Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Writer's Stack O'books

My younger son is graduating from college today so while you read this I will be trying womanfully not to cry too hard in public. I will probably not be succeeding, so wish for me, please, that he does not witness my blubbering. It's all I can ask for.

That said, I do have a life beyond hankies and graduations and B and his brother, I swear I do...and in that life I am a writer and …

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Lately people have been asking me to recommend good books to read about writing narrative nonfiction. I have a few personal favorite books about writing that I read years ago and dip into now and again. I couldn’t find all of them (I tend to lend them out), but here a few of my favorites among the many I have looked at (or at least bought) over the years:
If You want to Write by Brenda Uleand
One Writer's Beginnings by Eudora Welty
What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Becoming a Writer by Dorthea Brande

I would say that out of all of these books the one that I go back to most often is Writing On Both Sides of the Brain because Klauser taught me something I need to be reminded of often. She says we have a critic inside our brains (no, really?) and that critic should be given her due, but not while you are in the creative process of writing a first draft. During that time you kick out the critic (send her to a relative's house) and tell her you will let her back in later. Then you write happily and uninterruptedly without a nagging voice telling you what's wrong with what you're doing. Later you invite that critic back (notice that this is by invitation). The critic is very helpful during your editing phase, but should be sent away again when you need to tap into the creative, UNcritical voice again. It does work that way for me: creative brain needed (right side) then analytical brain (left side) called in to help. Knowing this process makes it easier for me to silence the critic when she gets in the way. This simple piece of wisdom has saved me, my sanity, and my books many, many times.

I also go back quite often to What If for Bernay's and Painter's great writing exercises. Although these writing exercises are meant for fiction writers primarily, they are useful for nonfiction writers as well, especially those of us who want to use the techniques of fiction in our nonfiction: scene, character, plot arc, detail, where to place and how to use (real) dialogue. I often feel I should write those two woman a thank you note. So here it is: Thank you, Anne and Pamela!

I am rereading One Writer's Beginnings right now because we just read The Optimist's Daughter for our book group. I love this memoir. When you read it you not only learn about what it is to be a writer, you also come away feeling privileged to know Welty. One moment from One Writer's Beginnings I think the I.N.K. audience will love: Her mother goes into the library and says to the librarian (whom everyone ELSE was afraid of): "Eudora is nine years old and has my permission to read any book she wants from the shelves, children or adult." There was one exception she gave: a book about a little girl who practiced piano so hard she fainted and fell off the stool. She was just afraid that little Eudora would read the book and then she'd fall of the piano stool, too. Apparently she was quite impressionable. (A future writer!)

Another book that made a huge difference to me years ago and that I look forward to rereading is by William Zinsser, called On Writing Well. It's a must-have for nonfiction writers. But I'm letting my husband to take credit for that one.

I asked said husband, the Professor of Science Writing and master of narrative nonfiction writing, to weigh in for this post. He literally weighed in, bringing home from his school office a bag o'books--most of his favorites about writing narrative nonfiction:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
The Art of Fact edited by Kevin Kerrane an Ben Yagoda
Telling True Stories edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Writing for Story by Jon Franklin
Literary Journalism edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer
The Triumph of Narrative by Robert Fulford
Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser
Writing to Learn by William Zinsser.

As I said, I loved On Writing Well by Zinsser, and have read parts of his other two books here. You will notice, by the way, a preponderance of books by Zinsser in Jon's pile. He is a master at the art and also an incredible teacher and nice guy. I once talked to him for five minutes and came away inspired for weeks.

I dipped into Telling True Stories a few months ago, and let me tell you this book is a gold mine! There are essays in there by Melissa Fay Greene and Katherine Boo and Nora Ephron and of course Tom Wolfe. There is advice about how to structure a piece, how to research and report, and even whether or not to tape your interviews. The rest of these are books I'm going to be dipping into this summer as I work hard on my current nonfiction project (when I'm not talking about nonfiction at ALA--come say hello if you're there!). I have been told by the professor that these books can live in my office for the summer.

So yes, that's my stack o'summer writing books.

I also have a stack and a wish-list of both nonfiction and fiction books for the summer. If you want to write great nonfiction for kids you should read nonfiction for adults as well as for kids. This should go without saying, but there, I said it. On my adult to-read list is the new Stacy Schiff book about Cleopatra, Jame's Gleick's Information, fiction titles that include Room and A Visit From the Good Squad, and of course, the shelves of books I'm reading for research for my project. I promise I will sneak in a beach read should I make it to a beach, or the equivalent.

In closing I would like to pass on a piece of advice from the Other Part of My Life. As a senior at Columbia my son was asked to answer some questions and give advice as part of the "Senior Wisdom" feature on bwog. Here's one of my favorite things he said:

"When someone asks you how it’s going, don’t tell them how much work you have, or how little you’ve slept. Tell them what you’ve eaten recently. They’ll be overjoyed."

Fresh strawberries and oranges with Wallaby vanilla and plain yogurt, topped with granola.



CC said...

Congratulations, Mother of the college graduate! Job well done!

Going to keep this excellent book list.

Susan Kuklin said...

I love this blog! Thank you and Professor J for providing a terrific summer reading list.

And to Benjamin, congratulations! May the sun shine on your graduation today.

On to Amazon ...

Cereal with strawberries and bananas, skim milk, coffee, fresh OJ.

rebeccahirsch said...

Congratulations to you and your graduate!

Thanks to your (and your husband) for these book recommendations. Some of these I already know and love. I am going to run out to the library to get my grubby hands on the others.

By the way… mini whole wheat crackers, cheddar cheese, and a hot cup of really good coffee.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Thank you for this post, Deb! I really need to kick my inner critic out of the house--out of the state, the country, the continent!--and this is great advice.

Congratulations to the graduate and proud parents.

Roasted asparagus, green beans, left-over chicken and rice, and a big fat brownie with chocolate frosting.

Ilima Loomis said...

Great list! I'm reading "Telling True Stories" right now and it's excellent.

Ilima Loomis said...
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Rebecca Stead said...

Hooray for graduation, and for new things (for everyone).

I know this isn't exactly secret wisdom, but ON WRITING by Stephen King is pretty inspirational. A little bit nuts-and-bolts, a little bit memoir, a little bit straight talk. I think much of what he says is true for every kind of writing. And if not true, at least interesting to think about. (He has a great metaphor for writing first drafts that has something to do with desperately paddling a leaky boat to dry land.)

and: Pepperidge Farm chocolate confetti cake.

Loreen Leedy said...
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Loreen Leedy said...

I love Writing on Both Sides of The Brain... she also discusses logical fallacies (wish more writers/commentators knew what those are), dealing with authorly procrastination, awareness of accent in words/sentences and much more useful info.