I did it. I read 10 popular books on writing. I had some thoughts.
Here they are.
Inspiration is romanticized while research is a necessary evil
I read these books primarily so I could learn how/whether they talked about research. Mostly, they don’t. At least, not in the traditional sense of using sources to fill gaps in knowledge. From reading these books, it seems instead that writers are supposed to rely solely on inspiration and their own life experiences and imagination to create stories. The writers of these how-to books spend a lot of time talking about the magic of inspiration without mentioning the work of research. When they do talk about research, they caution against spending too much time on it or letting it show too much. Anne Lamott is the only one among all of these writers who seems to think research is a necessary and useful part of the writing process (rather than a separate process that distracts from writing).
On the one hand, I get it. On the bigger hand, this tendency to mythologize writers as people who rely on divine inspiration (or the Muse or whatever) and never have to look up so much as a phone number gets a little annoying after a while. I just don’t believe that it actually works that way. Even if all you’re doing is stopping once in a while to use Google Earth to help you describe a setting you can’t visit in person, that’s research.
Anne Lamott is still my favorite
It’s not just because she’s the only one who talks favorably about research, although there is that. I just think out of all the books here, she’s the one who gives the most accurate impression of how writing actually works for a lot of people. The shitty first drafts. The jealousy you feel when a friend is better or more successful than you. The voice in your head that won’t stop telling you how bad you are. She talks about the good stuff, too, of course. And with humor to boot. Stephen King also does a good job, I think, of talking about how writing works, though he’s a little more prescriptive than I’m comfortable with personally and his point of view is that of someone who is extremely successful (so is Lamott’s, to be fair). Of the two, I might give a young writer Stephen King’s book first but only because they’re more likely to know his stuff and therefore be interested in what he has to say. Then, if they were still interested, I’d give them Bird by Bird and let them know that this is much closer to how it really is and if the book doesn’t ring true to them now, to set it aside and read it again in five or ten years. Then again five or ten years after that. And five or ten years after that.
Write what you know is not actually a thing (or maybe it’s just not the thing you think)
It was kind of amazing how often writers brought this up just to shoot it down. I don’t think I’ve ever read a discussion of this advice that wasn’t either a critique or a complete takedown. Part of me is kind of glad about that because if we could only write about what we have directly experienced through the eyes of characters that are just like us, I would be stuck writing some pretty boring stuff.
The problem with these takedowns of “write what you know,” as I’ve discussed before, is that if you’re writing about what you don’t know, some research would presumably be advisable, but no one ever says this. The closest anyone ever comes is to say some variation on “write what you want to read,” which of course often involves reading a lot of the type of thing you would like to write. This is a form of research. But it seems like more than that would be needed if you’re going to write stories that require you to step out of your own life experience in ways big or small.
All writing advice books say the same thing
It was a little shocking, in reading these ten books, to find how often they all talked about the same things, often in the same ways. The difference more often than not was only in the angle being used. And also the tone. Some writers are more humorous or fun (Lamott, King, Whelan). Others are more whimsical or awe-inspired (Bradbury, Vogler, Goldberg, Prose). One was a bit fussy (Strunk & White). One was very prescriptive (Burroway, Stuckey-French and Stuckey-French). Another was…well. They used phrases like “hack writer” and “rank amateur” a lot (Browne & King).
So if you were someone who was interested in reading about writing, any one of these books would probably do and which you choose is more a matter of which approach you’re most interested in and/or what tone speaks to you the most.
But definitely read Anne Lamott.
I’ve been working on an article that summarizes some of what I found as far as how these books talk about research (or don’t). In doing that, it’s also been necessary to identify some of the shortcomings of my study. One of which, I realized, was that a lot of the books on the list I was using were originally published before Google existed and haven’t been significantly updated in that respect. Like, when Lamott talks about doing research, she talks about the yellow pages as a key resource. (Incidentally, the primary use of the yellow pages book in my family growing up was as a booster seat so my grandmother could see over the steering wheel of her car.) This is significant because of how central the internet has become to our information-seeking activities. So I need a break from reading about writing for a while, but when I get back into it, I already have a couple of more recent writing books in mind that I want to look at to see what they might have to offer on the topic.
Wish me luck.