(This review first appeared in the Winter 2015 of Armadillo magazine.)
There are a great many books on the craft of writing. My reservations about some of them is their implication that writing is like assembling flat-pack furniture – you only have to follow the rules to end up with a publishable book. Such advice may be helpful but, to me, over-emphasis on the nuts and bolts of writing omits what it’s really about. One book which counters this is Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, first published in 1934 and still credited as an influence by many authors. Brande takes the line that unless you think of yourself as a writer, and cultivate that private, solitary, reflective side of yourself, no amount of technique will make you one.
This nurturing of creativity is at the heart of Jenny Alexander’s book. Her varied career has encompassed fiction and non-fiction for adults and children, both traditionally and self-published, and she regularly leads workshops for writers of all kinds. With Brande acknowledged as an influence, the advice given here differs from techniques-based manuals in its emphasis on finding satisfaction, self-knowledge and happiness in writing, rather than looking to regular contracts, sales, prizes and fame as the main measure of success. Would-be writers can now find limitless online advice about competing in a crowded field, on getting the attention of editors, agents and readers, and how to self-promote; but Alexander points out that striving for commercial marketability can come in time to seem shallow. This is another way in which her book differs from others; most writing manuals are aimed at people seeking publication for the first time, whereas Alexander has much to say about mid- or late-career crises in which a writer can feel stale, even trapped by success, and in need of a fresh approach.
There is a great deal of useful advice here about coping with blocks. Jenny Alexander points out that we tend to set great store on being busy and productive, and certainly the children’s book world likes authors to produce books at regular intervals: “Not being busy offends our ideas about how we should be, and the notion that results can come from doing nothing offends our ideas about how life ought to be. We want productivity to reflect the hours we put in at the computer and expect to be able to produce books like sausages, one after the other, so long as we apply ourselves to it.” Sometimes, however, we simply need to do nothing: wait, absorb, let the subconscious mind find answers.
Alexander’s advice about countering blocks includes self-questioning exercises to discover what’s stopping you, where your motivation is, and the values you want to convey in your writing. Interspersed throughout are short contributions from other writers. Reading this satisfying blend of life-coaching, self-help and spiritual guide is like listening to a wise and kindly friend.
At first I made bookmarks on my Kindle edition, but soon found that I was bookmarking almost every page – there was so much that chimed with me. If you’re interested in finding fulfilment and happiness through writing, this book should be your companion.