Tag Archives: writing instruction

Recommended Reading: Writing is My Drink

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The Book: Writing is My Drink, by Theo Pauline Nestor

The Take-Away: An amazing blending of memoir and writing instruction, this book goes above and beyond the call of duty, helping writers find their voice by learning how Nestor found hers.

The Review: Some people working in nonfiction, crusty old journalists like myself included, grow a bit antsy when the damnably vague word “voice” is thrown around in a how-to book on writing. And yet we all know what it means, and how important it is in the success of a story, especially in first-person pieces or in genres like memoir. It’s hard to teach voice, I thought before reading this book. As with literal voice training, one shapes one’s voice by listening to it during repeated practice attempts, no matter how off-key or squeaky those attempts might sound.

While developing a distinctive writing voice is still seems challenging, Writing is My Drink is a tonic that will steady the nerves through Nestor’s accessible prose and provocative writing prompts.

 

Theo Pauline Nestor, author of Writing is My Drink.

Theo Pauline Nestor, author of Writing is My Drink.

The book, on its most surface level, tells of the author’s journey as a writer and how she went from struggling dilettante to successful writer and writing teacher. But this isn’t the type of writer’s memoir where you feel as if the writer is now standing off to the side, detached from the memories and the effort it took to get where he/she is now, and chuckling with some sort of holier-than-thou attitude. Nestor takes us back to the trenches of her early writing days, and reveals her vulnerability and off-the-mark attempts as she learned her craft.

What separates Nestor’s volume from so many others in this genre (and I should know – I own most of them produced in the last decade and a half) is her commitment to unflinching honesty, both in what she shares from her past and what she encourages the reader to mine for their writing material.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Nestor is in the middle of discussing what led up to the creation of her first published work of fiction …

“What does this have to do with finding my own voice? With your finding your own voice? Everything. Because it isn’t Bach string quartets and split-shot nonfat lattes and generally placid conditions that being us to our own voices. That’s what we think will get us there. That’s what we want to get us there. … But for me it was more like running through fire, feeling like you’re going to totally lose it, then trying to act like it’s a regular day when you show up at Starbucks with your laptop. And that’s pretty much what happened the day that I felt like my real voice was starting to show up on the page. I didn’t get there with the two advanced degrees in English … I didn’t finally get there because I wanted it. I got there because I was desperate.”

 

Also outstanding are Nestor’s writing prompts/exercises. I often find prompts esoteric or unappealing, but as with the exposition and narration in her chapters, the exercises encourage the reader to dig deep and write about things that really matter them – a key feature in developing a distinctive, coherent voice. I especially liked her set of prompts related to building community and companionship into one’s writing practice, because I think that’s an aspect of writing that often gets ignored in favor praising a writer’s ability to slave away alone in their garret.

Author Gretchen Rubin, in her testimonial on the paperback cover of Writing is My Drink, compares it to Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and I have to say I agree. On a personal level, both books really resonated with me due to their honesty and dedication to getting at the truth of one’s life. If you’re looking for a book that will help you translate what you feel in your heart onto the page, you may very well find Writing is My Drink to be your cup of tea.

 

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The Writer’s Bookshelf: Writing Tools and Storycatcher

The end of summer is approaching, and I’ve been using theme “summer reading list” to corral and write reviews of a number of books that are influencing my thinking. As far as writing and editing books go, I’ve been focusing on two books by authors who are already familiar to me: “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark, and “Storycatcher” by Christina Baldwin.

Both are great reads and can improve your writing, by the end of this summer or any time of the year.

Writing Tools” is written by Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar of the Poynter Institute (a Mecca for working journalists who care about their writing, by the way) and co-author of another of my favorite books, “Coaching Writers: Editors and Writers Working Together Across Media Platforms.” Roy’s always had a wonderful way of explaining writing techniques in a straightforward, cogent manner, and this book is no different.

The subtitle of the book is “50 essential strategies for every writer,” and that is what it delivers: focused instruction on how to improve one’s writing, starting with “micro” issues such as word choice and sentence structure and moving to broader areas such as structure, imagery in writing, and building constructive writing habits.

One of the great strengths of Roy’s approach is that he avoids being pedantic. He notes in his introduction that he is aiming at reaching “a nation of writers,” professional or not, and asserts that the struggle involved in writing that writers moan about is mostly “a con game.”

He says to would-be writers,

“Imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft. Think of writing as carpentry, and this book as your toolbox. You can borrow a writing tool at any time, and here’s another secret: Unlike hammers, chisels and rakes, writing tools never have to be returned. They can be cleaned, sharpened and passed along.”

Roy also includes plenty of examples, both from his own writing and the work of others. Each chapter ends with a brief “Workshop” section, with several exercises intended for the reader to try to assimilate the point of the lesson.

Whether you’re just starting out as a writer, or have been around for a long time and need some instruction that really helps you find new places in your craft to refine and master, “Writing Tools” is a dandy book to have on your reference shelf.

If “Writing Tools” focuses on how to write once you have something to say, “Storycatcher” focuses on looking deep within one’s self and finding out what it is you have to say. Christina Baldwin, a pioneer in the personal writing movement, has written a lyrical book about the place of “story” in one’s life, and how to mine personal experience for narratives that can heal, connect, enlighten or challenge.

She makes clear her book’s theme in the first sentences of her introduction:

“Every person is born into life as a blank book—and every person leaves life as a full book…Story is the narrative thread of our experience—not what literally happens, but what we make out of what happens, what we tell each other and what we remember. This narrative determines what we do with the time between the opening of the blank page the day we are born and the closing of the book the day we die.”

Drawing heavily on her own experiences, as well as those of her students and colleagues, Christina covers a wide range of topics in this book, illuminated by chapter subheads such as “why we make story,” “creating a story of the self,” “how story heals family heritage,” “the map of a story-based life” and “how story shapes the spiritual dimensions of our lives.”

“Storycatcher” has helpful end-of-chapter writing and conversation prompts. It’s an excellent reading choice for people wanting write their memoirs or other types of writing grounded in personal experience, as well as for writers probing the underlying themes of their work, which are often grounded in personal story, either explicit or implicit.

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