Books on Writing and Creativity – Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part I

Sometimes it is more important to discover what one cannot do, than what one can do.  — Lin Yutang 

I have pursued the writing of novels on and off — a lot of off — for many years. Even to the extent of writing one. It now resides in its proper home, a dark drawer.

After that, in the early 1990s, I decided to participate in a local Vancouver lark, the Three-Day Novel Writing Contest, sponsored in those days by Anvil Press. For the three days of the Labour Day Weekend, I went without sleep to produce a truncated work which, in retrospect, had its moments. But it’s difficult to recommend a method which may result in delirium and nodding off during important family conversations.

It seems to come in long waves, the desire to write. I have notes and diagrams I developed over many years for several novels. The desire, and optimism, build slowly. Good initial work is done, the ideas developed, for better or for worse, characters are sketched, although they never seem to take on flesh, the plot considered, although the boat of it doesn't float without the living story to lift it…

A wave will build and look like it might almost take shape — surf’s up! — but then peters out in an ineffectual froth against the beach.  (To belabor the metaphor, just a little…)

Part of it is that I am a master of pencil sharpening. This is the art of finding many important things to do in order to allow yourself to write. It is the craft of preparation so thorough that by the time you sit yourself down to actually do the deed, you’ve lost interest.

I’ve got to find the perfect time, the regular schedule. I have to fully develop the back story for each character, plot the scenes carefully, and consider the ramifications of setting, viewpoint and easy access to coffee. The right music in the background is important, too, you know, and the placement of the speakers… If I just take some time and rearrange the furniture, I’m sure it’ll be just right for writing. And the points on these pencils really need to be sharpened again.

Part of this process of procrastination is the quest for the perfect book about writing, a book so inspiring, motivating and life-changing that catching the next wave will be a breeze. I have a lot of good books about writing. If I did a tenth of what they say, well… all my words, I’m sure, would burn like glowing coals upon the page. These books have a lot of good advice in them, but they sometimes become too much part of the dreaming, instead of the doing.

One book I bought early which I still love for its rationality and method is Structuring Your Novel: From Basic Idea to Finished Manuscript, by Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald (1972).

The authors discuss all the different sources of ideas for novels from "An idea based on a philosophical conclusion about life as the result of a personal experience" to "A burning desire to live an adventurous life the author has never personally experienced" to "The introduction of new inventions into our society." Then you must state your intention to use this idea in making a novel in a single sentence. For example, the intention of the novel From Here to Eternity by James Jones could be stated as "To write a novel based on personal experience as a peacetime soldier."

And then, the authors’ method goes, you must take this intention and state your passionate attitude towards it in a single sentence. For From Here to Eternity it would be: "A strong belief that peacetime military service degrades character."

It goes on. You must now produce in one sentence a statement of purpose for wanting to write the novel. So for From Here to Eternity it would be "To prove that the life of a peacetime soldier can lead only to the degradation of character." And if you can’t arrive at a statement that includes the word "prove", you might as well give up on your idea, the authors say, because that is what will give direction to your writing.

The book has instructive and fruitful chapters on How to Develop a Plot or Story Line, How to Characterize, How to Write the First Chapter of a Novel.

The problem was (and is) that this way of proceeding, overall, just didn’t work for me. (I have no doubt that it could work very well for somebody else.) A little too abstract, too rational, too prescriptive for me to get to grips with the writing. I need more chaos! For me it seems that I have to learn how to get lost, in order to find my way, and in that struggle maybe find the inspiration to write.

But you do have to find a story, and that quest for story and creativity leads me on to other books.

I want to end this part by mentioning an off the wall (one of many) creative procedure or piece from the superb book by Kenneth Maue, Water in the Lake: Real Events for the Imagination (1979).

From Remedies for Minor Nonspecific Ailments of the Soul:

Put a book in your freezer and leave it there.

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3 Comments on “Books on Writing and Creativity – Notes of a Pencil Sharpener, Part I”

  1. bloglily Says:

    Hello dear Fencer, As always, great post! You’re very good on this subject. It took me a long time to even figure out there WERE books like this. Water in the Lake sounds like fun. I love reading books about writing, although I feel a little guilty about that. Maybe it’s because the reading about writing has a way of replacing the actual writing for me. Best, BL

  2. fencer Says:

    Yes… no kidding about replacing the real writing. And that’s probably why I like books on writing so much! And as always, thank you for the kind words…


  3. […] I have to end with a little creative piece, as in Part I, from Kenneth Maue’s book, Water in the Lake: Real Events for the Imagination. […]


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