Thursday Three #5

In today’s Thursday Three, our weekly assortment of oddities in triplicate, we give you a brief introduction to three of the best writing guides.

1. Perfectionism your problem? Scared to ruin that astounding paragraph in your head by daring to write it down? Silly fool! Anne Lamott has this to say to you:

LamottPerfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.

Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is the perfect kick in the pants for those of us who have trouble with the actual writing-stuff-down part of writing. Lamott is down to earth and inspiring, and her humor, compassion, and good-natured crankiness somehow make the pen-to-paper business feel less like torture and more like fun—urgent, essential fun.

2. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield suggests that writerly procrastination can be blamed on a force he calls Resistance:

War of ArtResistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work … Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work … Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.

This all sounds rather dramatic, but Pressfield’s notion of Resistance will feel familiar to many aspiring writers—and viewing one’s mundane daily struggle to write as a minor skirmish in an epic, ongoing battle against Resistance is… kind of fun. The final third of the book gets a bit mystical and dippy (“I plan on using terms like muses and angels. Does that make you uncomfortable?” Why yes, yes it does!), but the first two-thirds of The War of Art may just make a writing warrior out of you.

3. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is for those of you who have conquered perfectionism and procrastination and are now going about the messy business of making sentences. Gardner sees fiction as the creation of a dream in the reader’s mind:

Art of FictionWe may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must … be vivid and continuous—vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgements must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion.

Drawing on examples from Homer to Updike, Gardner demonstrates the various ways in which writers have created these dreams in the minds of readers. He addresses practical issues of craft, including point of view, sentence structure, voice, and rhythm, and his chapter on common errors—mistakes that “snap” the reader out of the fictional dream—should be essential reading for all would-be novelists. He’s particularly harsh on writers who use fancy-pants Latinate terms where Anglo-Saxon ones would do; if your story features an “inhospitable abode” instead of, say, a desert of rocks and sand, well, there’s probably no hope for you.