Notes From a Hired Pen

Three books that made me want to become a writer



I’m working on the revisions of my book proposal, which are largely to the sample writing pages. So while I pick away at the manuscript, I’m also re-reading three books that first made me want to become a writer, and then become a better writer.

Some people don’t want to read within the genre they’re writing, which I understand. It’s easy to mimic the writing you’re reading, and that happened to me when I was younger. Now, though, I think that I have a good sense of my own voice, and instead I am  going back to these books the same way someone might take apart a car to see how it was put together. I’m studying the structure and narrative hoping I can apply some of that to my work to make it stronger. Example: I fixed a huge narrative problem to the draft I sent agents while reading Eat, Pray, Love. I’m wasn’t suddenly writing like Elizabeth Gilbert, but I did use the same structure of one of her chapters to fix a chapter that had been quite working for me.

(I’m sorry if this makes writing sound very unromantic. I can write an initial first draft in a way that is probably more what people think about writers – typing away late at night, jumping up and down when I hit on a piece of gold, banging my head on the desk when the writing just won’t go. But most of the real hands on work to make something read like it was written without effort is done through scaffolding put up and taken down during editing.)

Anyway, the books:

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. I first read this in graduate school; again when I was wrapped up in a terrible relationship with an alcoholic; and a third time last week. On first pass, I was stunned that someone could write about such a horrible experience in a matter of fact way. On second pass, I was hoping for some sort of insight into that person in my life (and the highlights from that reading are all about characteristics of alcoholics and information about Al-Anon). On third pass, I looked for how she put the book together - how much time spent on her story and how much time spent on research and how much time spent on describing the overall picture of alcoholism in the U.S. - and how she approached writing about people who may not like her portrayal of them. This book came out in 1996. I read in in 2002, the same year Knapp died of lung cancer. It was also the time when every 20-something was getting a six figure book deal to write about her tortured young adulthood. Knapp blew all of them out of the water. Still does.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I read Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island and Notes from a Big Country while at Oxford University my junior year of college. They’re separate books, but I picked up a hardback edition from a British bookstore that had both under the title The Complete Notes. They were perfect for someone who was both homesick for America but loving her temporary home country. They’re good, but A Walk in the Woods is a masterpiece, the ultimate buddy adventure told with Bryson’s odd and random sense of humor. I’m re-reading this because of his narrative (how much history about the Appalachian Trail does he tell versus his experience? What about his random jaunts down other avenues of information that are only slightly relate to the topic?) and a reminder to spike my story with humor, which I don’t think I do enough.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron. I have lost count of how many times I have read this collection of essays, whether from start to finish, or picking a random essay to read when I needed inspiration. Ephron was good at a lot of things, but this book shows her incredibly skill at the reported essay. Even though that’s not what I’m working on in my manuscript, the book is still a delight to read and, like Bryson, a reminder that there is humor in even depression situations.

So what books would you put on the list?

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