Writing

Why Books on the Craft of Writing Are Worth a Read

Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

There’s always more to learn. This is true for any discipline, from the most inscrutable conceptual art to the most straightforward physical efforts. It’s certainly true for writing as well – whether a writer has emerged from an MFA or PhD program or is entirely self-taught, there’s always room to grow, new approaches to the craft to learn, and new perspectives to study.

There are a host of ways for writers to do this, including attending classes, taking part in writing groups, and observing writers in conversation. (There are also plenty of great interviews about craft available in print – the four volumes of collected interviews from The Paris Review make for terrific reading.) There’s generally something that might spark inspiration, or cause you to regard the work before you with fresh eyes. There’s also a particular pleasure that can come from reading writers discussing their own experiences with pen or keyboard in hand – whether taking a fully instructional approach or opting for a more anecdotal one.

An abundance of writers have taken on questions of writing or inspiration; for instance, Graywolf Press’s “The Art Of…” series, with volumes covering everything from intimacy to subtext to death, offers a diverse array of perspectives on a host of insightful topics. Other writers have explored different aspects of the process, such as Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which offers numerous permutations on the telling of a very simple story.

Sandra Scofield’s The Last Draft takes on a different, and difficult to quantify, aspect of writing: revision. Structurally, this takes the form of a manual, with assorted steps, exercises to do, and examples pulled from a cross-section of contemporary and classic literature. Scofield is an experienced author herself, and several of her tips, especially those concerning the need to re-read one’s own work as part of the process, hit home. And she doesn’t stint on exploring the ways in which the process is personalized for each writer. “Find the story in you and you will find the subjects for your novels,” she writes. “Fear, anger, shame, joy, ambition, pride, envy, loss, grief; what you need and don’t have; what you had and lost; where you were and can’t go back.”

A deep dive into literary history results in a very different set of results in Brian Dillon’s Essayism. It’s both a meditation on the nature of essays over multiple centuries and a powerful example of the power of the form itself. Dillon is fond of stylistic innovators: both Virginia Woolf and Georges Perec are literary touchstones that he refers to repeatedly. And he makes a number of sharp observations about the effectiveness of lists when used in essays.

But Dillon’s book also attains much of its power from his incorporation of his own struggles with depression and with writing. His study of the essay is comprehensive, but it isn’t always celebratory; at times, he muses over the troubles he’s encountered while writing the book itself.

“Is that what the essay is, what the essay allow: an excuse for never being able to commit to a lifelong, career-long, project? I’m not even sure that the essay is the problem: few, actually, of the 1,174 files in that folder on my computer can legitimately be called essays.”

Inspiration is at the center of the anthology Light the Dark, edited by Joe Fassler, in which writers share passages from works that inspired them or caused them to rethink their approach to writing. Several contributors, including Angela Flournoy, Jonathan Lethem, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, make direct connections between these works and books that they subsequently wrote. Others take a more expansive approach, looking at prose that influenced them on a formative level.

For instance, here’s A Little Life author Hanya Yanagihara on the opening of Lolita: “This paragraph is almost a mini writing seminar, not only about the importance of language, but the importance of names – how we can transform something in the very naming of it.” It’s a complex dissection of a selection of prose, and the innumerable lessons that can be learned from it.

Over the course of his decades-long career, John McPhee has spent a lot of time thinking about the way that nonfiction is written, researched, and structured. Some of this has led to his acclaimed books; some of this has also factored into the course he’s taught at Princeton for many years. And his latest book, Draft No. 4, acts as a sort of distillation of a lifetime of experimentation and experience. Here, McPhee reviews how he structured some of his most acclaimed pieces, cites the approaches of a number of other lauded writers of nonfiction (including the great Janet Malcolm), and provides a host of charts and diagrams.

“Readers are not supposed to notice the structure. It is meant to be about as visible as someone’s bones,” McPhee writes. “And I hope this structure illustrates what I take to be a basic criterion for all structures: they should not be imposed upon the material.” That, too, is a critical lesson implied by many a book on the art of writing: for all that there’s to be learned in studying the approach of other writers, finding what works for you remains a unique experience. And ultimately, a rewarding one.