“There’s nothing mysterious about your style of prose,” says author Kevin Barry, “it’s a direct projection of your personality.” Many writers – myself included – find this out the hard way. Good writing is true and authentic, it reflects who you are.
For a long time I subconsciously tried to be someone else on the page. I anglicised my Northern Irish accent; I feigned some sort of seriousness, perhaps hoping to be taken seriously. But the more I attended writing workshops and read books about the craft, the more I realized that my work paled next to my personality.
I am a friendly Northern Irish woman. I do a good line in anxiety but I’m not too serious. I am passionate about art and books. I am not shy with strangers. Why, then, did I hesitate to express myself in my writings? There is no easy answer to this question, but I find it interesting to think about. For the Guardian Masterclasses Online Summer Writers Retreat, I will share my thoughts on style and encourage other writers to embrace their individuality.
This blog post collects some brilliant books on creative writing, including agony and ego, a 1993 anthology edited by Clare Boylan. In his introduction, Boylan makes an interesting observation about writing fiction. “Writing is a paradox because it all comes from ourselves. There’s nowhere else it could come from. Yet, when the characters of a novel have been established, the task of the fiction writer is to remove himself and his influence, and let the characters move on with their lives.
During the online retreat, I will invite writers to reflect on the fruitful tension between expressing their personality in their work and staying true to their characters. Many other tutors are participating in the retreat, which runs from Monday July 25th over the course of three weeks.
From Ross Raisin to Huma Qureshi, renowned authors will help you polish your craft and encourage you to devote time to writing. By the end of the three weeks, perhaps you’ll be a little closer to what the great John McGahern described as “that clear mirror called style – the reflection of personality in language.”
If you’re looking for motivation to write, this piquant book by Ray Bradbury is the perfect prescription.
In the opening trial, The pleasure of writing, the acclaimed author of Fahrenheit 451 invites us to write with enthusiasm and enthusiasm. “If you write without enthusiasm, without enthusiasm, without love, without pleasure, you are only half a writer. It means that you are so busy keeping an eye on the commercial market, or an attentive ear for the coterie forward-thinking, that you’re not yourself anymore. You don’t even know yourself. Because the first thing a writer should be is – excited.
When I first read Zen in the art of writing, I felt energized to write. With trials ranging from How to Keep and Feed a Muse at Drunk and responsible for a bike, Bradbury’s unforgettable book is a gift for anyone who loves to write. In fact, cross this out: Zen in the art of writing is for all those who love life.
Planned as lectures at Harvard, Italo Calvino’s delightful “memos” on writing remained unfinished at the time of his death.
The sketches explore the concepts of lightness, speed, multiplicity, accuracy and visibility (constancy was to be the sixth), Calvino starting work on them in 1984.
In each of his lectures, Calvino recommends to the next millennium a particular value, quality or peculiarity of literature that is close to his heart. “Since my youth, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Slow feasthurry slowly,” Calvino writes in his second essay, Speed. “As with the poet who writes verse, so it is with the prose writer: success consists in blissful verbal expression, which occasionally may result from a quick flash of inspiration, but generally involves a patient search for right wordfor the sentence in which every word is unalterable”.
Calvino believes that writing prose should be no different from writing poetry. In both cases, he argues, it’s about looking for “the unique expression”, one that is “concise, focused and memorable”, three words that sum up the tone of this wonderful book.
Agony and the Ego edited by Clare Boylan
In this illuminating anthology of essays, some of the best writers of all time – from John McGahern to Hilary Mantel – reflect on the process of creating fiction.
According to editor Clare Boylan, Mantel’s reassuring essay Cultivate a tale “argues that ideas coaxed rather than cowed will naturally become a novel”. I loved Mantel’s essay when I first read it as part of Ross Raisin’s six-week creative writing program. “If you create your characters right, they’ll just do what’s in them,” Mantel writes, “they’ll play out the nature you gave them, and there – you’ll find – you have your plot.”
Now out of print, The Agony and the Ego deserves to be found second-hand or in a library. Along with insightful essays by John Banville, Rose Tremain and Nadine Gordimer, it features a short selection of interviews from the Writers at Work series, which Boylan wrote for the Guardian.
Many of these essays shed light on the “mystery” of writing, and that is perhaps why I return to agony and ego. This heartwarming book encourages writers to grow naturally within themselves.
Mantel’s Rules for Writers include this recommendation: “Read Become a writer by Dorothée Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible.
Full of practical advice for writers short on time, Brande’s book was first published in 1934 and remains a must-have classic. Schedule time to write each day, suggests Brande. “It doesn’t have to be very long; fifteen minutes will do”.
I enjoyed Brande’s simple but powerful tips for taking a draft of a story “on the go” and thinking about it. After the walk, you are asked to go to a dark room and lie down. “Calm your mind,” Brande said. Lie there, not quite asleep, not quite awake. After a while, she says, you’ll feel “a distinct urge to lift up, a sort of surge of energy. Obey it immediately… Get up and go to your paper or typewriter and start writing. The state you are in at that time is the state in which an artist works.
Writing is rewriting. Learning to self-edit your work is perhaps the most vital skill a writer can acquire and this book, by editors Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, is something of a godsend.
One of the chapters of On editing demystifies “show don’t tell”, an expression “often misunderstood” by new writers. “In its simplest form, the point of showing is to bring the reader as close to the action as possible,” write the authors. “By intensely feeling your writing yourself, you will convey that emotion to the reader…and when you can make the reader feel it, you will have it in the palm of your hand.”
Other helpful chapters cover structure, description, pacing, and more. The book also includes advice on submitting your novel – from writing synopses to pitching to agents – making it an indispensable guide for writers who take their work seriously.
“When we talk about a writer’s style, we are really talking about their ‘voice’,” writes Richard Skinner in Write a novel. “As a tutor, I can’t do anything about the tone of your voice when you speak, but what I box to engage with is what you say, that is, your ‘story’”.
Skinner’s book is a practical and thought-provoking guide to the art of writing. Divided into small sections – from story and plot perspective – it encourages writers to get fully on the page. As Skinner writes in an article for the Observer, “Writing is about claiming ownership of yourself in order to become the person you know you can be.”
Through Write a novel, there are carefully selected quotes from authors, such as Gertrude Stein’s, “Sentences are factual, but paragraphs are emotional”. Over the years, I have enjoyed immersing myself in this generous and benevolent book. It feels fresh every time – and will no doubt inspire many writers to follow their passion.
I gave myself this wonderful gift book when I had little confidence in myself as a writer.
Lockdown had taken away my beloved literary events and writing workshops, and while I attended many online, I was Zoom-weary and hungry for new experiences. This terrible winter confinement had been announced and I was living alone. be a writer was then a brilliant company and continues to be a source of insight and wisdom on the art of writing.
From Alice Munro to Gabriel García Márquez, the book features quotes and essays from some of the world’s greatest authors. Márquez reveals how Franz Kafka’s first line Metamorphosis inspired him to start writing short stories. Australian author Tim Winton says writing a book is a bit like surfing: “Most of the time you’re waiting.
be a writer is a beautiful anthology to draw from, to savor in small puffs. This comforting book reminds us that each writer’s approach is unique. Trust the process that works for you. Read a lot and write down what makes you feel most alive. As Anaïs Nin said, “We write to taste life twice”.
For a limited time, save 10% on a specially curated selection of creative writing books at The Guardian Bookstore.
Learn more about the Guardian Masterclasses Summer Writers Retreat and register now.