I am a fan of books on writing, whether they talk about the writerly life or deal with the nitty gritty of how to hone your writing skills. I even reviewed some of the ones I found most helpful (see Books On Writing in the tool bar above), although I ran out of steam at number 19 – didn’t even get round to writing about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way or Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones! No matter. The thing is, I was recently given a copy of Inside Stories (for Writers and Readers) by Trish Nicholson and asked if I’d like to review it.
I was excited at the thought of reading a new book on my favourite subject. However, it’s a tricky thing agreeing to review a book by someone I don’t know. After all, there are some pretty poor books on writing out there too. What if Inside Stories was one of them? I worried unnecessarily. Inside Stories is one of the better books I have read on writing recently, and below is my review.
First of all, who is Trish Nicholson? Briefly …
Trish is an anthropologist, photographer and writer of short stories and creative non-fiction. A compulsive scribbler, her writings included a monthly magazine column; newspaper features in the UK (The Guardian, The Times, The Times Educational Supplement) and in Australia (Melbourne Age), and three non-fiction books on anthropology, staff development, and responsible travel.
Trish has done many things but at the moment she lives on a hillside in the Far North of New Zealand along with a few thousand native trees. To find out more about this extraordinary woman, you can visit her website Words In The Treehouse, where I discovered that Trish and I have more in common than just writing as we have both lived in Papua New Guinea! (You can read an earlier blog post on PNG here ).
PS: Trish is running a series of writing workshops in the UK in September and October, for more info check out the home page of her website.
Inside stories (for Writers and Readers)
In the How To Use This Book section of Inside Stories, Trish says of the book “it may not make you rich and famous but it will inspire you to better writing and more perceptive reading.” Absolutely. Writing is not just about getting published and making it “big”, not that Trish would be against that, I am sure. As writer Anne Lamott says, “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up …”
What I most like about Inside Stories is that it looks at stories from the perspective of both the writer and the reader. This reading/writing combo approach is refreshing and insightful. In much the same way as writer John Cheever believes “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss – you can’t do it alone,” Trish maintains “a story is not complete until a reader has experienced it.” The reader is as important as the writer and Inside Stories is a “celebration of readers and writers of stories”. According to Trish, understanding how and why writers write and readers read can help make us better writers and readers. Having now read her book, I believe her.
Each chapter of Inside Stories is themed and looks at specific aspects of the writing or reading process. The chapters are followed by stories and/or articles written by Trish, which illustrate some of the reading and/or writing techniques referred to in the preceding chapter. Trish discusses the writing process behind the creation of these stories and generously shares the feedback she received for some of them. This makes for fascinating reading and is as helpful as the technical advice Trish gives in the chapters – and the stories (and articles) are great reads.
You can read the book as a whole or dip in and out as you wish. Either way, it is full of sound, helpful advice, presented in an accessible way. The focus is on the short story because as Trish demonstrates in the book, the form has a great deal to teach us. There are exercises and quotes from the great and the good. My favourite is one by Mark Twain, who once said he didn’t like reading novels or stories. When challenged that he wrote them himself, he said,
“Quite true: but the fact that an Indian likes to scalp people is no evidence that he likes to be scalped.”
This makes me laugh every time I read it. My second favourite quote is by Chekhov, who said,
“Brevity is the sister of talent.”
The book is also littered with Trish’s own lovely tidbits, such as:
“The muse doesn’t make deliveries, she only has pick up points, we have to go and meet her.”
“Our heads are like wheelie bins.”
“There is no magic inspiration in moleskin.”
There are also tips on entering competitions, a history of the Short Story, including one of Aesop’s fables, a reference to Pliny The Younger, some Celtic story telling and the world’s oldest short story, and more so much more.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Inside Stories and thoroughly recommend it. It is a great addition to any writer’s (and reader’s) bookshelf and worth temporarily breaking one of Trish’s only two writing rules for, which are: keep writing and keep reading.
Inside Stories (for Writes and Readers) is published by Collca and you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Inside-Stories-Writers-Readers-Nicholson-ebook/dp/B00DYTYJ74