Publishers Weekly arrives in my mailbox each week, as its name says, which seems too often sometimes. I’m apt to groan when I see it because I know it will likely contain some depressing news about the publishing world, and because I also know that I must read it, for it is my link to what’s going on in this world. But I subscribe because I consider it one of the tools of my trade: writing. And after settling down with a new issue of PW, I am always enlightened.
Recently, it occurred to me that PW is part of a suite of tools I’ve accumulated over the years—all the books I’ve read about writing. These I studied eagerly. Shoptalk can be fascinating even when the subject isn’t one’s own trade; when it is, it can be exhilarating. I want to reflect on and share some of the books that have helped me develop as a writer.
The first book was my father’s copy of Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It was published in 1934, so he must have bought it soon after his 1936 Dartmouth graduation. I read it when I was in junior high, trying to follow its clear instructions. Ever afterward, I remembered Brande’s emphasis on discipline. The book was republished in 1981 with a foreword by John Gardner, and when I bought my own copy and began rereading, there was her sensible voice again: “...sketch out for yourself enough of your [day’s] program to know when you will have a few moments to yourself. It need not be a very long time.... Now this is very important and can hardly be emphasized too strongly: you have decided to write at four o’clock, and at four o’clock you must! No excuses can be given.”
My father, Dan, was a big fan of W. Somerset Maugham. One of his favorite novels was Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. So in high school I began reading all the Maugham novels in my parents’ bookcases, and my favorite also turned out to be Cakes and Ale, which contains a lot of shoptalk. My father also had some of Maugham’s nonfiction: A Writer’s Notebook and The Summing Up, which of course I delved into for more shoptalk. “The author does not only write when he is at his desk; he writes all day long when he is thinking, when he is reading, when he is experiencing; everything he sees and feels is significant to his purpose,” Maugham writes in The Summing Up. “Writing is a whole-time job.”
Another book that made a big impression on me was The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald. My sophomore year at Bennington, my literature teacher/counselor, Thomas Wilcox, had a copy of it on his desk, and because I was always early for our Monday morning meetings, I kept dipping into it each week before he arrived. When he eventually replaced it with another book, I bought my own copy. I especially concentrated on the “Note-books” section, Fitzgerald’s observations and thoughts, which he organized into categories from A (“Anecdotes”) to Y (“Youth and Army”). I once took a prose writing course with the critic Kenneth Burke, and he advised keeping a notebook of what he called “gossip,” any descriptions (e.g., how somebody lights a cigarette, something we were doing a lot of back in the ’50s) that might come in handy when you’re in the throes of composition. I began keeping a notebook that contained both Fitzgerald’s and Burke’s ideas, and it has evolved into a big filing-card box, with category markers, from “Animals and Birds” through subjects such as “Emotions” and “Traits and Characteristics” to “Words.”
Those were the basic books. I remain always on the lookout for more shoptalk, more books to add to that shelf in my office. In 2007, I saw a PW review of The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell. The review mentioned that it had “a long section on how F. Scott Fitzgerald—the consummate self-editor—produced The Great Gatsby.” Of course I had to get this book. And there I was, reading about Fitzgerald’s meticulous work on Gatsby and remembering how I’d learned from him in his Crack-Up “Note-books.”
A Born Maniac, the latest of Ruth Doan MacDougall’s 14 novels, is the fourth sequel to her best seller, The Cheerleader. Two of her early novels, The Cost of Living and One Minus One, have been chosen for Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries series. Her Web site is at www.ruthdoanmacdougall.com.