There is nothing more distracting to a writer than reading books about writing. I usually have one of two responses: Either the more I read, the more frustrated and restless I become because the book is speaking about something I wish to be doing, rather than reading about. That can be as frustrating as reading a book about swimming while lying in the hot sun, uncomfortable and sweating profusely. (Not to mention reading The Joy of Sex on a lonely summer night.)
Or, because of the subject matter, another response I can have is to read such books during the time I’ve set aside for actual writing, and convince myself that it is job-related research. Thus, while avoiding the brutal, empty page, which is the day’s true task and demand, I can rest comfortably in the knowledge—delusion—that I am being productive.
And now, ironically, I have been asked to add my own thoughts to this dubious genre here. Instead of working on my novel, I can while away my afternoon writing about writing. In a variation of the axiom, “Those who can, do; those who can’t teach” –(my apologies to educators, for I well know that to truly do it right requires nothing short of sainthood, not to mention an 80-hour work week)--it could also be suggested that “Those who can, write; those who can’t, write about writing.” And perhaps those who really can’t, merely read about writing. My apologies again, this time to those who may have put out a book about writing, but only after having already published many works in their own right. John Gardner comes to mind, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King—they have all certainly earned the right to write about writing.
But have I? I’ve published five books if you count the little self-published one, and if you count the one some guy paid me a thousand dollars for, printed in his basement in the days before computers, and sold through ads in the National Enquirer. Okay, so three bona fide books and perhaps 50 articles and short stories over the years. But what should the cut-off point be before a writer is permitted to write about writing? As the Carmelite monk, Father William McNamara once said, “Never read good books; there’s not enough time for that. Only read great ones.” This especially holds true for books about writing. To learn about any skill, it’s always wise to turn to those with true expertise.
So if you truly can’t stand writing and prefer to read about it, rather than put my two cents in here, I will instead steer you to a handful of books on the subject that are worthy of your time and attention.
For starters, there’s Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That one alone might be sufficient, except for the unfortunate inclusion of several lines that could put you off the idea of writing forever: “Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?” Write or die??? Come on, Ranier, cut us humans a little slack.
For sheer entertainment value, there’s Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird. At one point she speaks of writer’s jealousy, as in when you find that your friend’s great publishing success is basically a huge bummer. What rescued her from this torment, she says, was seeing a poem in the New York Times entitled, “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered.”
Carl Sandburg called Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write “The best book ever written about how to write.” And as we all know, Sandburg was no monkey. (FYI, Chapter Ten is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect it For Their Writing.”)
Henry Miller on Writing has always been a favorite of mine, filled with raw and brutal honesty about his own process: “I entered it [writing] without any apparent talent, a thorough novice, incapable, awkward, tongue-tied, almost paralyzed by fear and apprehensiveness. I had to lay one brick on another, set millions of words to paper before writing one real, authentic word dragged up from my own guts…I had to learn to think, feel and see in a totally new fashion, in an uneducated way, in my own way, which is the hardest thing in the world.”
For sheer mental exercise, loosening up the brain and getting one’s originality and voice kicked into gear, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones has become a classic guide for what she calls “writing as practice.” By “practice,” she means spiritual practice, akin to meditation or other techniques for exploring one’s inner world and consciousness. Writing practice is to use the act of putting words to paper as a method for gaining insight into the nature of one’s own mind. And when actual coherent, meaningful or beautiful passages result, they are a mere by-product of the practice, not the goal. The goal is the process itself, learning to loosen the reins of the inner censor and allow one’s natural thought-stream to flow freely, without regard to product, result, or certainly publication. “The deepest secret in our heart of hearts,” Natalie writes, “is that we are writing because we love the world, and why not carry that secret out with our bodies into the living rooms and porches, backyards and grocery stores?”
A poet stands between heaven and earth
and watches the dark mystery.
That is pretty much all we need to know about our vocation. Later, Lu Ji says,
A writer makes new life in the void,
knocks on silence to make a sound,
binds space and time on a sheet of silk
and pours out a river from an inch-sized heart.
That truly does say it all, so now it is time to put down the books about writing, tap into our inch-sized hearts, dredge up an authentic word or two from our guts and start writing about something, anything, besides writing.
Eliezer Sobel is the author of Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, which was the winner of the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, as well as The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist’s Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments. And other stuff.
Visit his web-site here.