Tuesday, March 10, 2009

On Becoming a Writer

First, a thank you. Last month, I wrote about a year-long trip my family is planning, and asked for advice about home-schooling resources. I appreciate all of your suggestions about books, web resources, and strategies. I'm accumulating more of the same (most of which are applicable to anyone interested in educating children, in any context), and will make them the subject of a future blog.

I've enjoyed many of the recent posts that describe the authors' evolution as writers. There are many different stories, but everyone, despite having a distinct voice and point of view, seems to end up confronting the same issues: writing nonfiction simply, clearly, and engagingly. Precisely the qualities the previous sentence lacks.

Is it just me, or does something about the blog format foster a confessional mode of expression? Reading I.N.K. posts often makes me feel as if a mistake has been made — why am I in the company of so many writers who can express themselves with such eloquence and so little apparent effort?

I started making books for children as a form of visual expression, and I'm still trying to get comfortable with thinking of myself as a writer. Twenty years ago I was an experienced graphic designer, an inexperienced illustrator, and an even more inexperienced new father. Reading piles of books to my daughter — we started when she was too young to even sit up — started me thinking that making a book might be fun. Notice I say making, because my first books were really all about the images. From the beginning, however, I was drawn to nonfiction about the natural world, and I realized that words might be necessary if I wanted a book to convey much actual information. Or get published. I did make one wordless picture book — Looking Down — but the other subjects I was interested in exploring required some annotation.

Now, twenty books or so later, I find that writing has become my central preoccupation when I'm working on a book. I love the visual part of the process, and approach it with very little trepidation. I'm confident that I can solve a book's visual challenges, one way or another. Illustrating the book is a reward — it's like dessert. The writing, however, doesn't get any easier. Just the opposite, in fact. In my early books I was blissfully naive about the writing process. I just wrote down what I thought would explain the image on the page. I didn't rewrite as much. I was a designer and illustrator making a book, so I didn't worry too much about the text.

It's been the slowly developed recognition that I have as much responsibility (more?) to the words as to the images that has made writing more and more of a focus. I remember being surprised and a little bemused that teachers and librarians encountered at schools and conferences were reading my books and thinking about the way they were written, sometimes recognizing pattern and intention that had never occurred to me.

It's much more difficult than I imagined, being a writer. It's humbling, frustrating, exhausting, gratifying, and intoxicating (not in the Dylan Thomas sense, at least most of the time).

In the interests of making this post a little more than a self-absorbed soliloquy, I'll share a few of the books I've found helpful on my journey:

On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing, by William Zinsser
(this book was recommended in a recent Vicki Cobb post, but it's well worth a repeat mention)

Also Zinsser's Writing to Learn.

This one is probably too obvious to mention, but I will anyway: The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This link is to a new edition cleverly illustrated by Maira Kalman.

Dictionary for Writers and Editors and his Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words are both useful.

Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book, by Leonard Marcus, is a inspirational series of interviews with iconic children's book author/illustrators.

Finally, all of Edward Tufte's books are invaluable to anyone interested in the presentation of quantitaive information. Their subject is visual presentation, but Tufte does such a good job of explaining what he's showing us that they are also a useful resource for writers. You could start anywhere, but one of my favorites is Beautiful Evidence.


Elaine Magliaro said...


I have Zinsser's ON WRITING WELL: AN INFORMAL GUIDE TO WRITING NONFICTION (1985)--the book's Third Edition. I found it to be the best resource book that I have ever read about writing--even though I don't write nonfiction. It helped me to look at everything I was writing with a more critical eye--and to write more succinctly and clearly. ELEMENTS OF STYLE is the other resource I always keep close at hand.

I hope you and your family have a wonderful trip.

Mrs. Pilkington said...

Thanks for the post -- I love Tufte's work, and they always make me wish that I was a designer/illustrator!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thing one:
Hmmmm.....I can't believe you said "Reading I.N.K. posts often makes me feel as if a mistake has been made — why am I in the company of so many writers who can express themselves with such eloquence and so little apparent effort?" For what it's worth, I always get a big kick out of your posts. They're thoughtful, entertaining, unusual, and informative. So there, sports fans.

Thing two:
Yup, as another author/illustrator who made pictures for many years before I began to write, I also still think of myself as an artist first. Am I a Real Writer? I'm never quite sure. I haven't taken a single class in writing and have never read a how-to book in my life, even though I know I should. But all the literary scholars would probably just remind me that I use waaaay too many adjectives.

The best writing advice I ever got was from one of my editors, who looked at my rough manuscript and then looked and me and said, "just tell this in your storyteller voice." Somehow that really struck a chord with me and it's helped make my nonfiction writing a lot more compelling....at least I hope it has.

My other little literary conceit is to try to write the way I talk. It seems more honest, less formal, more user-friendly, and less prim and proper that way. But I'm sure you're right. Maybe I should go get all those books you recommended anyway and read them in one of my spare times, if any.