Confession time: as a working writer, albeit one who is as yet unpublished in the fiction realm, I have a weakness for books about writing by successful writers. I have quite the collection of them, sitting atop my desk — volumes by Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Cory Doctorow, and others. I used to wonder why I like this kind of book so much, since quite frankly, a lot of the advice you’ll find is similar from one book to the next. (“Write a lot, write every day, read a lot, read every day, avoid adverbs, avoid passive constructions, lather, rinse, repeat.”) It occurred to me, while reading Jane Yolen’s new book, Take Joy, that in these books I’m not really looking for advice or pointers for publishing at all. I’m not looking for “how-to” anymore. What I’m looking for is inspiration, a “pep-talk” of sorts.
The idea of a pep-talk for writers probably sounds odd, but in addition to being a writer, I’m also a football fan, and even the most grizzled NFL veteran needs a voice of authority, someone who’s been there before, someone whose job it is to keep a player’s fires stoked and his talents channeled. We call these people ‘coaches,’ and they’re essential to the game. Writers, being a solitary bunch, need the occasional bit of coaching like anyone else: someone to remind them of certain fundamentals, someone to fire them up, someone to remind them once in a while why they’re doing it all in the first place. That’s why I read “how-to” books by the professionals, and Jane Yolen’s book is a keeper.
Jane Yolen is one of the more prolific writers out there today, and she works in a lot of different genres and for a lot of different age groups. Poetic and folkloric, her writing always displays a keen ear for language and a richness of metaphor which are on display here. Yolen is one of those writers who can mix beautiful thoughts that are almost prose-poems with down-to-earth colloquialisms and somehow make it work. The effect is not unlike receiving advice from that wise old lady down the street, the one whose porch is decorated with a hundred glass suncatchers and whose lap is always occupied by a different cat, the one in whose eye always seems to gleam the light of a world not quite our own. It’s certainly different from the more blunt approach of Stephen King’s On Writing.
Many of the usual writerly topics are dealt with in this book, among them outlines (Yolen doesn’t use them), plotting (not the same thing as outlining, though they complement each other), beginnings, endings, voice, and more. There is an interesting chapter on crafting poetry and the effort a poet must expend to make the words rise above “metered prose.” Yolen even provides a poem of her own that provides the answer to the question, “what is a poem?” That answer: “Hard work.”
Take Joy almost bursts with enthusiasm: enthusiasm for story, enthusiasm for writing, enthusiasm for reading. As I note above, the book doesn’t really give any advice that a person who has read many of these books will not have seen, but that advice is framed in Yolen’s own metaphorically-rich, and often hilarious, way. Only Jane Yolen would think to describe part of her basic plot structure as “The Whirligig;” only Jane Yolen, in a chapter on “voice,” would identify such entities as “The Boogerman Voice” and “The David Broder Voice,” in addition to more familiar terms like “The Bardic Voice.” Consider the chapter on outlines, where she reduces several classics to a handful of words:
Anna Karenina: “Anna was a good woman. She made a bad man. She met a fast train. Whoooooo. Whoooooo. Thud. The end.”Lord of the Rings: “Yo! Fro! Give the mountain the finger!”
There are also wonderful anecdotes, such as when Alfred Hitchcock telephoned an author who was known for being very prolific. Informed by the author’s wife that he was indisposed because he was at work on his 158th novel, the great director replied, “Let him finish. I’ll wait.”
And then there is this bit of advice, toward the very end: “Don’t forget to smell the grandbabies.” I’m some years away from that one, myself, but the sentiment is there: drink in the details of this world, for they are all fodder for writers.
Take Joy is a funny and warm book that may be a welcome tonic to anyone who has struggled with a flagging love of story.
(The Writer Books, 2003)