My favorite books on writing, pt. 1

During bouts of procrastination, I often read books on writing, which fill two purposes depending on my mood: they either inspire me to get back to writing, or make me feel like a writer without actually writing. Despite the latter’s drawback, I’ve gained a lot from books on writing. They’ve helped me shape what good habits I maintain, provided doses of confidence and inspiration, and taught me useful methods for improving my craft and developing my style.

Writing books vary in quality and content. Though I have stuck to the most widely read books in the genre, I do think some are wortheir than others. But since writing will improve your craft far more than reading about it, I hope this entry helps you select the most appropriate book(s) for your particular struggles, then use the rest of your time for writing.

Generally writing books can be divided into two kinds: inspirational and technical. The former category deals with harnessing the writer’s elusive muse and cultivating it, so that you can be creative at your conveience and not the muse’s. The latter category offers tips for clarity, proper expression, and converting the writer’s ideas into the most concise means possible. Inspirational books are primarily for the writer of fiction, technical books for nonfiction. But there’s plenty of crossover between the two and no book I’ve read lies completely in one category. A fiction writer, for example, could still gain a great deal from Zinsser’s On Writing Well, despite its subtitle, “An informal guide to writing nonfiction.”

Nonetheless, I’ve divided this entry into two sections and separated the books depending on which way they lean.

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Thinking about thoughts

Life is a continuous struggle to quiet the mind. This is an ancient belief, at least as old as Buddhism.

Our brains emit an endless stream of commentary for an audience of one that has the illusion of being a conversation. People who lack social awareness — because of abnormal brain chemistry (insanity), because it’s no longer necessary (isolation), or because they don’t care (eccentricity) — conduct these conversations out loud, often to the amusement or confusion to those around them. In a talk for his book Waking Up, Sam Harris says, “Imagine if other people could hear your thoughts broadcast on a speaker all day long. You would seem completely insane.”

It’s also insane that we give this fickle lecturer any credence. But we do. We let this voice affect they way we feel and the construction of our self-image. And unfortunately, most often he’s a critic. According to productivity expert David Allen, “80% of what you say to yourself in your head is negative.”

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Failing is fine

This is an old post I wrote on my defunct blog about comedy.

Recently I had an unsuccessful improv audition.

Around 80 improvisors auditioned for 8 slots in one of our local theater’s “Launch Group.” Selection means a period of intensive improv training and coaching followed by a performance every Sunday night for a year. It’s a prestigious and sought after spot, not only because people emerge a year later as seasoned improvisors, but also because it’s a stepping stone in our little scene to more shows and a potential invitation to a resident cast.

I did very well in the initial, closed-door audition and got a call back along with 18 others. We performed in 3 groups in front of a live, sold-out house. Rarely are there actual stakes at an improv show and it showed in the general nervous energy of us improvisors before taking the stage.

It also manifested itself, for me at least, in a more pronounced desire to “do well.” That nagging, background eagerness caused me to try too hard. I didn’t listen well and inserted myself a couple of times when it wasn’t necessary. In other words, I was out there for me and didn’t collaborate nearly as well as I should have.

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