Here’s a book so inspirational that now I begin my day by reading a rule or two. Most books about how to write I read for fun. I jeer or snarl or guffaw at their advice. Too many of these inflated authors declaim to a gaggle of new writers eagerly clasping their first sharpened pencils or plead their cases before grim, black-robed judges whose approval means life or death. Usually, I have a pressing writing assignment, as I do now, so I don’t spend much time on “craft books” that actually distract me from writing.
Steven Goldsberry’s The Writer’s Book of Wisdom is different. It’s worth reading and re-reading. Goldsberry knows what he’s talking about. His books include Maui the Demigod, Luzon, Over Hawai’i and Sunday in Hawai’i.
He’s been teaching writing for 25 years. He’s a professor of English at University of Hawai’i, a Michenor Fellow, a regular at the Maui Writers Conference and winner of Hawai’i’s own Elliot Cades Award for Literature in 1990. He walks the walk.
There are fully accredited, well-staffed academic programs offering Ph.D.s in creative writing that don’t get as detailed and specific as this book. His points will benefit beginner and established writer. Not only are individual rules useful, but explanatory sections reveal significant reasons and important assumptions. Organized in three parts, the book details “Approach,” where and how to begin physically and mentally; “Language,” examining the tools and the tasks; and “Craft,” instructions and tips on playing with words in an amusing and enlightening manner.
This book also offers something else writers crave: an articulate opponent. Quizzing my writer pals with some of Goldsberry’s insights, I discovered some disagreement. One said he didn’t need to know grammar (Rule #34); another declared that eccentric characters were the only ones interesting to her (Rule #72).
I disagree with both friends. That’s good for us writers. A book of clear statements with which to take issue is worth its weight in cash. Writers fight like little girls and baseball players—sprinting in with windmilling arms to a cluster of grunting, sweating friends and foes, poking eyes and pulling hair. But writers don’t fight because positions are wrong; they fight because, when stated, any position drives us to seek the opposing view. In this, too, Goldsberry is wise. His mission is to get us to write, whether we agree with all he says or not.
There are surprising rules. “Rule #10: Stay out of sight,” writes Goldsberry, “Ego can kill art.” Poking the “I” out of our writing is essential; T.S. Eliot even called writing “an escape from personality.” Yes, accept awards and accolades when they’re offered, but the point is clear: the writing is yours, but it’s not about you. It’s about the reader.
There are sobering rules. “Rule #6: Get used to despair.” Gentle reader, I assure you, after 35 years of writing, here is wisdom. Goldsberry knows that most people, even you, will find your work lacking, and he accurately catalogues the causes: you, friends, family, colleagues and, eventually, readers and critics. You will despair. Writing is work that is tough to do at all, supremely difficult to do well, and good work is often overlooked in favor of work much less than good.
The final insult is that everybody thinks he can do it. Imagine someone cockily telling Michael Jordan, “I’ve always wanted to play basketball,” as though the only requirement for playing well is finding some spare time. This is what writers are up against. So be it. There is only one appropriate response, one gritty and blithe: “keep on writing, of course.”
There are rules to awaken us: “Rule #37: The ‘As’ Clause is for Amateurs” (I checked a few lines); “Rule #55: Write Like You Talk” (yes, please); “Rule #84: Go with God, But Write with the Devil” (If it’s good enough for Milton, it’s good enough for me); “Rule #96: Ultimately, Content Matters More than Craft” (Say “ouch,” then see why).
I close with my favorite rule: “Rule #17: Stop reading this book.” Bold and direct, Goldsberry points to the fundamental mystery of writing, so don’t stare at his fingertip. Look at the truth about writing: it’s hard. In fact, it’s always easier to talk, read or even write about writing than to do it. He elaborates his rule with a single essential word: “Write.” Need he say more? MTW