— Rachael Nielsen
I don’t have a yacht and I don’t come from money.
The opposite is the assumption when I casually mention that I’ve studied at Oxford. That’s Oxford University in England, yes. (Note: you must mention something like this casually otherwise you sound pretentious). I tend to mention this summer of study and writing fiction when I’m trying to impress boys or if it is of some value to the conversation. As I’m not in a pub nor will this article circulate throughout a dating website, I’m not trying to impress you, it is the latter this time. The Forest for the Trees was required reading before I flew the twenty-six hours to England. It is one of the best books on the process and life of writing, and thus goes on my list for developing writers. This book, as well as the others I will mention, is a tome that I keep coming back to. The Writer’s Reader was one that I read as a developing writer myself and has remained invaluable. Write – 10 days to overcome writers block is a new introduction to my shelves and one that has helped me overcome my procrastinating fears (which don’t always vanish the more experienced you become at writing).
1) The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner is the book I most want to mention from the reading list at Oxford. It is a writers’ self-help book of sorts written by an editor. She analyses the stereotypes of writers through the stories of her encounters with them. She lists the motivations and characteristics of these embodiments of clichés, so as to create profiles much like the results page of a personality test. She does not destroy every romantic conception you ever had about the writer’s life, but does explore how ideals of the depressed writer-genius, as propelled by his or her pain, are not always helpful nor true. Such sufferers are often hindered by their depression rather than given great fodder by it. I found her conclusions enjoyable partly because they fit with my life experience. I wrote some excruciating journals when I felt alienated by my parents’ divorce and drew relentless pictures of cockroaches. It was an expression of my feelings but there was no focus or refinement to my writing and I achieved very little in any aspects of my life during that hard time. Depression is mostly just debilitating. It is valuable for young/developing writers to have some idea of the romantic clichés of writing and to understand how such ideas reflect ideologies about art and the role of artists in society, not the actual temperament, mind set and environment that writers actually need to develop to be successful.
Betsy Lerner argues quite effectively that persistence is the key attribute to success. It is also intensely valuable for young writers to read the later sections on ‘rejection’, ‘what editors want’ and ‘publication’. These realities can seem a bit far away and daunting when you’ve not had anything published bar a short story in your University magazine (that was me for a while) but such brutalities are better understood than ignored.
2) Write- 10 Days to Overcome Writer’s Block. Period. by Karen E. Peterson continues from where The Forest for the Trees leaves off and will caringly bash into you what stops us writing and what environments and lifestyles we need to cultivate to facilitate our goals. This book is tremendous for many styles of writing and is not limited to being helpful in the genre of fiction, which is what I write predominately. Karen covers how to get into the head space to write and with a lot of helpful psychology, focuses on excuses and barriers to writing and how to get past them. This is a practical little book with lots of dot points and check lists that makes you feel very productive as you read it.
One of the best things my uni degree taught me, and which Write covers, is how to not write self-consciously, to shut out your audience as well as your own inner critic. Worry about that after you’ve typed a dozen pages. This is essential for developing your own voice.
3) If you don’t have hideous barriers to writing, how marvellous! But either way The Writer’s Reader* is a tranquil inspiration and cannot be skipped. Sari Smith, one of the contributors, believes that young writers should spend two years in solitary journal writing before attempting more. I certainly did not do this but her point remains valid in that the private space for writing only for one’s self is where the discovery of voice and what you are going to write about emerges. Keeping a journal is a key aspect to developing your voice and style unhindered by convention and the demands of others.
What is inspiring, not just informative about this book is that it covers a generous range of topics. My favourite chapter is ‘Don’t be Boring‘. The sections are written by a range of authors who demonstrate with terrific skill, how engaging and fascinating even a practical chapter on voice can be. They show us how to be great writers with their own style, not just tell us how with their wisdom.
*The most recent edition of The Writer’s Reader edited by Brenda Walker has since been renamed The Writer’s Textbook.
Rachael is currently studying a Bachelor of Writing at the University of Canberra. In between studies, she works and volunteers at the ACT Writers Centre. In addition to writing, Rachael is also an amateur photographer. You can find her online at http://rachaelnielsen.wordpress.com