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.