As you might know, if you follow me on Facebook, Twitter or Goodreads, I’ve been reading books about writing recently. I go through these phases where I’ll read everything I can get from one author, or a whole bunch of biographies, or everything I can get on one topic. Right now, I guess, it’s writing books.
That’s not a bad thing.
In the last few months, I’ve read Thunder and Lightning and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. I followed that up with On Writing by Stephen King. The first two I’d never read before. The third I’ve read roughly 17 times since I was sixteen.
They’re wildly different people, with completely different writing styles and theories of writing. But they have more in common than I realized at first. They’re both teachers. They’ve written books about writing. And they both feel that there is something magic and holy about writing.
I have that in common with both of them
This is only a review of what I’ve learned from Wild Mind and Thunder and Lighting. I have not yet read Writing Down The Bones, but it’s on my list.
Natalie is, first and foremost, a poet. You can tell that in every word she writes. She’s lived a wild, enviably bohemian life that as a teenager I would have aspired to. She’s been married several times, moved all over America, taught writing to thousands of eager students.
Most of Natalie’s books are about writing or collections of poetry. She’s written one novel, so far as I can find, called Banana Rose.
After reading two of her books, I can tell you that I don’t agree with her feeling that writing must come from somewhere deep within us. Much of our writing will, it’s true. But sometimes I write a story that’s just a story. Just something that came to me, and entertained me for awhile.
What I’ve learned from her has been immeasurable. Natalie’s life is about writing. She doesn’t do anything else. I aspire to that, someday. Right now I’ve still got bills to pay, but she’s embraced poverty if poverty is what’s required for her to write. Maybe someday, if I don’t have kids…
I also learned the importance of freewriting, every day. Not a word we write is wasted, just like no yoga practice or meditation session is wasted. We take that time to stretch, to learn. To discover things we have to say that we didn’t know we wanted to say.
Natalie often equates writing to meditation practice. At first, I found that far-fetched. I write about dragons and space stations, that isn’t very zen like. Then I realized that the subject didn’t matter. The important thing was being present in the moment. When I meditate, I am completely in the room. I feel the floor, feel my body (for better or worse). I feel every vibration in the room, from my cat walking in or a breeze through the window. When I’ve left my practice, I can recall the calm I felt later when I need to center myself for a few minutes. I do this by counting backward from ten, just the same as when I begin my practice. Much in the same way, when I’m writing I am completely present in my story. I am deep inside myself.
Just like when meditating, I’m not thinking of the bills or the dishes, or whether or not I’m getting Carpel Tunnel. I’m focusing on the present, or on the story.
Even if it is about a dragon.
I can’t imagine I need to introduce Stephen King to you. His book, On Writing, is considered a cornerstone of a writer’s education. Everyone who talks about writing talks about this book.
Aside from On Writing, Stephen King writes horror. He’s published a metric ton of fiction. Most of it is fantastic. I’m in the middle of reading Tommyknockers while I write this. I’ve been a fan of his since I was ten when I read Pet Cemetery. Some of my other favorites of his are The Stand, Green Mile, From a Buick 8 and Carrie. I watched all of Kingdome Hospital. I was even named after one of his books. (My middle name is Christine. Yes, that was intentional.)
I’ve mentioned before that there’s one large topic on which Mr. King and I disagree. He is a pantser, and I am a plotter. In fact, he has some rather nasty things to say about plotting a novel in On Writing. To which I can only say this; Lots of people have the same complaint about his books, sometimes the endings blow really hard. Maybe that wouldn’t happen if he had at least an idea of where the damn story was going to end up before he started.
But I’m trying to move past that.
What I learned from the book is exceptional.
Mr. King has an exceptional work ethic. While I, as a teenager felt that writing was something ethereal, that I needed to be inspired to write, he didn’t cop with such bullshit. I kind of needed that talking to, as a budding writer.
There’s this great conversation between George RR Martin and King. I’ll paraphrase it below.
Martin: How do you write so much?
King: Well, I sit down and I try to write eight pages a day. (It used to be ten. Guess he’s slowing down.)
Martin: Don’t you ever sit down to write, and just nothing comes? So you check your email, and play solitaire, and tell yourself you have nothing else to say?
Most of what I know about dialog I’ve learned because of On Writing. King suggests writing dialog honestly, writing the way people talk. He also suggests listening to people talk, if you want to learn to write good dialog. I’ve done this, sitting quietly in coffee shops and shitty diners. That’s probably why a lot of my characters talk like Western PA roughnecks. Of course, that could be because I am myself a Western PA roughneck, and it just comes out sometime.
As many of you might know, King was once heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol. These are addictions that he beat, with the help of his wife and family. From this, I learned something important. The wild, bohemian life might be great, but if I want to stay healthy and keep writing, staying clean and staying married are the best ways to go.
Have you read these books? What did you learn from them? Let us know in the comments below.
“… but if I want to stay healthy and keep writing, staying clean and staying married are the best ways to go”. Yes, it does take discipline, but the pay off is good. Even if trouble comes, one has more reserves for drawing on in order to fight the battle. In good or in ill….
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I think so. He’s a good guy, anyway.
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