Book-Ends: On Reading to Write (The Writing Life, Negotiating with the Dead, and On Writing).

The first time I really wanted to craft a story was in grade 11, when I took my first writing class.

Sure, I’d been scrabbling around in the proverbial sandbox for years, playing Barbie and Ken with someone else’s characters, building sandcastles that would soon be washed away by the never ending ebb and flow of new ideas. But for me, that was more about the story. I would get a lot more utility in just telling the story than I would actually writing it all down. Writing was just the most convenient medium. Oh, I would delight in all the tricks and clever turns of phrase, but I never actually took pride in the words, the paragraphs, the flesh of the story, only in its ephemeral spirit.

That all changed. As much as I’d like to give credit for that change to my writer’s craft teacher, it wasn’t him, not directly anyways. He was a fantastic teacher, who pushed our writing boundaries and introduced us to Strunk and White’s Element’s of Style and made grammar more than a dirty word and filled our rhetorical toolboxes with every tool a budding writer needs. However, the largest impact he had on me was handing me The Writing Life by Annie Dillard.

Before then, I’d read books for the story. He said, she said, how they got from point want to point be. So long as it didn’t get in the way of the story, I couldn’t tell bad writing from my chipped right toenail. I read Shakespeare, I read Austen and Dickens, I read Chaucer and Homer, and all the classical giants, without any attention to style outside of what the English teachers shoved in our faces. Reading the Wikipedia article or the cliffnotes was just as good as reading the book itself, because I got the story. I know, heretical right?

And then this book was shoved in my face. It’s a deceptively little book, and since I read ridiculously fast, I figured why not give it a try. Thank god I did. The Writing Life may have been the first book I read purely for the pleasure of the prose, because the prose is just that beautiful. To a seventeen year old who wouldn’t recognize beautiful writing unless an English teacher smacked us over the head with it, this book was the hammer that cracked my ignorance.

Annie Dillard wrote about her life as an author. It never occurred to me to check her bonafides as an author, because the prose was just that damn pretty. Every image so carefully constructed, every word so carefully placed, everything put down just so – it was magical. The images she conjures about writing has shaped how I think about words, sentences and paragraphs ever since. Perhaps I’ve even carried that yearning to find a shed of my own, too.

Dillard made me pay attention to what I would go on to learn in that Writer’s Craft Class, and to grab at everything I learned and greedily shove it into my writer’s tool box to be polished and honed and hoarded for future use. I used these tools to crank out short stories, little pieces, scraps of pretty little writing. It wasn’t the next great novel, but it was step up from mere pretty turns of phrase.

Then I found Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead. Anyone who takes a Canadian English class or plays Canadian trivia¬† knows of Atwood’s power as a writer; because I have done both, I have a profound respect for those powers. Reading what she wrote about writing, about what an author is, who to write to, and why write, clarified my own wants and needs as a scribbler. Reading what she wrote also made it impossible for me to call myself an author, because I have not done a thing worth a damn to earn the name.

So fine. I had a toolbox, I had a goal and an idea of what an author is, but I have no freaking clue how to actually get around the business of writing a book. I doubt I ever will, even if I do finish that piece of self deprecating crap or anything else, but reading On Writing, by Stephen King, has helped. While The Writing Life is beautiful and carefully crafted, and Negotiating with the Dead sparkles with verve and wit, On Writing is… basic. It’s vivid, like the Writing Life is, only Dillard writes about carefully laying lines of brick while King writes about passing out with half digested egg drying in his hair. It’s funny, only Atwood invites us to laugh along with her at male writers getting impregnated by the muse while King self-deprecatingly makes jokes about killing an agent with his first batch of stories.

But King makes it simple. Write a lot and read a lot. Write your first draft with your door closed and your second draft with the door open. Write to your Ideal Reader. Write as if you were discovering a fossil. Write about your story, not your back story. And above all, write.

In retrospect, this is a no brainer. And yet to someone who very badly needs this kick in the pants, this is no brainer takes all of my big brain and more to comprehend. How can I write every day when I have nothing to write? You always have something to write. You’ve lived, haven’t you? But I want to make this world more elaborate! You write first, make up the details as you go along, and revise a couple bajillion times. I can’t write! You don’t need a hall pass to pull up your pants and go there.

It’s brilliant. And it’s liberating.

Book-Ends is a series about books. It’s not quite a review, so much as a retrospection, and it comes out on weekends (brilliant naming, right?). This name is optimistic, in hopes that I’ll actually read a book that makes me think every week and actually write about it.