vaults of the self, that somehow withers under too much exposition or explanation. That’s why I’ve always believed that so much of the energy of the poems comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown… The rose when it is just about ready to unfold is at its most beautiful.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit

This is more of a typical self-help book, but it’s not aimed at writers. Twyla Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but her straight talking and variety of creative exercises are suitable for many different artistic disciplines. I’ve written about this book before, but here are some quotes which impress me every time:

A plan is like a scaffolding around a building. When you’re putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital. But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disappears. That’s how I think of planning. It has to be sufficiently thoughtful and solid to get the work up and standing straight, but it cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan.

And the next quotation is even more relevant to my procrastinating self:

I used to bask in the notion that all my obstacles to creative efficienty would vanish if only I had exactly the right resources: my own studio, my own dancers, my own theater, and enough money to pay the dancers all year long and to hire the best collaborators. But I’ve learned that the opposite is true: Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.

 

 

 

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Cultural Beliefs About Writing or Plain Economics?

Inspiration or craft? Can writing be taught or is it an innate talent? Well, the answer to that may often be culturally determined. From what I saw at the Quais du Polar last week and, following a bit of debate about it on Twitter following this article announcing the demise of the British short story, it seems to me that French culture leans more to the ‘inspiration’ school of thought, while Anglo-Saxon culture believes more in the capacity to hone one’s writing talent. Hence the proliferation of MFA courses in the US or MA courses in the UK. Hence the different way of discussing the writing process and getting under the skin of the main female character (although Ron Rash seems to be more French than American in that respect).

Queuing up for their literary fix in Lyon…

As usual, I am somewhere on the fence on this topic. I believe no amount of tuition or feedback will turn a truly tone-deaf writer into a sterling one. But, on the other hand, I also believe even innate talent needs to be tamed: whether this is best done through courses or feedback groups or mentors or even self-study of other authors – whatever works for you. As long as you are aware that you can always learn something, that you can always do better. A musician or a dancer can become very competent if they put in hours and years of training – and so can a writer. They might not have the spark of genius that turns them into the next Mozart or Anna Pavlova, but they can run alongside many of their contemporaries. Sometimes stamina and resilience counts for more than that elusive inborn talent. (Another great recent debate has been around the failed novelist.)

Perhaps there is something else at work here other than definitions around the locus of talent.

In France (and Germany and probably quite a few other European countries), it is possible to make a living from writing alone: there is tax relief for writers (and other cultural contributors), book prices are fixed, writers are paid for festival appearances etc. Because the contract is directly between publisher and writer (literary agents are practically non-existent in France), authors achieve a larger proportion of the royalties. You cannot underestimate the freedom a modest income gives a writer to truly focus on their writing and perfect their craft. As most French writers do: they retreat to Provence or Dordogne in winter, when there are no tourists or book festivals to bother them, and work hard to produce a book in time for the rentrée littéraire, that publishing bonanza in autumn. Many of them produce something every year, or every second year, so they work as hard as their English counterparts (but often without the additional teaching obligations). There are some ateliers d’écriture in France, but these are either targeted at schoolchildren or else a kind of ‘writing circle’ organised by and for the local community, often heavily subsidised, without much expectation of future publication.

Quais du Polar had 80,000 visitors this year.

Meanwhile, costs of MFAs or their UK equivalent, MA in Creative Writing, are soaring, so it is difficult to justify them (to oneself and one’s family) if you do not have expectations of being published or at the very least working in the field. In the US in particular there is much discussion whether getting an MFA is ‘worth it’ or if it is a pyramid scheme designed to give employment to writers. Everyone dreams of being a writer, so a whole industry of publishing, editing, proofreading, coaching etc. has spawned alongside the official courses. Some of them valuable, some of them money-making schemes which prey upon the gullible.

However, things are beginning to change even in France. At the Quais du Polar in previous years there had always been a competition for best short story or dictation of a passage from a crime novel or reading out loud for young people. This year, for the first time, there were also writing courses for 12-15 year olds, plus workshops on self-publishing and Open Pitch sessions for adults.

In addition to this, the City of Paris has recently launched (with some fanfare) a writing school Les Mots which is specifically targeting innovation and publication, across all genres (from memoir to writing for children, poetry, theatre, graphic novels, blogging etc.). Authors, editors, literary critics will be helping budding writers to improve their manuscripts and some of the names on their list are truly impressive: Karim Miske, Jerome Ferrari, Antoine Laurain. The venue will also harbour a bookshop and a literary café. With a full price of 15 euros per hour (reductions available for students and the unemployed), it is clear that these workshops are deliberately designed to be accessible and inclusive. It remains to be seen how viable this price point really is and what success stories will emerge from this.