My Favorite Books About Writing Nonfiction

41lhhayQO9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I always love reading about writing. I caution students about spending so much time reading about it that they never actually do it, but these books in particular have been invaluable in shaping my own approaches to writing. Some of them focus on nonfiction specifically, while many are great for any kind of writing:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell: I use this every time I do a self-edit on a manuscript. It’s also a fun book to read straight through. She uses the editing process for The Great Gatsby — detailed in letters between Fitzgerald and his editor — to show how editing makes everything better.

The New New Journalism, by Robert Boynton: Interviews with all the rock stars of current creative nonfiction — Ted Conover, Erik Larson, Susan Orlean. This is like a fan magazine for nerds like me.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron: For anyone doing any kind of writing, or any kind of art, this is a go-to for kick-starting your creativity. It’s a practical, step-by-step process full of nutty self-helpy stuff that I just tune out. I resist what Tom Bissell once brilliantly called “tea and angels writing” — you know, workshops about finding yourself through writing and that sort of thing — and this book has a lot of that silly ’90s self-help language in spades. But underneath is an effective plan for getting your creative juices flowing. I’ve done it at least five times throughout my adulthood.

Storycraft, by Jack Hart: Helps with the hardest parts of nonfiction — making real life into great stories, while still telling the absolute truth.

Telling True Stories, by Mark Kramer: Covers journalism as well as book-length nonfiction, through written pieces by and interviews with writers and editors.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: A classic. Great inspiration to just keep going with your work — even, especially, when you’re feeling despondent or overwhelmed.

New Resolution: Stop Complaining (Too Much) About Writing

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegI read the funniest thing today: Some poll found that 60 percent of British people wish they could be authors, making it the most-desired job in all of England. A writer at The Guardian had the same first instinct I did, which was to explain to people why it’s actually a terrible job. He’s right about the “insecurity, loneliness, and paranoia” referenced in the headline. I’d add to that the fact that it’s not even really a “job” for most people who do it — at least not a full-time one. Even the reasonably paid ones (which I feel lucky to count myself among, because nonfiction sells better than fiction on average) don’t make enough on books alone to call a living. We either have full-time jobs and write around them, which means having no life at all, or freelance, which means we spend most of our time chasing down tiny checks just to make our bill payments every month. I would also add the routine rejection, on a daily/weekly basis from editors we pitch freelance pieces to, and on a grander scale when we submit our work to public consumption and reviews.

That said, I think I understand where these people are coming from, all these people who said they’d rather be an author than a “television presenter” (I like this Britishism better than our “TV host”) or a movie star. Being an author, at least a hugely successful one, allows a person to be some level of “famous” but does not involve being chase by paparazzi. No one is too concerned about, say, whom Stephen King or Gillian Flynn is dating. (I think they’re both married, but you get the idea.) It also allows a person to be famous for his or her brains and talent, not for a “bikini bod” or some other unsustainable quality. For a scant few very successful authors, the job allows for the best of all modern worlds: fame, recognition, respect, money, a profession born of passion, and a chance to work from home in a bathrobe. (I am literally in a bathrobe right now, so at least I got one of those down.) I submit to you that television presenter is a better job — you just read stuff off a screen and are still unlikely to be tailed much by paparazzi. But I guess you do have to spend more on skincare and get dressed, so maybe that’s a tossup.

In any case, I’ve decided to take this hilarious and rather meaningless poll as an opportunity to appreciate my “job” instead of indulging in the defensive urge to complain about it (aside from the above nitpicks). Writers have a funny habit of complaining about what they do at every opportunity. I think it’s actually related to this poll: Something about the job of “author” makes almost everyone think he or she could do it, so we feel the urge to explain that it’s not as easy as it looks. And that’s true; to be the kind of “author” these people are dreaming of takes a lot of work beyond sitting at the computer with coffee. Still, being an author does involve sitting at the computer with coffee, and those of us who do it for a living can also take a moment to appreciate that. Then we’ll get back to the complaining.

Why ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Fans Should Read Nick Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’

urlNick Hornby is one of my writing idols. His way of combining pop sensibilities with serious emotions, humor, and great characters has always spoken to me and inspired me to become a better writer. So I almost felt like I had made it up myself when I read that his newest book, Funny Girl, was about a British woman in the 1960s who happens to be both beautiful and funny, who also happens to land on a groundbreaking television comedy. I wrote a book kind-of like that, except it was the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, and it was real, and the woman’s name was Mary Tyler Moore.

If you have any interest at all in The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and I suspect at least some of you found me because you do — you should definitely check out Funny Girl. My book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, focuses a bit more on the female writers and the feminist movement than this one does. But it’s easy to see Funny Girl almost as a prequel, documenting a fictional history mixed in with some real history; the book does mention the influence of Til Death Us Do Part, for instance, which was the precursor to the massive U.S. hit All in the Family. It also documents the difficulties of being an ambitious, independent woman at the time. I even suspect that the heroine, Sophie Straw, is modeled loosely on Moore; Sophie rises to fame as the wife in a domestic comedy, like Moore did on The Dick Van Dyke Show, though Sophie gets first billing in the humorously punctuated Barbara (and Jim). Her follow-up show includes a female co-writer and features Sophie as a single woman, though her show sounds fluffier than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In any case, if you love Mary, you’ll love Sophie.

What ‘The Bachelor’ Teaches Us About Narrative Structure

1417720585_chris-soules-lgI have a number of legitimate excuses for watching The Bachelor regularly: I really did start watching several years ago because I had to cover it at Entertainment Weekly. I write about television, particularly gender on television, and it is certainly some very gendered (and heteronormative, and white) television. I’m also very interested in the biology and psychology of attraction, and it’s full of that as well. But as I sat and watched two hours of it last night, about 90 minutes longer than I had intended, and past my bedtime, I was more aware than I normally am that The Bachelor is, at its core, just damn good storytelling. Professionally manipulative storytelling, lacking in all subtlety and art. But if you want to know how to tell a good story (then, hopefully, add your own subtlety and art), you can learn some things from The Bachelor:

Add some competition. At its heart, The Bachelor is a sport. Every week is one game, and the overall arc is that of a bracket elimination. We love it in sports, we love it on dating shows. It satisfies our human desire for order and sorting the good from the bad from the best. If you can give your story some sense of competition leading to a final showdown, you have a good story. This is among the many reasons sports movies like The Karate Kid are so compelling.

Plant revelations along the way. The Bachelor always involves some major revelations at some point. A number of the women vying for the bachelor’s affections inevitably have secrets they must eventually tell him. Traumatic past relationships are big; we had two widows this season. So are secrets that may cause some judgement, like Jade’s Playboy past this season. Secrets cause tension, and their revelation always leads to some kind of resolution.

Make heroes and villains. We love rooting for an against people. The Bachelor will always have at least one villain per season. Once, in a fun twist, the bachelor himself (Juan Pablo) became the villain.

Pull characters out of their element. This season has the advantage of a farmer from a teeny Iowa town as its title star. This inherently means that at some point, the women — most of them model/actress/waitress types from places like Los Angeles — have to decide whether they can live on a farm. This discussion began with a trip to bachelor Chris’ hometown this week; the expected explosions did ensue. Other seasons contain this element, too, even if it’s just giving the bungee-jumping date to the girl who obviously said on her pre-show questionnaire that she was afraid of heights.

My Favorite Freelance Writing Resources

58251_7227There are so many great sites, groups, etc. out there to help freelance writers new and old. I’ve definitely developed some favorites through trial and error. Since people often ask me, here’s a handy list of the ones I like:

Freelance Success: the forums, where writers freely share contacts and other key info, are worth the membership fee

Freelancers Union: for insurance info and other benefits

Hiveage: an online invoicing system that keeps track of your earnings

MediaBistro: super-useful media news like the comings and goings of editors, plus the best resource on pitching available — the How to Pitch section, available with an affordable membership fee

ProfNet: great way to find expert sources for stories

The Renegade Writer: one of the few writing-related blogs I read regularly, probably because it’s one of the few that offers advice that helps “advanced” freelancers as well as beginners

A Word in Praise of Naps

from morguefile.com

from morguefile.com

I have decided to embrace my desire for afternoon naps whenever possible. It’s an urge I fought for a long time, first by necessity — I had an office job for the first 15 years of my working life — and then because I felt like I had to prove something as a work-from-home freelancer. But when I made myself a new work-day schedule a few months ago, I accounted for a nap from 2-3 p.m. when it works out. A lot of times I have interviews or work due, in which case I will skip it; but on a normal day, I allow for some sleepy time. The fact is, little gets done when I’m crashing mentally at that time anyway. Also, Mr. Rogers took regular naps. I know what people will say: Gosh, I wish I had such luxury! But I have to go to work/deal with my kids/etc. To that, I say: Yes, it is a totally ridiculous luxury. I feel lucky in so many ways. But one of my biggest resolutions this year is to try to extricate myself from the “I’m so proud to be busy and I’m totally the busiest” thing we all tend to do. I think it makes us all a little crazier. So this is my first step: Coming out as a napper.

A Little #TBT Memoir-Writing Exercise

Here's a family photo (in front of my sorority house at Northwestern) that I wrote about once for this exercise.

Here’s a family photo (in front of my sorority house at Northwestern) that I wrote about once for this exercise.

I’ve been assigning this exercise for as long as I’ve taught Creative Writing and Creative Nonfiction, but lately I’ve taken it up as a regular habit for myself: Find an old photo from your own life, and write a few hundred words about it. That’s basically it. Nothing revolutionary. I personally resist elaborate writing prompts, and this one always brings forth great stories from my students. Since I recently got all of my photos scanned (ScanMyPhotos.com, though there are other sites as well), I just pull up the files, pick one, and write about it. You can do this every day, maybe even a few times per day. I love doing some kind of writing every day besides the professional kind, and this exercise has reminded me of so many surprising little memories. I’m hoping some of these pieces will yield some publishable work, too; maybe a few could come together to form a personal essay or somesuch.

If you’re wondering what to write about today, try it. It’s like a prose #TBT.

I’m Giving Away a Skillshare Membership

To thank one of you loyal (or even not-so-loyal) readers, I’m giving away a free Premium Membership to Skillshare (on which I teach a few writing classes) for a year. This allows you to take unlimited classes, and they’ve got a ton of writing-related courses as well as programming, design, photography, and other fun things. The first to respond in the comments gets it.

Find a Writer Tribe

58251_7227I don’t think there’s any better advice for becoming a “real” writer than surrounding yourself with writers. This was definitely the turning point in my career, when I went from seeing myself as just a working journalist to seeing myself as a Writer. I began hanging out with people who inspired me, who wrote novels and essays and other literary things. They treated me like I was one of them, so I started to believe that I was. I started to pursue a real, live literary career, and it worked!

Some ways you can surround yourself with inspiring fellow writers:

1. Go to readings. Like, small literary readings at independent book stores and bars, not Barnes & Noble blockbusters. This is where I got most of the literary friends I still have. Many local publications will list readings in their events sections. Most independent bookstores have bulletins you can pick up, listings on their websites, email lists, or all of the above. Go to readings, chat others up, and go out for drinks afterwards if you’re invited. Authors love when strangers show up to their readings. They’re sick of begging the same 20 friends to come. You’ll meet lots of like-minded people, and maybe even a few good contacts like editors and agents.

2. Take a writing class. Then make friends there.

3. Join or start a writers’ group. This could be a group that meets weekly to exchange and critique work, or it could be an informal happy-hour type thing.

4. Look for online gathering places for writers, and/or just start following fellow writers on Twitter. I’ve made some serious connections online—it really does work.