Subtitled "A memoir of the craft” this book is indeed part memoir and part textbook. Thus, the introduction gives way to a substantial CV in which he describes his early life and how he tried to keep writing while married with two children and working all hours to afford food on the table, medicine when they were unwell and parts for the car. The final section, "On living" describes how he began writing again after a nearly fatal road accident. In between these parts "Toolbox" lists the things that a writer, any writer, needs to know (mostly things to avoid such as long words, the passive voice, and adverbs) while "On Writing" describes how he works from characters and a situation to create a story.
It is excellent.
In passing he also shows that he is a master of prose. I really ought to read at least some of his fiction.
A small selection of his brilliance:
- "When you're six, most of your Bingo balls are still floating around in the draw-tank.” (p 17)
- “When you're still too young to shave, optimism is a perfectly legitimate response to failure.” (p 34)
- “When you write a story, you're telling yourself the story ... When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” (p 56)
- “Good writing can be simultaneously intoxicating and idea-driven. If stone sober people can fuck like they're out of their minds ... why shouldn't writers be able to go bonkers and still stay sane?” (p 65)
- “For me writing has always been best when it’s intimate, as sexy as skin on skin.” (p 80)
- “I went to school with kids who wore the same neck dirt for months.” (p 85)
- “By then I was no longer within shouting distance of my right mind.” (p 107)
- “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you are maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes.” (p 129)
- “One learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose.” (p 165)
- “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.” (p 168)
- “Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. the writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” (p 188)
- “No one is ‘the bad guy’ or ‘the best friend’ or ‘the whore with a heart of gold’ in real life; in real life we each of us regard ourselves as the main character, the protagonist, the big cheese; the camera is on us baby.” (p 224)
- “I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones.” (p 324)
- “The scariest moment is always just before you start.” (p 325)
- “Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.” (p 327)
Fabulous. September 2018; 327 pages