Creative Writing Craft Books, Self-Improvement Podcasts, and Magical Thinking

I’m not sure if there’s a known source for this quote about advertising, but I’ve seen it referenced about a zillion times – “Half my advertising spend is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

Something similar comes into play with craft books (or podcasts) about the creative writing process, or self-improvement podcasts (or books). There’s probably (certainly? possibly?) some value in reading books about plot development or character development or scene structuring, etc. But there’s also a lot of magical thinking going on when I read or listen to those kinds of works.

So, to paraphrase — half of what I read about the writing craft isn’t useful, the trouble is I don’t know which half.

For most of my life I’ve avoided books categorized as self-help, self-improvement, motivational, positive thinking, etc. There’s just too much chaff, and not enough wheat.

But in the middle of last year I decided that even some positive-flavored chaff might be better than the hypercritical self-talk constantly looping through my brain.

I started with The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh to start learning about mindfulness and meditation, and Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg to refresh my thinking about writing.

The Miracle of Mindfulness led me to Tara Brach and this free course – Mindfulness Daily at Work with Tara Brach & Jack Kornfield. I found working my way through the course immensely beneficial, and I grew very fond of listening to Tara Brach. I now listen to her podcasts occasionally and follow some of her guided meditations. It’s all very soothing.

I probably read Writing Down the Bones thirty-five or forty years ago. I don’t know how much it actually helped my writing, but it is comforting to read about someone else facing recognizable creative challenges.

The trap I fall into easily is listening to a podcast about the craft of creative writing, or reading a new book about craft, and feeling that that is a substitute for actually doing the work of writing. And this is the problem with even the best human potential books — their effectiveness drops off radically if you (I) don’t do the homework. And, who wants to do homework? Reading the book makes me feel like I’m doing something, but the exercises are too much (I don’t have time for that!), so whatever benefits the book might hold are short-lived.

Last year I read the following books on the craft of writing and on the writing life (Heroine’s Journey stands out from everything in the following list. It is excellent.):

  • Several Short Sentences About Writing by Verlyn Klinkenbourg
  • Never Say You Can’t Survive by Charlie Jane Anders
  • The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger
  • Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Starve Better: Surviving the Endless Horror of the Writing Life by Nick Mamatas
  • A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders
  • The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling by Charles Johnson
  • The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

And I read the following on human potential/self improvment:

  • Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
  • Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha by Tara Brach

I suppose the point I’m making to myself with this post is to dig deeper when I use these sorts of books, and spend time doing the exercises. Use them as workbooks instead of a respite from the work I actually want to do.

(100 Days of Blogging: Post 014 of 100)

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