Here are three books that I keep handy. I notice that they come up in conversation, and maybe they’ll be useful to you. See what you think. (And let us know with a comment.)
Architecture with Jane Alison
As a writer of fiction, I’m more of a pantser / discovery writer than a plotter, but I think most of us on the looser side of the plotting spectrum do possess a kind of architectural sense. Bigger-picture than plotting, I mean by architecture the overall sense of where a story will begin and end. Or what kind of pursuit – of adventure, understanding, or change – will lead the way, if the end isn’t yet foreseeable.
Author and professor of creative writing Jane Alison has written a book, Meander Spiral Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, about sophisticated kinds of architecture and structural design. At first look, the book intimidated me. I believed myself incapable of understanding her analysis. Now I feel I have been able to comprehend at least some of it. And I admire tremendously her celebration of alternatives to the overwhelmingly favorite structure out in the wild, the “dramatic arc” known to everyone who’s taken an intro to [conventional, western] fiction class.
For those writers whose brains, unlike mine, tend toward the 3-D chess-playing end of the continuum, this is a book you may want to treasure. Alison provides excerpts from many authors’ work to illustrate the ways – beyond Aristotle’s formula for tragic drama – that words can work for a purpose. She calls this collection a “museum of specimens,” drawing on the natural patterns of spirals, meanders, and branches to find them in literature.
“We invoke these patterns to invoke these patterns in our minds…: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, heartbreak can be so great we feel we’ll explode. … Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives too?”~ Jane Alison
Purpose with Brenda Ueland
BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly has already celebrated Brenda Ueland and her book, If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit (1939). I’m back with more! I find myself citing and quoting Ueland regularly when talking with other writers, including friends, colleagues, and coaching clients.
For one thing, she confidently embraces pantsing.
“You write [the book] and plan it afterwards. … If this is done the book will be alive. I don’t mean that it will be successful. It may be alive to only ten people. But to those ten at least it will be alive. It will speak to them. It will help to free them.” Later in that chapter she adds, “Say it. If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later…. If you find what you wrote isn’t true, accept the new truth. Consistency is the horror of the world.”~ Brenda Ueland
Throughout, Ueland reminds her reader to trust herself. When writing, Ueland says,
“do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are. What’s the use? You can never be smarter than you are. You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this: while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.)”~ Brenda Ueland
Brenda Ueland had the confidence to urge her students and readers to build theirs. I find her book a reassuring source of support.
Commitment with Twyla Tharp
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life is Twyla Tharp’s handbook for all kinds of creative endeavors. The dancer-choreographer-author intersperses her anecdotes and life lessons with exercises, 32 in total, which appear throughout the book. Each chapter in this conspicuously typeset book is complex and weighty enough to be a book in itself. This is a book to pick up and set down, not to blitz through in one sitting.
In the fourth chapter, called “Harness Your Memory,” Tharp begins by talking about her ongoing efforts to keep her memory sharp, using mental exercises.
“Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it – for ourselves and others.”~ Twyla Tharp
Wow. Tharp then proceeds to discuss kinds of memory, declaring that we remember much more than we think we do – in muscle memory, sensual memory, institutional memory, and ancient memory. The chapter next spins from a pottery fragment of dancers holding hands into the story of how she came to make the 14-minute dance “Westerly Round.”
The Creative Habit is exhausting, if read all at once. Savored and explored, bit by bit, the book is a potent resource. Tharp’s writing is direct, confident, and slightly impatient, as I imagine a conversation with her would feel.
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— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new journaling handbook is forthcoming.