Following a distinguished career as a classically trained actor onstage and in film and television, Mel Ryane has found a new artistic home in the written word with her memoir, Teaching Will: What Shakespeare and 10 Kids Gave Me That Hollywood Couldn’t. Mel became a professional actor during her teens in her native Canada, and then followed her career to New York City and to theatres across North America. After applying her skills to coaching actors on major studio and network projects, she was accepted into the Directing Workshop for Women at the American Film Institute. She subsequently wrote a screenplay that advanced to the semifinal round in the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition. Mel travels across the country teaching “From Page to Podium: Reading Your Work Aloud,” a workshop that helps writers find their public speaking voice. She also offers school workshops introducing Shakespeare to students. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their dog, and cat. Learn more on her website, on Facebook, and Twitter.
I usually have two, three or even four books going at one time. Some for reference and some just because I love to read and need to read and can’t imagine being a writer without reading.
If I’m reading a novel or short fiction, I try terribly hard to keep part of my brain alert to how the writer achieved a certain passage, or developed a certain character, or slipped in and out of point of view — and I invariably fail because I get instantly caught up in the story.
I love On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I’ve read this book twice and keep it handy as inspiration. First, I love his personal story of growing up and beginning his writing career. Second, I love his admonitions to writers. He is so clear and demands of writers all that he demands of himself. King isn’t pussyfooting around when he says a thousand words a day, minimum. When I begin a new project, I can feel him over my shoulder, pushing me forward. No excuses. No “It’s so hard” business. He is with me as I edit, urging me to make cuts and drop any fancy-schmancy crap.
Like all artists, writers are in the service industry. We work for the reader just as an actor is in the employ of an audience. For me, it’s always about giving the audience the best ride possible. Stephen King has mastered this with a formidable output of product.
I’m also a fan of Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See. This book is chockablock with good tips on editing your work as well as the business of being a writer. I love See’s idea of sending notes to writers whose work we admire. Simply reaching out to a writer to say, This work meant something to me. Your writing impacted me. Your writing inspired me. I don’t think writers hear this enough. I take satisfaction in knowing that I may have contributed to making another writer’s day a tiny bit brighter.
I wrote one of these “charming notes,” as See calls them, to another favorite writer, Marilynne Robinson, after I read her novel, Home. We are in a publishing climate that tells us people are reading less and books are of less importance than they ever have been. We are told that unless one is writing in a specific genre (think vampires, erotica or fantasy), we have an almost impossible mountain to ascend. Robinson is proof that this isn’t always so. She takes a drill bit into her scenes and mines for the most robust, gentle and true details of behavior and relationships. Reading her work makes me a better writer because she always seems to have time on her side and doesn’t cave in to rushing to the next beat before it makes sense.
Guaranteed an Anne Tyler book is going to be by my bed. I’ve read that she is “embarrassed” by her early novels, but I gulped these down. From her first line, first paragraph and first chapter, I’m swimming in her world of human and idiosyncratic characters. Tyler is a writer who guides her reader gently, firmly and confidently into the details of human struggle, and her expert craftsmanship reminds me that my existence is universal and survivable.
Another reference book I keep by my bed is The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. This book might be Gornick’s own bedside reading. She takes the reader into the writing of others and looks at how they did it. A terrific ongoing writing class that I refer to especially when writing memoir.
I’ve recently been turned on to Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway. This is a definite go-to for me when I’m writing or revising a novel. Burroway gives concise examples of what and what does not constitute plot and character development, as well as a host of other valuable information. Well, maybe King, Robinson and Tyler have learned it enough, but I doubt I will ever be above learning again and again.
When I need to lie on my pillow at the end of a writing day and delve into someone else’s detailed world, I reach for Alice Munro. Currently I’m reading The Love of a Good Woman. How she manages to paint rich yet economic detail into her short fiction is frankly beyond me. I’m not a short story writer and have huge admiration for Munro’s gift. Her stories gently drag me in, unfold, then whack me on the head. What a startling talent.
What’s in your writing reference collection? Any standouts?