Note: One in a series of columns focusing on creative writing and the writing process in general. For columns geared toward digital/marketing content and promotional writing, visit my content development company’s website, Guiding Type and our writing blog.
Writing is a craft. You must try, fail, and practice in order to become good.
I won't go as far as saying that the 10,000-hour rule applies — that yardstick of mastery that has been the subject of much debate regarding its validity.
But you do have to hunker down, read the greats of yesteryear and today, and yes, get writing — lots of it: A pianist doesn’t suddenly become a pianist overnight, wooing the crowd with their perfectly played rendition of Beethoven’s Appassionata. They practice, they get frustrated, they cry, and they experience joy after they finally make those notes sing.
I once saw a phenomenal classical pianist, Simone Dinnerstein, masterfully play a fair range of complex Bach pieces a few years ago. She didn’t miss a note — at least as far as my not-so-finely-trained ear could discern.
But what she said after her performance kind of surprised me, but kind of didn’t: she tirelessly practices the pieces she intends to perform even if she has already played them likely a thousand times or more in concert and at home.
Yes, obviously, writers are not concert pianists; we can make mistakes that nobody will hear or see while holed away in some writing dungeon writing for an audience of one. But similar to Simone, we must tirelessly practice and absorb the knowledge and wisdom of the greats of our field — Bach meet Joyce — if we are to also become masterful. And especially if we intend to show our verbal gems to eyes other than our own.
We need guidance. Fortunately, there are many writers from all walks of life who have distilled their trials and tribulations, their suffering and triumphs, into easy-to-read books that can help us see the light profoundly — and hopefully find our voice along the way.
Their sweat, their pain, is indeed our gain.
Here are 10 kind, gracious, and wise works that helped me step out of my own dark dungeon and gave me the confidence to share my work with other fellow writers and readers like you. You may have heard of some of these books. I expect that. But maybe, you’ll find a gem unknown to you that can help you refine your craft and make your next practice session more worthwhile — maybe even more daring.
1. Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Some may consider this an off-beat writing guide, but it’s worth the journey. Here’s a sampling: “Every piece is an ecosystem of words and structures and rhythms. How rich and diverse is the ecosystem in each of these pieces? From which do you derive the most pleasure? And why?”
2. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki
To write clearly, you must think clearly. I’m not urging you to become an adherent of Zen Buddhism. But this text is a gateway to cleaning the mind of distractions, delusions (which have killed many a fine writer), and just plain old foggy fuzz. If this work is not your bag, think about other similar wisdom books that can help you clear the mist and pull back the shroud atop your imagination.
3. 10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard
Rule No. 7: “Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly.” I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you want to know the other rules. But I can’t pass up offering this to you: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” That’s an aside to another rule about trimming the bushes or the fat, whatever you want to call killing the (only beautiful in your mind) darlings.
4. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
Here come the groans. “Yes, I know this book! How dare you cite it! So obvious!” That may be so but on occasion I reread parts of it to remind myself of how errant we can be when we lose control. If we know this book so well, why do we all still neglect to omit needless words? I'm a terrible repeat offender. That’s the most well-known rule of this book. But there are a thousand others that I often forget and need to remind myself of.
5. Ernest Hemingway on Writing by Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway didn’t write a book on writing. For the most part, he hated talking about technique and process unless he was…well…hammered. I sympathize. But, someone had the wisdom to collect the pebbles of wisdom he quite deliberately tossed across a number of his works and personal letters. You’ll get a sentence about writing from a letter to a lover, a paragraph from a book, an aside in an interview. It all adds up to a tremendous body of knowledge that any writer can benefit from.
6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
She’ll tell it to you straight: most first drafts are you-know-what. She’ll bust plenty of myths about writing and she’ll share stories about her writing and her process including her many troubles and vexations with writing the carefully crafted line. You’ll learn that writing is dirty, messy, and sometimes damn awful. But if you weather the storm and persevere, you’ll get the gold.
7. Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To some, he arguably wrote The Great American Novel. He is an undisputed American canonical author. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, wrote twenty-seven books. But in his journals, you’ll get to know a different John Steinbeck — a self-loathing writer who doubted his ability to even write. In these journals, he recorded with unflinching honestly his everyday mental and physical wrestling with himself to bring to life his magnum opus, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck doesn’t mince words about himself. He hates his writing, he questions his abilities, he wonders if he’ll ever finish it. These journals remind writers of all stripes that the craft never comes easy — even if you’re John Steinbeck.
8. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
This is a compass of the field, the book that nudges us a few degrees west so we make it to our personal North Star, our Polaris. “One secret of the art is detail. Any kind of detail will work — a sound or a smell or a song title — as long as it played a shaping role in the portion of your life you have chosen to distill.” Chew on that and the other 10,000 sentences that will plant seeds to be the genesis of thoughts and creativity in your mind.
9. The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
In order to write with power, you must write with dramatic flair. Your words may be beautiful, carefully picked from the vine of inspiration. But they will be dull if they don’t contain the momentum, charge, and energy that they receive from a character that intrigues (Hamlet), or a plot (narrative) that makes you want to turn the page or even read the next paragraph. This book will pepper your prose — no matter what you are writing from journalism to experimental fiction.
10. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Before he became the Ray Bradbury, he used to have to beat the timer on a coin-operated typewriter, slamming the keys as hard and as furiously as he could before he’d have to feed the community library typewriter for another ten minutes. In this book, Bradbury shares his love of writing — and his successes and failures. It’s part autobiography and part treatise on the craft. His adoration of writing wafts off the pages. Using Zen in the title was likely a marketing ploy — so don’t think you’ll be reading about Bradbury’s meditation technique. But you will clearly see the Zen of his writer’s mind as it developed from beginner to the master that we have come to know and enjoy.