Writer's Digest Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-582-97385-2.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 07/18/2008
Nonfiction: Creative Life
Jane Yolen's book, Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft, is chocolate for the writer's soul, filled with contents as light and juicy as the slice of watermelon on the cover.
"There are writers who believe that writing is agony, and that's the best anyone can say of it." Yolen's opening sentence throws down a gauntlet. She continues: "But by God, that's a messy way of working. And blood is extremely hard to get off of white paper." With that provocative beginning, she skips lightly through the remainder of the 194 pages, strewing a mixture of exquisite and pithy phrases with abandon.
But don't be misled by Yolen's odes to joy, extolling the virtues of dreaming and trusting the hindbrain, or her assurance that it doesn't matter where you begin your story—only that you do begin. This whimsical book is a series of fifteen essays solidly covering all aspects of writing, from beginnings to endings and everything in between.
This veteran author knows her craft and talks about various ways to manage the writing process ("Writers write") and where to do your writing (in the park, in a coffee shop, at your desk, in your jammies—your call). She explains the elements necessary to make a great party anecdote work as a story: "Interesting anecdotes are not fiction by themselves. They need the sandpaper touch of art." She provides a decoder ring for making sense of rejection letters. Her two alphabet chapters, "The Alphabetics of Story" and "The Alphabetics of Writing" fulfill their promise and cover these subjects from A to Z.
Her "Advice" chapter pulls no punches."Write every day." "Write what interests you." "Write for yourself." "Write with honest emotion." She warns of the dangers of facile writing and preaching and explains the occasional need to turn things on their end. Then she offers the hope of serendipity. Her concise explanation of poetry uses hilarious examples to succinctly clear up much of the mystery of this writing form. She explains voice, point of view, and plot with equal deftness.
The book is far more than solid advice. Her imaginative examples and apt phrases are so artfully crafted and occasionally humorous that the book would delight even those who never plan to set pen to paper. I read most of her examples of terse book outlines aloud. She covers The Scarlet Letter in two lines:
Hester Prynne was a bad girl.
Still she got an A.
About herself, she says: "I wrote my novels like a nervous tourist visiting an untidy continent, map and guidebook in hand. I was so careful to tread on the properly outlined paths, I never saw the life by the roadside..."
Throughout the book, she balances solid advice with reminders to take time to smell the roses, because it's only through the smelling that you learn to write them real. She freely tells of her own experience of writing. She writes. She writes every day. She plans to write. But she doesn't plan her stories. "I have often been known to reply to the question, 'Where do you get your ideas?' by saying, 'I don't know. The stories simply leak out my fingertips.' " She explains how "green elves" moved in and withstood her three-week boycott of one manuscript before they convinced her they should stay. She doesn't specifically give advice on how to be creative—she simply models it and explains her own process within the body of the text and in one or two page "Interludes" of personal experience and insight between chapters.
Her words at the end of the first chapter—"I wish you all such joyous flights in your own writing. Save the blood and pain for real life where tourniquets and ibuprofen can have some chance of helping"—sum up the spirit of the book. Her contagious joy in writing glitters like crystal on every page, and she gives readers the tools they need to express this same joy in their own words and love the craft as she does.
Jane Yolen is an author of children's books, fantasy, and science fiction, including Owl Moon, Devil's Arithmetic, and How do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? She is also a poet, a teacher of writing and literature, and a reviewer of children's literature. Visit her website.
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