So many of our avid readers at Literary Mama are also creative, inspired writers. But how, exactly, do busy mother-writers maintain focus when life spins from school concerts to composing exquisite prose? How do you define productivity when the kids, the dinner and the editor need you now? How do you enjoy and cherish both nursing and copyediting — at the same time?
Books on craft can help. A great book might nudge you back to creativity when your body and resolve say, “To bed!”
As reviews editors (and mother-writers ourselves), we decided to take stock of our books on writing, to share our thoughts on three newly published books, and to pull our favorites off the shelf and remember why we return to the old classics again and again.
Vicki Forman: I started the year with Sage Cohen’s book The Productive Writer. The promise contained in its subtitle seemed right for a new year’s resolution: Tips and Tools To Help You Write More, Stress Less and Create Success. Over the years, I’ve struggled with productivity as a writer, and devised many strategies to keep myself moving forward on projects from day to day and week to week. Cohen’s book reminded me of some familiar strategies (daily word counts) and shed a light on some new ones (finding markets, defining one’s platform).
Thanks to a systematic, organized and highly functional set of guidelines, it’s quite likely that Cohen’s formula really can bring a writer success. If you’ve struggled with productivity, in the form of either getting started or keeping going, Cohen has advice and answers to make each writing session count. Her book will help writers focus on goals, what to accomplish in individual writing sessions, how to branch out from idea to platform, and, ultimately how to continue growing and transforming as a writer. As Cohen herself states, “Productivity is a lifestyle choice,” and her book and success as a writer prove that this is a choice we can all make. This is a book for all writers, not just us literary types.
Katherine J. Barrett: Filing, labeling, making lists… these things don’t come naturally to me, so I appreciated the highly practical advice in The Productive Writer. Organization, however reluctantly you come by it, is a key to productivity. I also liked Cohen’s more philosophical points. She says the archetype of the suffering writer must give way to that of the productive writer, a writer who “lives an engaged, balanced and satisfying life.” The same could be said of motherhood archetypes.
VF: Definitely. In fact, Cohen has specific advice for mother-writers. Be present, she says: “When it’s family time, it’s family time. When it’s writing time, it’s writing time.” Trying to do both at once — which, of course, we’ve all tried to do — means you truly enjoy neither. And enjoying the writing process will make you more productive.
KJB: Priscilla Long’s new book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft and the Writing Life, aims toward similar ends but through different means. On the first page, Long states, “This book is for writers who strive for virtuosity.”
VF: I love that goal: Virtuosity!
KJB: Long begins at the beginning, with words and sound. She urges writers to collect and store words, to develop their own lexicon, and to use a poet’s ear to work with rhymes, assonance, and repetition. “Every word, every sentence emits sound,” she says. “The question is, is it a musical sound… or is it the interminable drone of a washing machine?”
Long’s love of words is infectious. I immediately tried one of her exercises and created a “word trap” for a column I was drafting. After twenty minutes, I had a list of unusual but effective words that added zing to the draft.
VF: I agree, Long’s book is a goldmine and truly lives up to its claim to “mentor” the writer.
In the second half of the book, for example, she discusses how to structure a piece of writing. I find this the toughest part of writing, and the chapters in The Writer’s Portable Mentor give excellent advice. Long suggests four structural options: theme, collage, braid and dramatic, and provides detailed examples to illustrate the differences.
In the last third of the book, Long returns to basics: crafting sentences and paragraphs. What is a simple, compound or complex sentence? What is passive voice? When should you use a comma, dash or colon? This might seem like the mundane nuts-and-bolts of writing, but Long argues that virtuoso writers master such information and use it creatively. “Is there such thing as a good carpenter,” she asks, “who does not know the types of woods and nails?”
KJB: She has a point, and she illustrates it with excerpts from great writers. But Long, like Cohen, encourages us to enjoy the process, and not make drudgery of hammering nuts and bolts into paragraphs. Experiment, emulate, savor your growing skill. “These are great pleasures in sentencing,” Long says.
And like Cohen, Long addresses productivity directly. She maintains that productive writers produce — a lot. She advocates quantity as a means of arriving at quality, and even set herself the task of writing “one bad poem” a day. Why one bad poem? Because she can’t write one good poem a day, and writing one bad poem generates a body of work to be revised at a later point. If you don’t write, you have nothing to revise.
VF: Long has taught writing for over twenty years; her book distills all she has learned and passes it on to readers.
Roy Peter Clark is another veteran writing teacher. In his latest book, The Glamour of Grammar, Clark takes tremendous pleasure in words. He reads dictionaries for fun, relishes the letter z, plays with acronyms, and unleashes the colon. No one could accuse Clark of failing to enjoy the writing process.
KJB: It’s true! Clark invites the reader to “live inside your language” and to use grammar not as a set of rules that say, “No, no, no,” but as a set of tools that say, “Go, go, go.” He maintains, after all, that glamour and grammar are essentially the same word.
VF: This book would be an excellent teaching resource. Clark’s chapters are very short, and summarized further by a “Keepsakes” section. One can’t help but grasp the point.
For all its wisdom, however, this is not simply a serious book of punctuation. Clark infuses The Glamour of Grammar with wit, making each lesson both intriguing and fun. The chapter on question marks, for example, begins: “In my senior year in high school, 1966, I played the keyboard in a garage band called T.S. and the Eliots.” He goes on to describe a music mentor oddly named “?” and then asserts, “The question mark, used well, may be the most profoundly human form of punctuation. Unlike the other marks, the question mark… imagines the Other. It envisions communication not as assertive but as interactive, even conversational.”
KJB: Clark’s infusion of personal narrative into grammar lesson makes his book both easy to read and easy to remember. He calls his lessons “practical magic” and hopes they will transform language into powerful purpose. Ultimately however, Clark, like Cohen and Long, want writing to be joyful. “My wish for you is that the knowledge you’ve gained from these pages gives your work with the English language more fluency — and more joy.”
VF: As a writing teacher I appreciate Clark’s efforts all the more, and I brought The Glamour of Grammar into my class the other day to share it with them. Great books on writing are a treasure for those of us who teach writing, and the one I use most often in the classroom is Anne Lamott’s classic, Bird by Bird. My students love her step-by-step approach, and as a teacher I find it so helpful to have each problem broken down into what Lamott calls “snapshots.” This book reinforces my belief that a better writer is simply one with many tricks in her bag. Stuck on a scene? Reach into the bag and craft backstory. Dialogue not working? Reach into that bag of tricks and pull out the “characters must say no to each other” principle.
KJB: Bird by Bird has been on my to-read list since I first inched away from academic and toward creative writing. I’ve pulled it off the bookstore shelf many times, but have always picked a newer title, perhaps thinking a recent book would contain all the old advice, and more.
Of course, I know that’s not always the case because I have my own classics: Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind. The first was given to me around 2000 as I tried to infuse my academic prose with life. This book gave me the freedom to scribble outside the lines. Don’t doubt, just trust yourself and go, she seems to say. I bought Wild Mind shortly afterward, and off I went.
VF: I use many of Natalie Goldberg’s exercises with my students, and they always respond to them. The emphasis on inspiration and observation is an approach that I find echoed in another favorite, Bonni Goldberg’s Beyond The Words: The Three Untapped Sources of Creative Fulfillment for Writers. This book gave me permission to let work sit for a while (so it could, as she says, “percolate”), and it also convinced me that every part of writing is writing: research, meditation, you name it. Putting a pen on the page isn’t the only thing we should call “writing.”
KJB: I love the idea that getting words on a page is just one stage of the writing process. I’ve read many times that successful writers must sit and tap-tap their fingers until the words appear. There’s an element of truth to that advice — you have to work at writing — but I also believe a lot of beautiful words are conjured when you’re away from the computer and engaged with the world.
A book that taught me that good writing uses all the senses is Rebecca McClanahan’s Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. I read this book about five years ago and can still recall passages. There aren’t many books I can say that about, and I think this demonstrates her point: original, sensuous writing is memorable writing. McClanahan draws many of her examples from her students’ work. One of my favorites, from her chapter on figurative speech, was written by a second grader: “When my mama sit down, it’s like the whole world be resting.”
VF: That’s fantastic. What a great reminder of the ultimate focus of good writing, which is the creation of that meditative space. I wish every book on writing came with a reminder that this is what we’re there to do, rest in the silence, let the words come over us, tune into that emptiness and find words to fill it up. (And the right words, always.)
I need to end by mentioning a book that helped me keep writing when all I thought I should do was quit: Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. As the title indicates, this is a book about how to create faith and hope in the writer’s soul, when every rejection says you should stop. I firmly believe Friedman has saved many a writer’s career with this one, and as my thank-you to her for writing it, I mention it to any and all readers and writers. Get a copy of this for your bookshelf.
So, mama-writers, what books on craft to you return to again and again? What new books have you read, and what did they teach you? We invite you to join our conversation.