by Ashley Bales
Sometimes a retreat into oneself is necessary for any successful re-engagement, though these days escape can bring with it tidal waves of guilt that rush you back to the captive present with little more than a mild drenching of respite. To me, John McPhee’s new book of assembled New Yorker essays, Draft No. 4, on writing brings with it the sort of late summer downpour that keeps you locked comfortably indoors without threatening disaster. It is an unforgivable vice as an aspiring writer to read more books about writing than the writing itself. As with all my vices I’ve set limits, but some morsels are too irresistible.
Paris Review Daily reported on the first annual Honey and Wax Bookseller’s book collecting prize and it struck me how inextricable the link is between collecting and research (though the researcher in me is driven to point out the likely effects of selection bias). There are lots of ways to love books, but compulsive collection isn’t my favorite. These collectors are described milling their collections for information: accounts of working women in romance novels, accounts of natural disasters. Their books are tools, which makes a certain sense. A prize for book collecting is ultimately about objects first and content second, any ephemeral psychic value becomes flimsy in comparison.
Doholt’s essay “On Cruising a Writer’s Oeuvre” identifies a more valuable sort of collection; one that fulfills the writerly value of exploring a perspective. What could keep me from flitting between texts, abandoning them to move on to the next more compelling, potentially more compelling, more enlightening, more beautifully sentenced, more psychically satisfying? I suffer from the researcher’s compulsions and the writer’s priorities. Doholt suggests focus. Direct that drive for collection towards an author’s works instead of books and you’ll unlock both the technical successes of their oeuvre and an appreciation of your own readerly tendencies.
Which brings me back to my guilt in putting down Sally Rooney in order to pick up John McPhee. There are lots of ways to learn how to write, and while the most explicit may feel like short-cuts, I’ll never write well until I better understand those readerly tendencies. The task is gargantuan.
This week on the blog Eric Beebe discusses how learning to write changed him, Eddie Dzialo considers the therapeutic value of skydiving, and David Moloney deals with an accumulation of leaves.
Ashley Bales is a current student of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology, teaches in the Math and Science Department at Pratt Institute and is web editor for Assignment Magazine.