[Long ago, I wrote this. Yes, its details are old. Still, it’s valuable.]
Well, seeing that my niece, like my mother, is a talented writer, I went to Barnes & Noble, thinking to buy equipment. My idea was
|Gabrielle Lusser Rico’s Writing the Natural Way|
|A blank book for journal writing|
So I looked at Rico’s book, and I saw that, at the beginning, it’s rather academic. I thought, Maybe I could sit down with it and go through it with a highlighter, marking the practical exercises so Kara can just skip over the rest.
Then I checked out the blank books. Some were soppy New Age things, with silly quotations and untrustworthy suggestions. Some of the books were made in China, with lined paper like in a school notebook. Some were from Spain, with quadrille paper—like graph paper. Some were really blank: no lines at all, good for drawing as well as writing. Some, made in Italy, had beautiful bindings. There were leather-bound journals from Italy and China, some designed for travel. Some journals were big and thick. Some were small.
As I looked them over, I thought, Would any of these be something Kara would like? Does she want something big and thick, to fill with all sorts of ideas? Or something small, for carrying with her? The fancy, leather-bound ones might make it harder to write: Is my writing worthy of such a package? Is the next sentence I write worthy of the one I just wrote? Or maybe she wants to keep a diary . . .
My mind kept going back to what a writer needs and wants.
Books like Rico’s can be useful—but I learned what I needed from it because my wife taught it to me. I didn’t read the book myself (though my aunt Marion did, on my recommendation, and found it very valuable).
And blank books are neat—but any blank book will do, if only the dollar-apiece school notebooks I buy at Walgreen’s. I kept my high-school diaries in books like that, bought from the Rice University campus store.
The Writer Reads
Out of all this pondering, one thing remained certain: you learn to write by READING. Now, there are books out there about writing, written by great writers.
Italo Calvino writes five essays about the qualities of experience that we look for in great writing. Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist, writes about writing and social responsibility.
But that’s writing about writing , and it isn’t what I mean. No, you learn to write by finding writers who do what you admire, and then you see how they do it.
In high school, my model stylist was the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. I read his History of Western Philosophy not because I was so interested in the subject, but because of the way he shaped his sentences. And I wrote short stories shaped like the ones in the science fiction anthologies. Later, when I was in Saudi Arabia, I wrote short stories under the influence of James Joyce’s Dubliners stories.
The Writer Learns a Craft
That’s the fact: writing is a craft, and you learn your craft by apprenticing to the masters. To write well, you have to have vocabularies.
One vocabulary is words.
If all you know is the words spoken by your friends, you’re limited to expressing what your friends know and think. The spoken vocabulary is pretty small, and the less education you have, the smaller it is. So the only way to develop a writer’s vocabulary, one adequate to express a range of thought and feeling, is by reading.
But there’s another vocabulary, and that’s the vocabulary of sentence structures: ways to say things.
Spoken sentences have to be relatively simple, because they’ve got to be understood as they are heard. Written sentences can be reread, if need be. So they can be more complex and less repetitive, and they can express more complicated thoughts.
The Writer Expresses Ideas
So reading exposes you to different ways to say or write ideas. And that, Kara, is the key! Because you don’t really write ideas at all, or, rather, when you write in one way, you express one idea, and when you write in another way, you express a different one.
In high school, I remember, I’d have ideas, but they were really vague and general. And when I’d try to write them down, I found that they changed as I wrote. What happened was, when I had to choose a particular word or phrase, I had to decide whether I meant the idea that I was writing, or a different idea that I hadn’t yet written. I’d write a sentence, and then I’d read it, and I’d say to myself, That isn’t what I was thinking, but it’s interesting. And then I’d rewrite, to say what I now thought was true.
Writing as Self-Discovery
Maybe you can see where this process was going. For me, writing is a way I can find out what I think (discovery) and determine what I think (commitment). Another way to put it: it’s a process of defining who I am.
Writing down words on the page is committing to one idea rather than another, being one me out of a whole chorus of potential mes. It’s a way of engaging in debate with myself, talking things over with myself.
I’ve always said that, for the money, I liked my own cooking best. The same is true for my own writing, and maybe my own company as well.
Of course, that gives another reason to value reading: it lets you engage OTHER minds, listen to OTHER voices.
And sometimes you decide that reading trashy writing is like hanging out with trashy people. Unless you’re deliberately slumming, you tend to avoid it.
But you understand, too, that what you read is as much part of you as who you make friends with. If you keep a book close to you, it’s because it’s part of you. It appeals to one of those potential selves that waits inside you. We are all bigger than our skins, you know.
Oh, well . . .
Anyway, I gave up on shopping at Barnes & Noble. I decided to give you a gift certificate instead, so that you could choose what’s right for you. Maybe you want a big (or small), leather-bound (or cloth-, plastic-, or cardboard-bound) blank book. Or maybe not. Maybe you’ve decided you’d like to take a chance on Rico’s book, or even have me mark it up for you. Or maybe not. Maybe you want some fantasy novels or a best-seller or a picture book or a dictionary . . . whatever you want to read and explore.