Friday, May 20, 2011

My Favorite Writing Teacher

My Favorite Writing Teacher
by Kathi Diamant

According to Franz Kafka, "If the writer is to escape madness he should never leave his desk; he must cling to it with his teeth." That bit of advice helped me finish a two-decades-long book project. But Kafka's wasn't the only advice I sought in the long road that led finally to publication. Brenda Ueland helped me with her classic guide to writing, first published in 1938, "If You Want To Write." She advised me to "write much much, in spite of imperfections."

Anne LaMott had a hand in my success, especially with "Bird By Bird," in which she encouraged me not to be afraid to write a sh***y first draft. That was actually the title of the chapter. Lately, I find that I cannot live without Roy Peter Clark's "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer." His very first tool, "Begin sentences with subjects and verbs" was a revelation for me, even after a 20 year career as a professional writer.

Like other members of San Diego Writing Women, I now teach writing. I tell my students at San Diego State University's Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning that there is no other field of endeavor that has so much support, so many how-to books, courses, workshops, conferences all designed to help people become writers, who can tell their stories. Because if you don't tell your own stories, who will? To my memoir students I recommend Vivian Gornick and Anne LaMotte. To my travel writing writing students I recommend Pico Iyer and Bill Bryson. And to you, I recommend all the above named books and a visit to the book store.

I just spent several hours at a favorite local bookstore, examining the eight shelves filled with writing advice and guides. I was looking for familiar titles, as well as some new ones, and found them. Despite the fact that I have two long shelves at home filled with books on writing, I found I had to buy two more: "Telling True Stories: A non-fiction writers guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University" and "The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing" by Alice LaPlante. Every writing book I buy, every writing class I take, every conference I attend offers me wisdom, shared experience and inspiration.

As writers, we are blessed with many teachers in diffent formats. "When the student is ready, the teacher appears" is a trueism for anyone who genuinely wants to write. I found my best teachers in books. My all-time favorite remains "If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit." First published in 1938, it contains 12 points to keep in mind while writing. The poet Carl Sandberg called it "the best book ever written on how to write." It was republished in 1983 by Graywolf Press, for which it remains their bestselling title.

As Ueland said: “You may not have much ability, but what you have, get it all out, and be humble and simple and work even if you can think of no words with more than one syllable, and do the best you can and learn by doing much much, in spite of imperfections.”

That's the rule that still works for me, in all my writing. Even this blog!

Kathi Diamant is the director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University and author of Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant" published by Basic Books in 2003. The biography won the Theodore Geisel Award for the "Best of the Best" at the San Diego Book Awards in 2004, and has been translated into Russian, Chinese, French, Spanish and Portuguese.


Kathleen B. Jones said...

Wonderful post, Kathi. And let me add another book to your list, if you don't already have it:

Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft. A great guide to writing and critique sessions. I've used her methods kin teaching my own writing classes.

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