Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reading about writing

Because I was dusting yesterday, I happened to notice the slim paperback lying facedown on my nighttable. The author’s face looked up at me a little plaintively, and I stopped to contemplate her head shot for a moment. She was pretty, pleasant-looking, probably my age or a little younger. And I had every reason to think I’d enjoy her book when I ordered it. But I’ve barely touched it since it arrived.

The book is called “Writing Toward Home,” and seeing it lying there, almost entirely unread, made me stop dusting for a moment to think about why I buy books about writing but don’t read them. This one came highly recommended by a woman at church who is taking an adult ed class in creative writing, and because she said it had helped her write, I thought it might help me too.

And maybe it would, if I could discipline myself to read it. But I’ve gradually had to acknowledge over the past several years that I don’t learn that much from books about writing.

It’s not that there aren’t thousands of authors who know far more about writing than I do and could teach me a lot about the craft. When I was younger, in those first few years out of college, I read lots of books on writing. One after another.

But I wasn’t doing a lot of writing in those years. I was looking for inspiration, but I would later come to realize I was looking in all the wrong places. In more recent years, I’ve done lots of writing – hundreds of personal essays, articles, profiles, and blog entries. But as far as I can remember, none of them stemmed from any inspiration I found in a book about writing. They came from experiences I had, or stories people told me about themselves, or conversations I overheard.

Not long ago, an essayist whose work I admire wrote about how she learned far more about how to cope with romantic problems from reading Edith Wharton than from reading self-help nonfiction – she’d apparently consumed plenty of both – and her words reminded me of my feeling about writing. Instructional books may inspire some, but I should know better than to buy yet another one that will just sit there until I dust it. The truth is, I’m more likely to chance across an essay idea in the act of dusting than in reading the very same book I’m dusting. Inspiration lies all around me – in friends, in strangers, in nature, in conversations, in housework – but not really in books about writing. So I’ll skip the book and just keep cleaning the house and hope that by the time the day ends, I’ll have a new essay under way. 

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