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Is There a Manual for this Whole “Writing” Thing?

Getting Your Book Published for DummiesIn a recent article for the Paris Review, Kaya Genç reviews an art show in Istanbul that features, among other things, a bookshelf “holding more than one hundred books devoted to helping authors finish their manuscripts.”

Titles include 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing; Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing; First Draft in 30 Days: A Novel Writer’s System for Building a Complete and Cohesive Manuscript; and How I Write: Secrets of a Bestselling Author.

Genç, who has read only one of the hundred books, finds the collection first amusing, then sad. He pities those poor souls desperate enough to pick up books such as this in hopes it will make them better writers:

Had the Stanford professor Franco Moretti analyzed the titles of their books with his distant reading methods, he would surely point to the curious ways in which they present the craft of writing: they offer exercises and strategies to create time for writing, they believe that a book is something that the writer grows, like a child, and that the literary voice is something one can find in a manual. Plots can be devised through kits and those same kits can help one write a first draft in thirty days; one can liberate her writing, or release or free her inner writer, just like that.

It’s tempting to agree with him. After all, there are no books in the world titled, Neurosurgery in 30 Days. And if all the secrets to writing a bestseller could be gleaned from a book, wouldn’t all of us simply buy said book, follow its instructions, and relax into a writerly life of luxury and fame?

There are other books on the list though, books that hold not promises but suggestions; books that talk about writing a novel not like assembling a bookcase from Ikea but as a craft that can be practiced and honed and eventually, after many years, if not mastered then at least tamed. Books that can (and frankly, have) helped many aspiring writers if not write a bestseller in thirty days, at least begin to develop good habits and treat the writing life as just that—a life that must be lived fully.

To be sure, someone like Allan Gurganus is not picking up any of the books in this collection. But for emerging writers, reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life, Stephen King’s On Writing, or even Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way can be beneficial. Not because any of these books will make us a bestselling author, but because when we’re just starting out writing, it’s important to learn it’s okay to take our writing seriously, to surround ourselves with other people who are serious about books, and to admit to ourselves “Yes, I’m an artist, there are others like me.”

At the beginning, it can sometimes feel like how-to books are the only things telling us our dreams are even possible. And books that demystify the process a little, or offer a glimpse into a world that we want to be a part of—there’s value in books like those. In fact, isn’t this all what books do best?

So, how many of those hundred books have you read?