Books on the art of writing

A handful of mini-reviews
by Lin Geary

Image: Maggie Smith /

I’ve just finished writing a review of a newly-released book on how to create perfect Japanese short-form  verse. The review will be published in Haiku Canada Review, Oct. 2011, and the book is titled Lighting the Global Lantern by Terry Ann Carter (who will be reading her lyric poetry at the Hamilton Poetry Centre in the spring of 2012). So here is a book that will be making a difference in my life for the next while because I want to use it as a springboard for writing and publishing tanka, something I have consciously avoided so far. The book was conceived as a manual for school teachers, hopefully allowing them to stop using haiku merely as a no-brain lesson-plan for supply teachers and other potential catastrophes. But Lantern reads like a love-letter to anyone who would like to learn how to use minimalist and imagist thinking patterns to take his/her writing to a higher level. This book gets my five-star rating for organizational clarity and comprehensive coverage of Japanese verse in English, but is terrific also for its fine examples and on-line links to the zen-side of writing. Put this on your bathroom bookshelf as the chapters are short and random dipping is encouraged. Wintergreen Studios Press published this 178-page trade paperback, available through Amazon.

An interesting enough writer’s manual that I found myself dipping into between classes a couple of weeks ago was Stephen King`s 2008 triple-compendium of memoir, guide-to-good-horror-making, and generally good writing habits, simply titled On Writing. Since I am not a fan of horror-anything (especially if it is well-written, because it scares me out of my wits), I skipped to the middle section which spoke briefly yet eloquently of not bothering to take writing courses. I immediately included myself in the not-bothering part largely because I am a compulsive taker-of-courses on anything creative. (… I have a half-finished upholstery project from 15 years back waiting in the den for a set of screw-on legs….) So I have to say the Stephen King book did a  good job of saving me some extra time that I can now spend writing. On Writing is in paperback and can be found through most on-line book sellers and in used bookstores in your neighbourhood. Worth checking out as inspiration for creating better horror for sure, four stars as an overall writing manual.

My all-time favourite how-to writer’s guide for creative writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. This is both a thinking guide and a doing guide. It offers exercises that bring your subconscious mind into play to get you writing effortlessly and creatively, and it makes you believe you are a good writer by proving it to you, if you are willing to follow some of her funny and fun suggestions. I realize now just how easy it was to scribble a first draft of one of my favourite poems (see F. Ward’s Road Work Ahead) by sitting in a downtown café with a window looking out over the Grand River, a tall coffee steaming beside my notebook, and a roomful of chit-chatty patrons surrounding me. Goldberg makes a point of recommending the writer schedule regular times for filling notebooks while sitting in public spaces. The rationale for public writing is that you will feel obliged to leave the editing till later, and of course your craziest ideas just spill onto a page while you pretend in front of this admiring crowd that you never delete a line and you don’t own an eraser. This book came out in 1986, one of many zen-inspired books picked up by Shambala Publications. It has been used countless times on high school creative writing courses and should get the full five stars for re-inventing beginner’s mind, a place where all our best thoughts occur.

Other writer’s guides I have found to have much merit include Jack Hodgins` A Passion for Narrative: A Guide for Writing Fiction. Published by M&S in 1993, this book gives you wonderful references to other writers who may have accomplished the same sort of thing you are trying to construct. The examples are very worthwhile and encyclopaedic in numbers, and the table of contents is an inspiration to read randomly, which I always find pleasing.  Total thumbs up for this book.

Anne Lamott`s Bird by Bird (1995) is patient and funny and gives you back your writing perspective when you have lost it. This is the ultimate writer’s-block buster from Anchor Books: Double Day.

Finally, I have to mention a book that comes at writing from a different perspective entirely, that of play-writing. Lajos Egri created The Art of Dramatic Writing to bring to light a creative interpretation of human motives. In an age when it is normal to think TV soap operas have cornered the market on delving into the human psyche, it is refreshing to look at a book that sees the deeper structural possibilities of human relationships, not just the emotive spillage. I noticed I have one copy that has many notes in my hand-writing in the margins and a second copy that is sectioned off with sticky notes, again from my own pen. This book from Simon and Schuster (1946) is still one of the must-read books for playwrights in the 21st century or for anyone who wants to create a truer and stronger psychological impact with less effort.

So, happy reading; happy writing.

Lin Geary, a long-time member of CWC, will be working frantically for the next little while to get Addie back in shape. She currently is the AGM secretary for Haiku Canada, and she hopes to do more about her sad lack of poetry writing as the days grow warmer and Pinehurst beckons. You can find some of her writing on-line with Ditch Poetry, Haibun Today, and VCBF haiku. She will be accepting a Sakura award for her VCBF winning haiku this coming May.

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