John Bond’s Essential Library for Writers
by guest blogger John Bond
I’m a writer. Sometimes.
I learned from John Dufresne that everybody wants to have written. What distinguishes the wannabes from writers is that writers write. Every f[…] day…
So, I’m a writer. Except when I’m not. And when I’m not, I have failed. Of all the things I have ever learned about writing, Dufresne’s advice is the most important: “You wanna be a writer? Strap your ass in the chair and just write. Today. Tomorrow. Every day until you die…” Thank you, John, for that, and for so much more…
And I have, from time to time, taught writing on various levels, including as an FIU adjunct.
Michele Jessica Fievre, who is a wonderful woman and an exceptional writer, and upon whose blog this appears, sent me this request via FACEBOOK:
Hi John, I hope this email finds you well! I once took a workshop with you and you provided us with a list of books that writers absolutely need in their writing library. Would you care to share this list one more time, on my blog located at www.mjfievre.com. I’d be forever thankful!
I have a rule. I RARELY say no to women. I didn’t put this list together for you reading it, or for me… I put it together because I was flattered that Michele asked for it – and she’s a VERY cool, strong, smart estrogen person, and I am helpless before all such humans… I can’t ever refuse them!
So here’s my list: BOND’S ESSENTIAL LIBRARY FOR WRITERS, slightly updated since I presented it to the workshop MJ attended, with a few parenthetical notes. No particular order, although more or less chronological. I include works from several FIU professors, not because I know them, but because they are the best… and I will defend that proposition against anybody.
Poetics, by Aristotle (introduced to me by Lynne Barrett); the archetype for writers. Lynne is my reluctant muse. I find many of my answers in her teachings and her example. (I have copious notes from every class I ever took with her—quite a few. I ponder them from time to time.)
Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allen Poe – from Les Standiford – short, sweet. If you used this as your ONLY Guide to writing, you would be fine, and if you adhered to it exactly your work would be stellar.
Letters of Anton Chekhov – several of the various collections of Chekhov’s letters include sections on the many letters he wrote regarding writing, and the development of his own paradigm. John Dufresne swears by this. It took me a while to get around to Chekhov… and as usual about such things, John was right!
The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White (1918!) – via George Southworth, once the Miami Herald’s Latin American correspondent (an old school, hard core true journalist, the likes of whom no longer exists) who taught my Journalism classes at UM (1973-74) and made us memorize this. Education by critical thinking rather than by rote is the way to go, but there are exceptions. Put this in your bathroom and read it every day until you have memorized it. Then apply its principles repeatedly until it becomes like muscle memory. Don’t think about it, just do it. Really!
Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster — Jim Hall turned me on to this. A series of Forster’s Cambridge lectures published as a treatise in 1927, with seven subjects: the story, people, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm, featuring insights into the work of Proust, James, Austen, and others. Famous among other things for defining the differentiation between round and flat characters.
The Hero with A Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell — introduced to me by Les Standiford but ground into my consciousness during my sojourn at AFI’s Screenwriting program (Standiford is an alumnus) – REQUIRED READING FOR ALL DISNEY AND DREAMWORKS WRITERS.
The Power of Myth, by Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell — The Hero with A Thousand Faces, Cliff Notes version.
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Storytellers and Screenwriters, by Christopher Vogler — (from Standiford) Practical application of the Campbell principles.
Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. (Wayne-o) Phillips — Wayne-o is a casual friend from the poker world, which is how I discovered this delightful little tome. Jim Hall opened my eyes to Hemingway, who perfected the model for the modern American narrative novel. What he said about such things matters!
Language of the Night, Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, by Ursula K. LeGuin (out of print, available from a number of Internet sources) — If I had to name my favorite book, limit myself to one, this would be it. The title is misleading; this rich collection of essays is about words and stories. LeGuin’s parents were anthropologists and she brings a deep understanding of the role of the individual in the community to her work. She is all about character. This is the stuff of imagination and creation. “When you open the curtains you don’t know what may be out there in the night. Maybe starlight; maybe dragons; maybe the secret police; maybe the grace of God; maybe the horror of death. They’re all there. For all of us.” Let LeGuin open the curtains for you.
Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Janet Burroway. I paid textbook prices for the 2nd edition, used bookstore prices for the 4th edition, and got the 6th edition from Pirate’s Bay (a discussion worth having some day.) I have kept this book on my desk since Lynne Barrett first introduced me to it in 1993. It is my essential companion, inspires me, gets me on track, reminds me of what I need to do, and why. It is the only writing textbook you will ever need.
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestseller, by James W. Hall. Somewhere back in the 90s I took an MFA Class with Jim Hall where we canvassed commonalities in the Bestsellers of the day. Jim took that conversation to incredible levels in this book which covers 12 diverse top sellers of the 20th c. There are no formulae for success but coupling the observations of Hall with the dicta of Campbell and the compositional structure of Poe and your path from here to there is clearly lit.
I Remember (I Believe), an essay by John Dufresne, published in The Pinch, Volume 29, NO. 1, Spring 2009 p. 145, et. seq.—John writes here about how we mentally process memory, and our imaginations and our dreams and how we process our own truths. What is fact, nonfiction? What is fiction? Whichever you write, you need to read this.
Does writing about writing count as writing? I think it does. Today, I am a writer, and thus I quite like myself… tomorrow, well, we shall see what tomorrow brings.
Everything I know about writing, what I am as a writer, I owe to my teachers—the English Department at Schreiber High School, the Journalism Department at UM, and especially to Standiford, Hall, Barrett, and of course Dufresne, from FIU’s Creative Writing Program. And in lesser degree from workshops, classes and seminars with their colleagues Campbell McGrath, Dick Sugg, Ron Carlson, Dan Wakefield, Dennis Lehane, David Kranes, David Kirby, Vicki Hendricks, and Robert Antoni, among others. I owe them everything.
One last bit of advice from me—which means from all of them, and those who wrote the works I recommend to you here:
Sturgeon’s Law prevails: “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” The writer’s corollary that you will hear at any worship or conference is: “You’ve got to write through the shit.”
What you write will inevitably suck. The first draft of everything sucks. All writing is re-writing. Turn off your editor. Critique nothing. Don’t worry if it’s gonna be any good—trust me, IT WILL SUCK. Slit your wrists and let the words flow like blood. Puke them out. Cry them onto the page. S[…] them out. You can’t fix a blank page, can’t re-write it. But you can—and you will—fix a page that sucks. To do that you must write, write and write some more. Re-write later.
Learn the conventions and hypotheses of the above works and integrate them into the way you view the world…they will find their way into your work from there.
Turn off your editor, strap your ass in the chair and write through the shit. Today. Tomorrow. The day after and the day after that and after that… ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Then you are a writer, not a wannabe. And you will like yourself.
Dania Beach, FL – Andros Island, Bahamas