As a writing geek, I read a lot of books about writing, so I consider myself something of a connoisseur. Not writing how-to books, like "Plotting the perfect novel on a McDonald's napkin," but rather those that have come to be called, "writing life books." Usually a mixture of memoir and guidance, encouragement and sustenance for what is often an arduous creative journey over unforgiving terrain, these books are often misunderstood by the uninitiated as "self-help" tomes when what they really represent are rare glimpses into the lives of working artists, singular depictions of what it means to be a writer today.
In the more than twenty years since Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, one of the first and arguably best examples of the form was published, becoming an instant classic, dozens followed. I have read most of them. Some have been better than others, with most falling in the middle range, between unabashedly bad and astonishingly good. A few, moreover, have been so incandescent as to secure a spot on my top-three list--for their originality, their inspiration, their value, and the quality of their writing (the writing in a writing life book should sing--shouldn't it?). I'm pleased to announce a newly published book--Robin Black's Crash Course: Essays from Where Writing and Life Collide--that hits all these notes and then some, dismantling my previous triumvirate.
I'm not going to tell you which book Black's displaced, because it remains in my top ten. But I will disclose that Crash Course shares the top billing in "Geek" Ranking with Bird by Bird, still, and another relatively recent book, Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I'm not going to take up too space praising Big Magic because Elizabeth Gilbert, much as I adore her gently-wise persona, gets plenty of attention already, but if you want to write, I assure you neither your time nor your money will not be wasted on it. When I love an Elizabeth Gilbert book--Committed, The Signature of All Things, Big Magic--I really love it. Notice I did not mention Eat, Pray, Love on that list, a book which I neither loved nor hated. I have not read Gilbert's earlier work but I look forward to devouring it someday.
But enough about Liz. Here is why you should be reading Robin Black and Crash Course. First, because it's not your typical writing book, which is usually simply the author's own writing tips dressed up in distinctive costumes. Not that there's anything wrong with that, there isn't, there's much to be derived from any writer's perspective on the craft. But Crash Course somehow manages to be more than that. It's craft talk mixed with talk about coming to writing later in life and succeeding at it later in life, something I know anyone older than Eleanor Catton will be happy to read about. It's also craft talk that powerfully acknowledges the pain of family dysfunction--of distant, alcoholic fathers and failed marriages and struggling children--and the impact it can have on one's work in a way that implicitly reassures readers it's okay to write surrounded by our own baggage, that in fact, it's perfectly normal.
Black's opinions on art and our tendency to judge it harshly and in media res rather than leaving it for the ages also resonated with me, as did her tendency to always come down on the side of whatever allows the writer to continue writing. Let me say that again, so strongly I believe in it: whatever is most important to art and craft and life is whatever allows the writer to continue writing. Many quotes in the book articulate this philosophy, but this is my favorite:
"Am I saying there's no such thing as bad writing or good writing? I am saying that long, long before the question of inherent quality can be addressed, the dominance of subjective response has so trampled the conceit that it's a question barely worth asking. And it's a question I particularly dislike because in the asking lies the implication that some of us are more entitled to write than others, because some of us are "good" and others of us are "bad." I would far rather err in in the direction of inclusion than risk endorsing that scheme."
Another reason why Crash Course ranks so highly for me is that I could not put it down. I told you at the beginning of this review that I enjoy "writing life" books and have read a lot of them. Such a statement might make you think I approach them avidly, almost hungrily, but what that really means is that at this point in my life, my reading in this genre has become rather desultory. I'm always looking for a new specimen to add to my stock and I'll usually happily pursue it to the end, kind of like the way I munch on a bowl of unsalted pretzels, because I'm hungry and they're inoffensive and satisfying and because they're there. Crash Course provides a deeper kind of nourishment. Black's writing is understated yet compelling, her voice so engaging that I finished the book in less than two days, carrying it with me everywhere, longing to get back to it even when other more pressing matters demanded my attention.
I first learned about Crash Course, which debuted April 12 from Engine Books, on social media, where several writer friends whose opinions I admire were all abuzz about its merit. Their enthusiasm compelled me to turn next to online reader reviews, most of which were so positive I downloaded it immediately and began reading.
If you're anything like me, I don't think you'll regret doing the same thing. As for myself, I'm moving on her fiction now.