(Originally published in Line Zero, Issue One, 11/01/10)
How do we come by all of these writing books? Because most writers don’t go out and buy a library of books all at once, they collect us one writer at a time. We accrue the basics via instructors, classes, friends, or resources listed in the back of other books. New books, well they just keep on coming, don’t they? And before we know it we need another shelf, another bookcase, and viola, we have lots of books.
My First Books
In 1987 I dropped out of corporate life and moved to a farm in Missouri with the first person who ever asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. “Be a writer” popped out of my mouth so fast it must have been waiting there since high school when Miss Goff (see how long ago that was – Miss), a life-changing English teacher, sent me down the literary path.
For the occasion of moving to the farm and starting a new life with a new partner, I bought some standards and launched my humble library. Since I knew some of the basics were rusty, I went to a used bookstore in St. Louis and bought The Elements of Style and a lovely old bigger-than-a-breadbox dictionary. That was easy, but what to choose as my first writing tools? On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Writing with Power by Peter Elbow felt like a solid start.
The relationship and the money for life on a farm ran out at about the same time, so I moved to The Big Apple and worked as an intern at Wigwag Magazine for a year.
If your day job involves writing of any kind, how can you not have lots of books sitting around? They may not be books on the craft of writing, but they are tools nonetheless. Because I couldn’t remember half of the grammar rules from junior high, I bought “friendly” books – Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner and Grammar for Grownups by Val Dumond.
Confession # One
I have consciously quarantined these books on the bottom shelf in my office with a thesaurus, a book of quotations, and The Chicago Manual of Style – more headache remedies than high-content nutrition.
Now I’m looking at my “real writing” books and can’t recollect where and when I acquired many of them. I’m seeing them as part of my life-long learning, making me a better writer or simply gathering dust. They all hang out together, maybe even at times (going Pixar for a moment) I approach the bookcase and one will yell “Oh, oh Barbara, choose me!” I get a vibe or I’m desperate for help, pick it up, and take it to my desk. When the latest writing crisis is over, back it goes with the others.
Looking again at the three shelves of writing tools, i.e. books, I can organize them in a way that might resonate for you . . . oh fellow purchaser of so many books.
First there are the books that I might someday be able to take to a used book store and get a store credit. They do not have rampant underlining or dog-eared pages. I also have a shelf of writing tools I’m going to read someday, just not today. They have un-cracked spines, no coffee stains, or marks on the page. I can date some of them by the bookmark from the store where they were purchased, gasp, twenty years ago? Generally, I came by them after a workshop, in an article I read, or from a friend who publishes more than I do and just couldn’t “live without this book.” They are fine books but they serve more as street cred than writing tool.
Stay tuned for Part Two and More Confessions – They get worse!