One Saturday morning, I noticed a package on our front porch. Puzzled I opened it and was pleasantly surprised to see that a playwright friend of mine sent me Wonderbook; The Illustrated Guide Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff Vanderweer. An attached card said, “Go get writing!”
I stopped cleaning house and curled up with this new book instantly. Never mind those other books that were stacked up, waiting to be read for years. This one looked so beautiful on the outside that it demanded to be read immediately.
I admit that I detest reading books about writing. I’d rather do housework or watch stupid television before reading a technique book. When writer friends talk enthusiastically about How To books, which one they consider the Writing Bible, or which author is the authority, I have nothing to add. So it is unusual that I would open Wonderbook at all.
The frame of the book resembles a college textbook, with basic chapters covering point of view, voice and how to start a story. Authors and college professors contributed essays on various subjects related to the craft. The illustrations were entertaining and unique. If you have to read a How To Book, this one has a lot of “eye candy” plus great basic information about writing.
One essay by Kim Stanley Robinson stated that the technique of “show, don’t tell” was a “zombie idea killed forty years ago…by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.” What a blow.Less than twenty-five years ago when I attended The National Writer’s Project in El Paso, Texas, “Show, Don’t Tell” was the hallmark of good writing. This meant I was obsolete in writing technique at the very moment trainers sent me out to teach young writers. Yet, this discouraging thought verified what good writers know: rules in writing are thrown out the minute someone does the opposite better. It also validated my feelings about most How To books: just because it can be packaged and sold, doesn’t mean anyone can completely capture the skill of writing.
All this made me wonder, can anyone really teach good writing? It is, after all, a craft, an art, a skill. Our colleges usually insist freshman take a year of composition, and high school English teachers still require the research paper. These institutions recognize the need to master technical writing.
But creative writing is so hard to teach that usually it’s not in the budget of a small town high school. In college, you might find one or two classes on it. Compare that to theater or art, where most college campuses have whole buildings dedicated to those disciplines.
Though defeated by the Don’t Bother Showing moment, I found two liberating ideas in a different composition by professor and writer Mathew Cheney. First, he wrote, “One of the most important expectations to give up as quickly as possible is the expectation of being original.” Shakespeare’s work wasn’t remotely new, so if the old bard could steal ideas, I guess it is all right for me. However I’ve longed to hear critics refer to my stories as “fresh” or “unique.” If I can’t produce fresh work, why bother writing? Cheney called originality a burden, and wondered if anyone would ever write anything with that kind of burden. Fear of not being original has been a burden for me, and it’s time to let it go.
A second helpful point he made was that expectations are “the cousin of ambition,” and that all of us have the ambition to be the best. He stressed in his essay that harboring the ambition to be the best leads to defeat immediately. I can truly relate to this. I always felt that my playwright friend is a much better writer than I. However, the truth is, we are different writers with unique styles and we write in different genres. The idea that I don’t have to be as good as anyone else as long as I do the best I can, is quite liberating.
The book is also thorough in scope. For example, the chapter covering Point of View, actually explains Second Person, something I had not heard about in ages. Second Person is used so infrequently, and usually badly, that most writers don’t ever attempt that perspective. In fact, few high school English teachers mention it to their students at all. It was good to be reminded that Second Person exists, and it was wonderful to have solid, successful examples.
I suspect Wonderbook will someday be a college textbook. It’s a good one and deserves that kind of status. And while I may not spend hours delving into other “writing Bibles,” this one gave me some peace of mind and a few reminders. Besides, looking at the artwork was fun. To my playwright friend: I’m now properly inspired to “get writing.”
Author’s Bio.: Beth Rose is a former high school literature and composition teacher, who lives and writes in Henning, MN.