Sunday, February 10, 2013

Writing Craftily

     Asking me about my favorite writing books is like asking me about my favorite movie. I mean really, how can one have a favorite movie? I probably see as many movies as Roger Ebert.  I have to categorize my favs: war/adventure: The Great Escape; comedy: Annie Hall, Airplane, Blazing Saddles; musical: Cabaret, All That Jazz: too bloody to fit in a category: Godfathers I & II, Donnie Brasco, Good Fellas, Pulp Fiction. Also anything with Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep or Johnny Depp. (Yes, I paid money to see Joe and the Volcano in a theater.)

   When it comes to my favorite writing books, I pare it down to three categories of one or two books. (Aren't you relieved?)

   Inspirational books. Marcia Golub is a woman I would love to have as a next-door neighbor. Anyone who can write a book called I'd Rather Be Writing about how those of us without nannies, housekeepers and writing retreats in the Caribbean manage to write anyway, is someone who has my number. Lesson taken away from Marcia' book:  if you have a family and a writing career, you're always going to feel conflicted. Get over it. Oh and don't bother also trying to live the Martha Stewart life (even Martha Stewart doesn't live the Martha life without a platoon of assistants.) Alas, Marcia's book is out of print. I'd loan you mine...but then I don't loan books. (I never get them back.)

   If you have been following this blog for awhile, you probably know that my favorite book after Charlotte's Web is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I re-read Bird by Bird on a continual basis. (All right...I keep it in the bathroom for moment of "unavoidable delay.") Anne is funny and profane (for those of you who object to the occasional profanity in your how-to books, this might not be for you.) Anne taught me two important lessons: 1) first drafts are always crappy. That's why there are second, fourth and seventy-fourth drafts. You aren't going to get it right the first time. 2) You don't sit down to write with an entire story arc in place, any more than you would sit down to eat one of those 64-ounce-steak joints (finish it and it's free....and you have probably just had a coronary so the point is moot). The title Bird by Bird is Anne's shorthand for writing only what you see before you right this minute. Don't worry about that elusive center section, or that fuzzy ending. Write what you see clearly now.

     Craft books.  Darcy Pattison's Paper Lightning: Pre-Writing Activities That Spark Creativity and Help Students Write Effectively was written with the middle school writer in mind. Therefore, it is perfect for me, when I find myself with big story problems I can't solve myself.  There are exercises here for developing characters, settings, plots, dull name it, Darcy and Paper Lightning can solve it. I have always wanted to teach a full-year class just to have the pleasure of sharing all of Darcy's common-sense suggestions and solutions. However, since I am currently relegated to teaching six session workshops, Paper Lightening is my atlas to writing sanity.

     Craft books for kids:  The classic book I hand a student who wants a book "that tells me how to write a book" is Marion Dane Bauer's What's Your Story: A Young Person's Guide to Writing Fiction.
Although this is geared to a slightly younger crowd than Paper Lightening, it was my fiction writing bible in the Vermont College MFA program (and not just because Marion Dane Bauer was one of my four mentors.)  Unlike Paper Lightning, which is designed to be a textbook, Bauer's book can be read and understood without teacher assistance.

    My six-session workshops can be problematic. It is not reasonable to expect any student, adult or child (and I teach both) to complete more than a rough draft in such a short time. I focus on writing exercises that are fun and have the possibility of  "growing" into a larger work. Ralph Fletcher has written more books on writing with kids than I can count, but my favorite is the one he has written for teachers, Craft Lessons. Fletcher takes students Pre-K through middle school through the components of fiction writing. The exercises and lessons can be used as stand-alone lessons. Each exercise is tailored to the skills and understanding of that particular age. My kids' workshops are for grades 4-8, so this is perfect for me. And if you like this book, check out the rest of the Ralph Fletcher bookshelf; you won't be sorry.

    Tune in Wednesday when I share my favorite writing exercise that I did not learn from any of my favorite writing books!

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Linda B said...

Late, but wanted to say thanks for all your ideas. I love Fletcher's books, just wonderful support for me and for teachers. I just purchased a new book by Judith Ortiz Cofer, Lessons From A Writer's Life at a recent literacy conference. It looks as if it will be a good one to share parts of with adolescents.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks to Mary Ann and Carmela and all of our readers who've added to my Writer's Bookshelf, not to mention my credit card bill this month! :)
I'm STILL swooning after meeting, in person (!), the one-and-only Ralph Fletcher last week at the Denver, CO Colorado Chapter IRA Conference. Attending his luncheon too and hearing him talk about The WRiter's Notebook still has me smiling.
And, since it's almost Valentine's Day,I want to pass on the link to The Word Needs More Love Letters project at
I'll be using this project with writers and their families next week.

April Halprin Wayland said...

Mary Ann--I have only one question: (picture this in tiny little letters)...may I take your writing class?

Ah, a gal can dream...