How to write? Count the ways

Dear Aspiring Scribes: There is no magic. But take these tips (practical, cosmic, neuronic) and meet your deadline in the morning.


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Writers are constantly looking for a source of wisdom and inspiration that can relieve us of our crippling insecurities. There is no such thing, of course. That's why Sisyphus is the patron saint of writers. In Tartarus, Sisyphus is condemned to roll a boulder up a steep hill eternally only to be crushed beneath it when it rolls backward upon reaching the summit. That's what writing feels like to most of us.


"YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING CREATIVE NONFICTION FROM MEMOIR TO LITERARY JOURNALISM AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN"
By Lee Gutkind
Da Capo Press/Lifelong Books ($16).

So, off we go in search of the latest literary Svengali who will convince us, if only for a day, that pushing that boulder uphill and conquering that summit is not only possible, but likely if certain habits of writing are either adopted or eliminated.

There are few teachers who are as esteemed among writers of all genres as former University of Pittsburgh English professor Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine.

Mr. Gutkind's latest work, "You Can't Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between," is the kind of book about mastering the writing life we've come to expect from him: brash, clearly written, opinion-heavy, personal anecdote-driven and chock full of practical exercises.

Mr. Gutkind is not a theorist. He never resorts to New Age exhortations to build the writer's self-esteem, either. Mr. Gutkind is a two-fisted writer of the old school singularly dedicated to getting results the old fashioned way -- by writing, rewriting, highlighting and rewriting again.

Mr. Gutkind is also an unapologetic moralist. His advice to writers comes with his personal take on literary ethics baked deep into every observation. "Let's contrast truth with willful fabrication," Mr. Gutkind writes in chapter two where his refusal to pull punches is in full display:

"James Frey lied. His six hours in jail may have seemed like three months -- but they weren't and he knew the facts. Stephen Glass lied and went through elaborate machinations to mislead his editors and his readers. He simply made stuff up. These authors weren't writing creative nonfiction. They weren't even writing fiction. They were dishonest, violating the trust between writers, editors, publishers and readers. Glass and Frey knew the truth and altered it for their own benefit."

Mr. Gutkind's recounting in the same chapter of one magazine reporter's mission to fact-check David Sedaris, the beloved memoirist on "This American Life," is wince-inducing. We always suspected Mr. Sedaris' stories were too perfect, but fans of NPR are reluctant to think too much about the possibility that such hilarious stories are mostly fiction. Mr. Gutkind doesn't let us or the humorist off the hook that easily.

We're left with the unavoidable conclusion that Mr. Sedaris is as untrustworthy a narrator as Mr. Frey and Mr. Glass, though we're reluctant to judge him by the same standards because he makes us laugh. We've given too much money to public radio because of his stories to blackball him.

Fortunately, Mr. Gutkind spends more time praising than scolding writers. His analysis of Gay Talese's 1966 Esquire profile "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" and why the singer's confrontation with the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison at a bar is so memorable will point more than a few readers in the direction of the original essay.

Mr. Gutkind's sagacious examples are one reason he's among the most effective evangelists for good writing around.

• • •


"SEVERAL SHORT SENTENCES ABOUT WRITING"
By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Knopf ($22).

New York Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg paints on a smaller canvas, but his lessons are just as powerful, though delivered in prose far more reminiscent of aphorisms and poetry than what one usually encounters in advice books about writing.

In "Several Short Sentences About Writing," Mr. Klinkenborg invites every writer to approach the discipline at the subatomic level by constructing sentences that say exactly what they want them to say. It sounds obvious, but it isn't. The entire book is a series of short to medium length sentences. Each sentence miraculously contains an idea or insight that lesser writers would have milked for several pages. Here's an example, including the way it is positioned on the page:

Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed.

The rest will need to be fixed.

This will be true for a long time.

Mr. Klinkenborg sounds most like a mystic when he states in single sentences what most of us know and have forgotten over the years: "A writer's real work is the endless winnowing of sentences" or "Every form of writing turns the world into language" or "What if the virtue, the value, of the sentence is the sentence itself and not its extractable meaning? What if you wrote as though sentences can't be summarized?"

Mr. Klinkenborg's book is not designed to be read in a few sittings. Dip into it at work or during the morning commute. It will take years to exhaust its insights.

• • •


"WIRED FOR STORY: THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO USING BRAIN SCIENCE TO HOOK READERS FROM THE VERY FIRST SENTENCE"
By Lisa Cron
Ten Speed Press ($14.99).

Lisa Cron's "Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence" is relentlessly interesting because it reveals how our brains perceive and process stories and narratives.

Ms. Cron walks the writer through the mental architecture of a story, patiently revealing what works and what doesn't and why. She writes with clarity and humor about elementary things every writer could profit from revisiting under her auspices. Who would have thought anyone could make the intricacies of brain science accessible?

There are times when Ms. Cron comes close to declaring storytelling an unacknowledged branch of neuroscience, but she recovers her footing by making the kind of observation about writers that could never occur to a garden variety behaviorist.

These three excellent books approach the challenge of the writing life from radically different platforms, but they agree on one thing:

Good writing requires a willingness to roll a large boulder up a hill every day with no regard for the consequences. Whether it ever makes it over the summit is another story.

bookreviews

Tony Norman is a Post-Gazette columnist (tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631).


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