I have had dozens of great writing teachers over the years. The best writing teachers were those that taught through example: Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and most recently, Red Smith. The lessons I took from these three writers were more valuable than any lesson I ever saw in a how-to book on writing. I’m always suspicious of how-to books on writing because nearly every writer works differently. Something that works well for the author of a how-to book does not necessary work well for the reader of such a book.
My approach to learning to write has been different. I’ve read lots of books about writers (autobiographies, or biographies) and tried to find those writers whose work styles are similar to my own. It is much easier for me to take lessons from writers who think like I do than it is for me to try to change my behavior based on a series of exercises and instructions in a how-to book.
Isaac Asimov’s 2-volume autobiography In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt (which clock in at over 1,500 pages in total) is one of three best books on writing that I’ve ever come across. The book is an incredibly detailed account of the first 58 years of Asimov’s life. In its introduction, Asimov justifies his reasoning for such a lengthy tome:
At twenty-nine, I had never published a book. Now I have published two hundred. There seems to be a widespread belief… that no one can possibly write two hundred books of both fiction and nonfiction, in dozens of categories at all age levels, without being, somehow, an interesting person.
Asimov goes on to then give the reason I found the book so useful for learning to write:
Besides, it might be helpful to ambitious young people or to curious not-so-young people to see How I Did It.
That is, the book details how one writer made his slow, methodical way into print. The lessons are far more practical than anything I’ve seen in how-to book on writing because you get a peek into how one writer actually did it. And in Asimov’s case, how he became so prolific and successful. It is not a get rich quick manual; it is not a manual on how to write the next bestseller. Asimov didn’t write his first bestseller until 1981, two years after the autobiography first saw print.
The lessons in Asimov’s biography went beyond the craft of writing. It was from this book that I learned a lot of the business of writing, and my worldview was formed through Asimov’s eyes.
For craft, Stephen King’s On Writing is the best book on writing that I have come across. Parts of On Writing form more of a traditional “how-to” for writing, but the emphasis in those part are on the basic tools that all writers need. Good spelling and grammar, a grasp of the language, some basic skill to begin with.
King’s book was a revelation to me. I’d been flailing around, before I’d read On Writing. I’d sold two stories, and was trying to figure out what my process was. Reading how King worked, I realized that we worked similarly and he had figured out a way that worked well for both of us. He refers to his method as writing with the door open, and writing with the door closed. In his first draft, he tells himself the story, no one else. It can be messy, and disjointed. The important thing is getting the story out. In the second draft, he writes with the door open, telling the story to the reader. This is much easier for me, once I know the story. I found this method to be incredibly useful, and I’ve stuck with it ever since.
Red Smith was a famous sportswriter from the late 1920s through the early 1980s. I was recently reading a collection of his columns, and found them to be so good that I just had to find out more about the man. It turned out that the person who wrote the forward to the collection, Ira Berkow, had, in the mid-80s, written a biography of Red Smith called Red: The Life & times of a Great American Writer. I procured a copy and set to reading it. I was immediately engrossed.
It is one of the best biographies of a writers I’ve come across, and it contains countless lessons in the craft of writing–through the example of one writer. Smith was prolific in the sense that he write a thousand-word column every day. That takes stamina. It takes even more stamina when you don’t get it right the first time. As readers we see only the finished copy, and we might be forgiven for believing that what we are reading came out of the typewriter or word processor exactly as we see it.
The Smith biography showed that even the best try and try and try to get it right:
He’d sit at the typewriter and paper would pile up. You know, false leads, crazy leads. He’d crumble ’em up and throw ’em away. Until finally he got what he wanted, and he’d bat it out in an hour or an hour and a half.
Smith learned to write surrounded by interruptions, something that I had to learn to do when I realized that often the only time I had to do writing was when the kids were home and the TV was blaring in the background. Smith learned how to adjust his writing when necessary. After selling a piece to the Saturday Evening Post
Smith understood that if he were to continue selling to the slicks, he must of course avoid the “sportswriter’s occupational ailment of overwriting.”
Lessons like these, lessons based on life-experience, have been far more useful to me than any single lesson in a how-to book on writing. They have been more valuable than any single creative writing course, or even feedback from a writer’s group. These kinds of lessons have made me a better writer, and it is part of my continuing education to see out more books like these, and read about writers I admire, in an effort to find ways of improving my own writing.
I am lucky to have had Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, and Red Smith in my corner.