by Holly King
I am an avid reader, and one of my proudest achievements as a 28-year-old is having three separate bookcases in my apartment. I’ve always loved books, from maxing out my library card every week as a child, to receiving my first Folio Society book two years ago.
I am also an avid procrastinator. I leave everything until the last minute because apparently I like the pressure, but I will always make sure I meet your deadline. A deadline I set for myself though? Nah, no consequence if I don’t meet that one. So, ever since I finished Uni (five years ago now) I’ve been telling myself to write a novel, and I’ve been convincing myself that it can wait. New jobs, a lot of flat moving, relationships starting and ending, other commitments with deadlines. Getting distracted by – and then disheartened because of – amazing books being recommended, salaciously placed in shop windows. Somehow, I managed to trick myself into believing that, because I read a lot it means I’m gathering vital information on how to write and therefore it isn’t so terrible that I’m not actually writing.
Surely, if I’m reading about writing, that’s a step even closer to actually achieving the mystical act of writing? So far I’ve read eight books about writing, which, if I’m being honest, may be another form of procrastination. But what better way to help those of you who are stuck, who have questions, who want that perfect guidance to get you back on your keyboard, tapping away, than to write about the books I’ve found most helpful?
I should just go and write my novel, you say? Well, maybe later. Right now, I’ve told Claire I’ll have this article written by the end of the week…
Here are three books to read to get you back on track:
For before you begin (again)
Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury
I can tell you how this man is the root-cause of my book-related procrastination, because of what he said here:
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
But then it turns out that I forgot the part of the quote where he tells you to write every day…
So when I saw that the genius who wrote and narrated the Cartoon Network adaptation of The Halloween Tree also wrote a book about being a genius writer, I bought it without hesitation.
I started reading Zen in the Art of Writing secretly hoping that the same whimsey, eccentricity and imagination that featured in one of my favourite childhood stories would show up in this book. And I wasn’t disappointed. From the first chapter you’re pulled into the world of this big child (and I say that as a massive compliment) who wants you to be excited again.
Do you remember being excited about writing? Do you remember not caring what you were writing about or whether it was good enough or original enough or if it was marketable? In this book, Bradbury helps you to rummage inside until you can let that child writer come out and play and feel again.
He also teaches you how to build stories from everyday events, how to get so wonderfully caught up in the fever of writing, of communicating with the world about your experiences, that any fear doesn’t have time to manifest.
The man was passionate about books (just read Fahrenheit 451), so it’s no wonder that passion explodes from the page and grips you tightly as he shakes you to write, damn it, just write!
The book is littered with personal anecdotes, examples of how he came up with his own stories, and how his life as a writer unfolded. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating and highly entertaining autobiography, but more than that, it gives you back the raw, real passion you may have been hiding in order to seem like a serious person who is respected and can be relied upon. In reality (at least, Ray Bradbury’s), no one is more respected than the one who lives without letting fear hold them back.
Having read this, I felt more confident to just write about something, anything, to enjoy the act of writing, even if it was something I would never show the world. It allowed me to think about writing again, and when you think about writing, the ideas begin to flow.
For when you’re dipping your toe in (again)
Professors as Writers – Robert Boice, and The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self – Julia Cameron
Ah, see how I’ve managed to sneak two books under this title! The reason being that depending on what kind of personality you are, one book will work better for you than the other, but both offer the same advice.
Professors as Writers is actually a book about professors experiencing writer’s block when writing academic papers. Boice is the Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York and has conducted many hours of research and coaching around writer’s block. His book is an amalgamation of his teachings. Now, I’m not trying to write academic papers, I’m trying to write a novel (or anything creative), but I do like a bit of structure, so this book spoke to me.
It has a typical self-help layout in explaining why we do (or don’t do as the case may be) what we do, examples of professors he has helped, and then he provides you with sample sheets to fill in with writing exercises. Unlike most books I’ve read, he likes to reverse the writing process (you’ll have to read it to find out what I mean) and he even dedicates a chapter to writers who have longer, less academic-based aspirations.
What I liked about this book was that he gave me lots of examples of intelligent, accomplished people who knew what to do, and yet were plagued with blocks and insecurities. It was refreshing to not feel so alone (and, no matter how many times Ray Bradbury tells me he had writer’s block, I’m unable to see myself in the same league as him. He must have had some special kind of writer’s block that someone like me can only dream of!) and to know that there was science behind his approach.
He even gives you access to a free ‘Blocking Questionnaire’ (https://newforums.com/resources/ebooks/blocking-questionnaire-tool-scholarly-writers/) which helped me to understand that my blocks are multi-layered (seriously, I scored highly on all categories) and, having classified my blocks, I can catch myself before I talk myself out of writing.
Lastly, he says not to overdo it. He recommends short, frequent writing sessions instead of long, tiring ones fuelled by the frantic inspiration we all know, until you run down to fumes and then we don’t write again for ages. This was one of the factors that allowed me to begin writing, and his writing sheets, in hand with the knowledge of my particular blockers, helped me to structure writing sessions that I’ve actually stuck to for six weeks in a row.
If that approach seems a little dry, perhaps you would prefer The Artist’s Way. Cameron focuses heavily on getting back in touch with the child artist, letting them come out to play, giving them love and attention to allow yourself to write. Like Boice, each chapter has a list of ‘homework’ (although hers were more fun, one being to go buy yourself something you’d eat as a child), and she sets up a writing schedule that anyone should be able to follow.
Cameron takes the view that you’re reading this book if your child artist has been shunned by external figures. A teacher perhaps, or peers, or a parent who told you that being an artist isn’t an actual job and is just a fancy. The thing for me is that I’ve never had that kind of discouragement. In fact, my mum was enormously encouraging and so are my friends. So I didn’t feel I was the intended writer to read this book. But if that’s you, if you have felt your creativity marginalised or leeched by someone, or if you have lost touch with your inner child artist, then this will help you find balance in your creative life, and the structure to begin writing again.
For when you’re in the thick of it
Monkeys with Typewriters – Scarlett Thomas
The title says it all, if you write for long enough and put in enough hours, anyone can be a writer. But it helps if you’ve read Thomas’ book on how to write better. Split into two sections, ‘Theory’ and ‘Practice’, it covers everything from plot to writing a good sentence.
This book can, and should, be read before you’ve started writing, but you’ll need to have regained you passion and your confidence to write before you can apply her practical guidance.
As a narrator, Thomas leads you with the knowledge and wisdom of a teacher, which, coincidentally, she is. Professor in Creative Writing and Contemporary Literature at University of Kent, to be precise. Having taken one of her MA courses, I can tell you first-hand that she wants you to write, she’s rooting for you and wants to give you the best shot at making your ideas pop. And if you’ve ever read any of her books, you’ll find her ‘Novel Matrix’ is key to creating the vivid and varied themes she explores.
It’s an easily digestible, well-voiced book on how to do what you’re already doing (writing, remember?) but better. She draws from the forefathers of narrative like Plato, classic English staples like Chaucer, and even quotes Jarvis Cocker. With a blend of literary and pop culture references, she beckons everyone and anyone who wants to further their craft, shows us why the books we love are so compelling, and how we can make our own ones just as captivating.
It’s a book you can read as a whole, but I prefer to read it in sections depending on what part of the writing process I am in, or what I feel I’m struggling with. If I feel I’m lacking some charismatic characters, I’ll jump to that chapter. If I’m struggling with the plot, I might read the chapter on complex plots.
It’s a book that deserves multiple index flags (mine has six) and to be revisited time and time again as you go through the writing and then editing process, until you can show that monkey up with a great novel.
So there’s my top three books for getting you unstuck. Of course, there are other great books I’ve omitted (if you’re writing a memoir for example, go check out Reality Hunger by David Shields), but I’ve not got the time to list them all here, I’ve got a novel to write!
Surely, if I was reading about writing, that was a step even closer to actually achieving the mystical act of writing?