So Many (Writing) Books, So Little Time (to Write)

This began as a blog about writing books I love, inspired by Jane Friedman’s recent post of her five favorite writing prompts books. I started pulling my favorites from my bookshelves and the pile by my desk got higher and higher. Treacherously so. I realized a blog about all the writing books I love and use regularly would be, well, a book about writing books.

I started winnowing.

I noticed in the stack were seven books by the same publisher: Graywolf Press; four of these from The Art of Series, edited by Charles Baxter. I decided to limit this post to these books. I’ve been reading and rereading them for years and when I do, I feel as though I’m studying with the masters.

My first of the series, though not the first released, was The Art of Description, World into Word by Mark Doty. I adore his work and who better to write about the art of description but a poet who does just that—makes art from descriptions. This is how he begins:

It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see. But try to find words for the shades of a mottled sassafras leaf, or the reflectivity of a bay on an August morning, or the very beginnings of desire stirring in the gaze of someone looking right into your eyes.

Next I ordered The Art of Subtext, Beyond Plot, by Charles Baxter. I do love subtext. My copy of this book is littered with sticky notes and page tags, marking passages that illustrate how great writers have used subtext to evoke what lies beneath  the words on the page. Baxter has me believing I can do it, too.


“Compressing time is what all fiction does…” Joan Silber tell us in The Art of Time in Fiction, As Long as It Takes. But what to compress and what to summarize? And how to travel between the “then” and “now” of the story? And what about slow motion in narrative? Examples abound on these pages.

My current read in the series is The Art of Time in Memoir, Then, Again by Sven Birkerts. I don’t write memoir (yet) but many in my classes and workshops do and that tricky question of when to use the voice of the “then” narrator and when to use the voice of the reflective narrator almost always comes up. Birkerts’ examples illustrate this and so much more.

These books in The Art of Series serve as my morning meditation books; I read them as I drink my coffee, sticky-noting them, copying passages in my commonplace journal or on scraps of paper to quote to my students, and, I hope, lodge somewhere in my mind to surface as I write.

Two books in series I’m looking forward to: The Art of the Ending by Amy Bloom and The Art of the Voice by ZZ Packer. Graywolf also publishes several in the series devoted to poetry.

What are your current favorite writing books? Do you read them once and put them away, or do you study them again and again?

The writer on retreat

Here’s the writer in her chair mulling over Charles Baxter’s essay, “Defamiliarization” (Burning Down the House) as she tries to “think” the words on the page instead of just letting the pen flow. She knows what to do—a prompt, a timer and let ‘er rip—but she’s in resistance mode, a not unfamiliar place she’s found herself these last weeks at the cabin in Idyllwild.

Outside the squirrels and tiny chipmunks scurry-search the hillside for grubs or seeds or whatever will feed them. Not unlike her mind frantic-digging into phrases, images, looking for one good word. Inside, the fan whirs white noise as she stares at her page, bare feet propped on footstool, lapdesk propped on knees. She chews her lip. Probably before long she’ll get up, fill a bowl with nuts and dried berries; she’s done that before, too. And an ice tea so long as she’s in the kitchen, and then there’ll be the ice cube tray to refill, the cupboard to wipe down. And so on and so on.

She considers making a phone call, considers taking a nap, but somehow through the fog and white noise, she remembers Ron Carlson’s vow to sit in the chair for twenty more minutes (Ron Carlson Writes a Story) and how her teacher told her to “stay in the room,” and she doesn’t get up, doesn’t bolt, doesn’t throw her notebook at the squirrels outside the window and shout “Just shoot me.” Instead she turns to a fresh page and runs her palm across its blue-lined face. She thinks of the girls and boys in Africa or Afghanistan who have no paper or scant amounts, considers the trees that have been sacrificed so she can scratch out her pitiful words on their remains and begins:

“I think we should find an apartment together,” Sarita said.

… and so it goes. Seven messy, scribbled pages later, she puts down her pen, stretches her legs and gazes out the window, stunned by the blue of the sky.

Q: How do you overcome resistance?