Many years ago, while my father was still alive, I found this book on his shelf.
My father was a writer. Made a career of it. Made good money.
He also discouraged me from entering his field.
“Son,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t go into advertising.”
My father was not a reader. Not a book reader, that is. I never once saw him read a book. And though I bought him a few as gifts when I was a kid – before I realized he didn’t want them – my feelings were hurt when he would hoist the package, feel it out, and grumble the word book.
“It is a book. Open it.”
“What am I supposed to do with a book?”
“You read it.”
“Why would I want to read a book?”
“You read all the time. Newspapers, magazines. I thought you might like a book.”
A pause. He peered at me over the rim of his glasses. Then tilted his head back and studied the book through his lenses. “Hmmm.”
That’s not really how it would go. But it’s close.
Though he had shelves full of books, the only ones that meant anything to him were the ones about trains. They looked good on the coffee table. The man did love his trains. Named his cat after one – Phoebe Snow. It was a black cat, not white like snow. Made no sense. Anyhoo…
When I found Writing Fiction on his bookshelf, I was only reading, not yet writing. But I thought I would like to write one day. I thought, I ought to read that book. But it was old. Smelled like cigars. Had old yellow pages. Turned me off, that. I preferred books fresh out of the bookstore, smelling new, with pristine covers. I would read them without breaking the spine or folding a page. When I was done, you couldn’t tell the thing had been read.
And when I began to read about writing, I started with these:
When my father died eight years ago (my god, eight years), I purged most of his books. He hadn’t read any of them as far as I knew, and most were not anything anyone would want to read anyway. I did keep a few that had some character, though. Here’s a few:
And of course I kept the book on writing. Packed it up and moved it with my others to Ohio, where it sat on my shelf for four years, unread. Packed it up again and moved it back to Texas, where, for some reason, it never made it to the shelf. Not sure why I finally chose now to give it a go. Maybe because I’ve been writing so much fiction lately. But also, I think, without really knowing it, now was the right time. Sometimes – and this is rare – but sometimes a book finds you. At the right time. Asks you to read it.
Once I began, I could not stop. And that I do know why.
The writing about writing. Writing like this:
There is something repugnant about doing either mental or physical work for the sake of staying busy. It probably represents an evasion of tasks one is afraid to tackle. And the most valuable part of writing lies in challenging one’s secret fears and testing to the utmost one’s resources of spirit. It takes courage to write well.
Not many writers write about writing like that anymore. Look at this:
Among the things I know, I am most certain of this – that an apprentice finds in his reading the standards he must meet as a writer. He must always compare his work with the publications of more experienced writers.
He’s talking about the good ones. The masters. Giants like these:
Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and James Joyce’s Ulysses are novels that might reward months or years of concentrated effort. But I suppose it is better (just a little better) to have dipped into one or the other during an afternoon’s bus ride than never to have opened them at all.
And unlike today, when writing about writing often reads like cheerleading, we have this:
Becoming a good writer is not easy. No process of training can guarantee it. Those who disparage any kind of instruction in fiction writing have a point when they say you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. In my experience, though…few sow’s ears want to become a silk purse. Most people who want to write have some correct intuition of fineness in themselves, and a correct intuition that learning the disciplines of the craft is a good way to expose and measure that fineness.
And finally this. Don’t skip this. Not reading this might be the biggest mistake you make today:
My god, man. That’s how you write about writing.
Thanks for the book, Dad.