At a recent literary nonfiction panel discussion, writer Chris Castellini revealed that while he was earning his MFA, the graduate students of his program were discouraged from reading about writing craft.
The concern was, he said, the students might have encountered articles like “10 Things You Must Do While Writing a Novel” or “4 Don’ts When Writing Characters” whose prescriptivism and pushing forward a rigid agenda is counter to the essence of what it is to create art.
While he said he now understands the impetus behind the caution, as the author of The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story, among many other works and an educator in narrative fiction and nonfiction, he sees that descriptive books and essays on writing craft can enhance one’s approach to writing, authorial voice and enthusiasm for taking risks on the page in numerous exciting ways and ultimately make writers become better writers.
Why Reading About Writing Craft Makes You A Better Writer
Descriptive Craft Essays and Books Walk Alongside the Writer
Writing is an art form built on certain givens of communication mode, storytelling mechanisms, and narrative tenets. Rather than fall under hard and fast rules, writing tends more toward the “many paths to a destination” axiom.
Much of the beauty and magic of literature is that a writer can explore and use risky or untried methods to get to where they need to go, and often forge new ground while doing it.
How Is It That Reading About Writing Craft Makes You a Better Writer?
A good craft essay or book should be a wending, a writer’s meditation on a topic or their relationship to an area of writing, far more an invitation into the writer’s personal experience with language, idea, and narrative than list of rules to be followed. The craft writer’s relationship to writing as a story is in and of itself instructional insofar as we use narrative from which to learn how to live- and in this case write- better.
Seeking out narrative nonfiction that speaks to writing craft is in a way partnering with another writer to enter into their process and emerge changed.
Is There Any Merit to “Do and Don’t” Articles?
Indeed, there is. While building a story out of someone’s prescribed Do and Don’t list is a limiting approach for something that is in effect an organism of its own making, if you look at these articles and books with a discerning eye, you’ll see they’re in fact useful for offering an opportunity to interrogate your own relationship to writing craft.
You simply want to be discerning- rather like you might with an all-you-can-eat buffet (aah, remember those?)
Rather than accept at face value that one should “never have your character look in a mirror” or, according to Kurt Vonnegut from his book A Man Without a Country, one should “not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing” (which a) is offensive even though it’s not a thing and b) hilarious because it’s so ridiculous and also not a thing), you’ll see— by stepping back and examining what prompted Vonnegut to say this— that in essence, he’s right: one wouldn’t want a page littered with semi-colons. They’d make your lines look indecisive, breathy, full of themselves.
But if you like them or even love them (in this New York Times article, Lauren Oyler’s love letter to the semi-colon is a beautiful look at the little mark), then you know a well-placed one makes a paragraph sing. But that quick prescriptive “don’t” pushed me to think about the punctuation mark and my relationship to it, and also what’s in the best interest of the reader, and that prescriptive opening is a valuable one.
Similarly is Stephen King’s famous suggestion that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Does he make a great argument for why you should avoid them? Yes, he does. Does that mean you should avoid them? Yes, but at your creative and rhythmic discretion, which is his whole point.
Castellini says it best. Read these works, but “don’t actually apply” the prescriptions. Instead, “consider the mystery.”
Craft Books Teach Us About Ourselves as Writers
Some books or essays we can engage with in full and be moved to a new place, and others simply remind us that perhaps one too many stories begins with a long-winded paragraph about the weather (though I don’t care what anybody says; I’m still a fan of the melodramatic and fun “It was a dark and stormy night.”)
Lastly there’s the lists that are great for a laugh, such as the part serious-part humorous Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing”, which includes one of my favorite rules for writing ever: try not to write the parts that people skip.
Solid advice if there ever was, Mr. Leonard.
Which Craft Books and Essays Make You a Better Writer?
This list is comprehensive but by no means complete!
Please comment below with any book or essay or other work that has taught you about writing.
- The Gift, Lewis Hyde
- The Art of Perspective, Chris Castellani
- Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter
- “The Fourth State of Matter,”(Essay) Jo Ann Beard
- “On My Way to the Novel, I Fell in Love with the Short Story,” Junot Diaz
- Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor
- The Art of Fiction, David Lodge
- The Origin of Others (from Norton Lectures at Harvard), Toni Morrison
- “The Site of Memory,” (Essay) Toni Morrison
- “The Ecstasy of Influence,” (Essay) Jonathan Lethem
- “Lonely ‘Pixel-by-Pixel’ Writing Method,” Amy Tan
- Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison
- The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction, Robert Boswell
- Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa
- “Loss of Face,” Charles Baxter
- Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose
- Remembered Rapture, bell hooks
- “Living Like Weasels” Annie Dillard
- De Canon: Writers of Color Discussing Craft (Hands down, the most thoughtful and comprehensive list of works by writers of color available)
- “10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written”
- “Best Essays on Writing”
What else helps writers be better writers? Coaching support that provides you with accountability, a brainstorming partner, and someone whom you can lean on for guidance and editorial advice.
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