I was excited when I received a fiction supplement from the Atlantic. There’s so much talk about literary journals and the death of publishing, yet a big magazine has printed an eighty-four page fiction supplement. This has to be a sign that the market isn’t going quite in the doomsday direction everyone thinks.
A little background about the Atlantic and I. I love the magazine, it is intelligent and always timely. I was taking a technical writing class in the spring of 2007. My teacher had become ill and we had a substitute. I didn’t really like her. She had a habit of making English words sound French (she wasn’t). One day in class she asked how many of us read the New York Times, or any paper regularly for that matter. None. She asked if we subscribed to the Atlantic. Again, none. This started a lecture on the importance of being aware of what is going on in the world around you. Something about it resonated with me and I’ve been reading the Atlantic ever since. I still don’t get the Times. Not that I don’t want to, I just can’t afford the rates (delivery to Colorado is not cheap). I often visit their website though, especially for the books column.
Anyhow, back to Fiction 2010. I was elated when it arrived. I put it on my dresser with the intention of starting it the following day. I didn’t. I’d just moved and it quickly became buried and forgotten. It’s been sitting for at least a month now. Last night, I happened to come across it. I read an essay called “The Case Against Writing Manuals: How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons” by Richard Bausch.
The essay is a criticism of the writing manuals that seem to have flooded the market. He’s talking about the how-to books that provide rigid, formulaic structure. Instead he suggests that, if you want to write, you should read the writers themselves. I couldn’t agree more. For years, I read a lot of writing books. While I found Natalie Goldberg and Anne Lammott helpful (I don’t lump their work into the same category as how to manuals), I was reading enough other work. Each time I went to Borders, it was to buy another writing book. I’ve gotten great advice from Stephen King, Carolyn See, and others. What I didn’t get was a sense of how certain kinds of writing is effective.
Last fall, I started a class called Writing as if Your Life Depends on it, taught by the amazing Dr. Becky Thompson. In her class, we were required to read a book every week and write an essay about it. Through her, I was exposed to Tchich Nhat Hanh, Sonia Sanchez, Dorothy Allison, Louise DeSalvo, Martin Espada, bell hooks, and many, many more. Each time I read the assigned works, I found myself inspired. A line or a concept would inspire me to write a nonfiction narrative or spoken word poem (which Dr. Thompson graciously accepted in lieu of an essay). The main thing I learned from her was that in order to be a better writer, you have to be a better reader. We need to push outside of our boundaries. I don’t just mean reading different genres, but also authors of different ethnicities, class backgrounds, etc. Read about the Japanese-American internment camps, read about the history of Jazz, read about culture and life. Really, there is no better writing advice.