Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In Defence of Books About Writing

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult that it is for other people." -- Thomas Mann

One of the criticisms leveled against books on writing, frequently by writers themselves, is "You can't TEACH art."

It's a blanket statement and an absolute. I can't argue with it. I can give you a paintbrush, but you're not going to paint Da Vinci's 'The Last Supper.' I can give you a guitar, but you're not going to play the Beatles 'The White Album.'

But on the other hand, if I plunk you down in front of Vermeer's 'The Music Lesson,' or put Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumors' on repeat, sooner or later you're going to learn something about painting or about music, about how it's done.

Count on later. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a slow way to learn.

If someone comes along and shows you how to use the brush, how to mix paint, how to create texture and depict light and draw the human form with some degree of accuracy (not required for Cubism, BTW), then your learning time will be considerably shortened. Those are valuable skills that can be applied not just in recreating an Vermeer, but in painting a Chagall or even something wholly original. Learning them will do more for your development as an artist than taking a magnifying glass to any number of Vermeers.

The same is true of writing. And by writing, I mean more than just putting correctly-spelled and gramatically-used words down on paper. I mean writing something compelling, something that readers want to read. I've read the Great Gatsby, and the Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and The City and The City, and Pinion and... well, there's a partial list to the left. I've read a fair bit, and after all that, I can honestly say only this:

I don't know art, but I know what I like.

If you can read these books, or other books, and absorb their lessons on technique and construction and rhythm, then congratulations. I hope you will use your genius for niceness instead of evil. I, however, am a bit thicker. Ideas don't readily penetrate my skull. I appreciate having someone peel back the skin and show me how the muscles work. Books on writing do that for me. It makes it easier for me to go out and bring some life to my own creations.

I believe I'd be a fool to denigrate or ignore anything that makes me think about what I'm doing and that gives me some ideas about how to do it differently (possibly even more effectively).

No comments: