As long as I can remember I have turned to books to learn how to do something new. Eventually I would have to dig in and get my hands dirty with whatever it was but I always, always started with reading a book about it first. So it should come as no surprise that when I came to writing, I did the same thing. Long before I bought my first Writer’s Market I was a member of the Writer’s Digest book club. I didn’t have a lot of money back then but I would scour the flyer for the best combo deal so I could build my writing bookshelf.
When the books came in I would devour them, cover to cover, in no time at all then go back through them again, a second time, mining for nuggets. I was sure that the secret to writing success was in those books. Over the years I added many books to those shelves. When I moved cross-country (and back again) I weeded out lots of other books but not the writing ones. I kept them all. Until now.
Lately I’ve been rereading all the books on my shelves, making sure that they still speak to me and therefore deserve some shelf space. While we have a lot of room for books, it’s not unlimited, most especially the shelves in my office. There are some favorites I know will never grow old for me, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, Take Joy by Jane Yolen and Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider. A few craft books that I return to again and again, but as I go through the shelves, rereading one book a night, I find I am ready to let go of a great many of the books I have carted back and forth across the country.
I used to think those books contained the secret to creating my writing life. That I would read them, learn things, absorb things and then, miraculously, be living the writing life of my dreams. Now, as I reread many of them I find my stack to trade in at Powell’s growing and the number of books staying on my shelves shrinking. Some I’ve outgrown. I’m no longer a brand-new writer with questions about manuscript format and query letters. Some have been displaced by the Internet (which we didn’t have when I first started writing.) And some just don’t speak to me anymore.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have learned a TON of stuff from reading those writing books and I will continue to buy new ones to read and learn from going forward. But all this rereading I’ve been doing has reminded me that reading the book is only part of the solution to building a writing life.
You still have to do the work.
Get the words down on the page. Show up every day and write a lot of crap and then come back and revise a lot of crap and then keep on doing that until the crap turns into a decent story and then, then you let it go. You don’t hold on to it for fear it’s not perfect yet. You do the work. You do your best with the writer you are at that moment in time. And then you send it out to the publishing world and move on to the next project.
It’s easy (at least for me) to get caught up in the stories of other writers on the pages of all these books on my shelves. And I start to second guess and third guess and forth guess my process, my ideas, my every little thing about MY writing life that doesn’t match up to someone else’s writing life. And that’s so wrong.
When we read a book we love or a poem that moves us, we don’t say, well, the author used a process I don’t approve of therefore I can’t allow myself to enjoy the book or the poem. That would be crazy, right?