11/4/11

True Notebooks

I have a love/hate relationship with books by writers about writing.  Some books I like.  Bird by Bird comes to mind.  I also liked the Steven King book, even though I can't remember what it's called.

Usually, however, I hate these kinds of books.  I'm sorry if this sounds snobby, but I sort of think they are for posers. It's not that I don't think you can learn to write--I teach writing for a living--but such books often cover familiar terrain and maybe one or two books will do you.  If you want to write: WRITE!

I'm also always suspicious that such books are sentimental memoirs in disguise.  I don't like life lesson stories.  I'm still mad about the movies  "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "Dead Poets Society," and I saw those decades ago.  Mostly, I don't trust such tales.  If you want to make me laugh, make me laugh.  If you want to make me cry, make me cry.  But don't tell me that hardship is a blessing that will be rewarded in the end.  Hardship can be a blessing, but it's seldom rewarded.  That an entire industry wants us help us believe otherwise shows just how complicit in our own oppression we want to be.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I fell in love with True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman.  The title has life lesson all over it!   But it's not life lessony, and it's certainly not sentimental.  It recounts Salzman's year teaching a writing class to juvenile delinquents in LA.  The beauty of the book is that it's not really about Salzman.  We never learn how he grew from this experience.  We don't get to sympathize with how his eyes were opened to injustice.  Instead, we hear from the boys he taught.  We hear them in conversation with each other and Salzman, and, best of all, we get to read their own short pieces of writing.  The boys aren't dirty little angels.  (They've done awful things.  Most were accused of murder, although we don't really hear about that either.)  But they are boys, and when you read their writing and begin to get glimpses into their lives you mostly just feel a poignant sadness about how their lives got so out of whack.  (You know what they seem to want most of all?  Their moms, and most of their moms don't seem to have been so great to begin with.)

This is a beautiful book that sneaks up on you and hijacks your soul.  I loved it.

15 comments:

Olga said...

I love Bird by Bird. That is one book I will read again and again. So I'll check out your notebook recommendation.

Desiree said...

Great post---I guess I've found another book to add to my "should" list--

Carrie Rosalind said...

Nice! I've been wanting to read a book about writing lately but wasn't sure where to start...now I know! Adding this one to my list.

Daisy said...

Off to the library we go! Thanks for the recommendation Margaret

claire said...

I'm right behind, Daisy. Maybe not to get it at the library, I'm too far from one that would have it. But to Amazon surely.
Thanks, Margaret :-)

altadenahiker said...

I hate sentimental stories unless there's a dog in it.

Petrea Burchard said...

Margaret, you are a true writer. I love this. "That an entire industry wants us help us believe otherwise shows just how complicit in our own oppression we want to be." That's great stuff, and true.

The writing book I really disliked was "Writing Down the Bones" by Natalie Goldberg. Sanctimonious, plus each chapter is a repetition of the last.

King's book is "On Writing." I loved it, and thank goodness it isn't all scary.

Joanne said...

I'm with you on the writing how-to books. One or two and it's basically covered, because I think it's really important that we bring something more of ourselves to the page, too. Not just the rules and regulations of the craft.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Question: when your a lit major (or is there such a thing?) do they teach you how to write - like the books you've mentioned? or is it more like an art history course divided by periods and scrutinized/critiqued by (and this is where I stop)?

Tony Van Helsing said...

It's Stephen King: On Writing. Not very imaginative.

Bec said...

I'm also a fan of Bird by Bird. True Notebooks sounds great

Susan Campisi said...

"This is a beautiful book that sneaks up on you and hijacks your soul." I love this line. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm sold.

Margaret said...

PA: I don't know the answer to your question. I came into my job in sort of a funny way. I wasn't a lit major and I don't teach lit majors. I usually teach students who really struggle with composition.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I'm not to clear on it myself. Guess I'm wondering what a person takes if they want to write. What's an English major?... what's a literature major? who teaches tecnique/critique

It seems that in the arts you go in two directions (overly simplified). You love making objects so you take classes teaching you how to make stuff with a few art history classes thrown in or....you love art and take classes studying the history of objects [with a few classes teaching you how to make art thrown in]. Graduate school you specialize.

ok
I'll leave you alone now

Kathy H said...

I love everything he's written.