Two Helpful Books for the Writer’s Toolkit
By Carmelinda Blagg, Contributing Editor – O Dark Thirty
It’s always a pleasure to discover books about writing that can offer genuine inspiration, practical guidance and a bit of wisdom. Herewith, two offerings I’ve recently added to my library:
Several Short Sentences about Writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg
Vintage Books, Paperback
I happily glommed onto this book when I came across it at a bookstore in lower Manhattan last year, because I was a big fan of Klinkenborg’s weekly column, The Rural Life, which ran for several years in the New York Times. He teaches creative writing at Yale and is the author of several non-fiction books, including The Rural Life, More Scenes from the Rural Life (both of which include most of his columns from the Times) and Making Hay. He has served on the editorial board of The New York Times since 1997. The columns were always a pleasure to read, with their concisely crafted and lyrical mediations about life on the author’s farm in upstate New York.
There are a lot of books – possibly too many? – about writing and the writing life, of course, but rare is the one that catches your attention in the way this one does.
Several Short Sentences About Writing contains no chapters, no “Steps 1-2-3” and you’re there. Instead, it is as straightforward as its title suggests. Klinkenborg explores the sentence by way of using well-crafted ones that serve as both explanation and example, culminating in a diligent and thoughtful examination of how writing works at the most basic level: word by well-chosen word. The effect is like a cascade of finely distilled haiku; clear, quietly instructive, and succinctly aimed at how sentences work, and, more importantly, how they don’t.
Take an example from the first page:
Here, in short, is what I want to tell you.
Know what each sentence says,
What it doesn’t say,
And what it implies.
Of these, the hardest is knowing what each sentence actually says.
In addition to exploring the elusive play of grammar and syntax, the author addresses the innumerable challenges of writing, including its myths; myths that all writers must essentially unlearn. Like this, about the illusion of “flow”:
For the writer, the word “flow” is a trap.
So is any word that suggests that writing is a spontaneous emission.
Writing doesn’t flow unless you’re plagiarizing or collecting
clichés or enlisting volunteer sentences.
And there is this valuable insight, when thinking about revision:
The familiarity with which we know our own lives is
Writing is a special instance of that.
In responding to your own prose, you’re responding in
some sense to yourself,
And no matter how hard you look, you’re almost invisible
Camouflaged by familiarity.
One basic strategy for revision is becoming a stranger
to what you’ve written.
There’s so much more, so worthwhile – including passages from other writers which Klinkenborg invites his reader to read aloud, deconstruct, explore. This slender book offers an abundance of clear-eyed, no nonsense guidance and wisdom for any writer interested in appreciating the true power of a well-constructed sentence. And not one word feels wasted. Keep it nearby. This is the kind of book you can read a few pages at a time with the feeling that you’re getting more in just two or three pages, than most books of this type usually offer. Turn to it when you need a bit of encouragement, or long for a few well-honed insights about the craft of writing. It’ll be well worth it.
Another useful source: The Describer’s Dictionary: A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations [Expanded Second Edition] by David Grambs & Ellen S. Levine
W.W. Norton & Company, Paperback
Grambs and Levine are experienced wordsmiths. Levine is a writer, editor and producer of web content, and Grambs has worked as not only an editor and reporter, but also a lexicographer and translator.
This reference book is an interesting hybrid – part dictionary, part thesaurus, part anthology. It’s a useful reference tool that can be consulted for practical information as well as for doing more intuitive searching. It organizes its offerings under particular categories such as “Structures and Spaces” “Earth and Sky” “Animals” “People” with, in some instances, sub-categories within these. As the authors explain in their Preface, its format is a kind of “reverse-dictionary” where the definitions precede the terms. It’s an interesting approach when you’re not quite sure what it is you’re looking for.
For instance, if you’re working on a story or essay that involves describing architecture, buildings or houses, you can turn to the section “Structures and Spaces” which opens with the following reverse definition:
urban multistory dwelling typically of reddish brown sandstone and usually having front steps
simple one-story dwelling built of logs
And more terms and expressions can be found under eight sub-categories, such as “Parts or Features of Buildings and Dwellings”, “Rooms and Interiors” and so on.
The second part of each chapter contains “Quotations” – excerpts from the works of over six hundred writers, both fiction and non-fiction (all genres), illustrating the use of many of the terms from the previous section. For example, the “Structures and Spaces Section” offers Ian McEwan’s description of a Victorian home from his novel Solar; and Joyce Carol Oates describing a house from her novel Them.
As all writers know, good writing is in the details and this generous reference, organized in a unique format that blends specificity, intuition and hundreds of excellent examples, can help writers locate that elusive word or definition, or a particular color or metaphorical phrase, as well technical details and terms. Even facial expressions. I especially like how its topical clustering of terms and expressions can help you to not only find what your might be looking for, but can also work at a more subtle level by triggering the imagination to think in different ways about something.