The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Book – Have you ever tried to write poetry? It’s not as easy as it looks – even free blank verse, in most hands, sounds silly, while a good poet can shake you to your core. Nevertheless, I keep trying to write poetry, hoping that someday I’ll accidentally manage something that’s actually good. I picked up The Ode Less Travelled to see if there’s anything useful I’ve been missing, and wow, have I been missing a lot.

Stephen Fry isn’t a poet – he’s an actor, comedian, and occasional novelist – but he writes poetry for fun, and thinks other people should try it, too. In aid of this, he explains poetical metre (everything’s spelled in British English in this book, although Fry also gives the Americanisms), rhyme, form, and criticism, along with giving extremely useful and interesting exercises for you to try. (They’re presented in workbook format, but please bow to the publisher’s wishes and buy a copy for yourself if you wish to write your verse in the book.) As he says, you probably won’t become an award-winning poet just by reading this book, but you will be able to amuse yourself with a creative hobby, much like sketching with words. And if all you’re interested in is understanding poetry a little better, this would also be a useful read, as it’s much more entertaining than any “Introduction to Poetry” I’ve ever read before.

Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton

Book – Like many writers, Cary Tennis had a project he just couldn’t finish: a sprawling novel he’d started writing while commuting to a detested corporate job. He struggled with it for years before coming up with the Finishing School, a method for constructing a writing group that was about support, not mutual criticism, and gentle accountability. And yes, he finished the novel.

What makes Finishing School the book unique (in my experience of writing-advice books, of which I’ve read many) is the authors’ understanding that writing, and especially projects we’ve been procrastinating on for years, can bring up big emotions, and it’s those emotions, not the writing itself, that frequently gets in the way. Finishing School, the method, is about making some space for those emotions, which in turn makes some space in your head for getting the work done.

I think this method could be expanded to help you deal with any project you want to get done but don’t have a firm deadline for. (Discussed in the book are several writers who had writing-adjacent projects they needed to finish, like cleaning out the study that had been used as a storage room for too many years.) In addition to sympathy, the book lays out the method for you to use as a two-person buddy system or as a large group like a class. I’m looking forward to recruiting a buddy to help me get started on a couple of projects of my own.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.

I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

no plotBook – Have you heard of NaNoWriMo? It’s a no-holds-barred, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing, an international challenge where thousands of people commit to an insane goal: to write a 50,000-word novel in the 30 days of November. No Plot? No Problem! is NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty’s instructional manual for the project. It covers everything from why you might want to try such a crazy project in the first place to how to motivate yourself past the week two slump, as well as offering tips and suggestions for how to plan your attack on your novel. I re-read this every year, a week at a time, to help me through my novel writing. I like Baty’s irreverant style and the attitude he brings to the project: it’s a nice reminder that even an insane goal is fun and worth pursuing.

If you’re interested in joining NaNoWriMo, it’s not too late! You can still sign up for an account on the official site to track your progress and meet other writers. Join us on two Saturdays this month, November 15th and 22nd, for afternoon write-ins. Share the companionship of other writers, compete in Word Wars, earn an entry into the 2014 Naperville Region Library Crawl prize drawing, and, of course – write!