Jack Heffron's The Writer's Idea Book
My younger cousin gave this book to me the Christmas of my freshman year of college. It was a wonderful gift since it came from a genuine faith – probably naïve – in my promise as a writer. After that Christmas I sat it on my shelf at home and forgot about it. A few years later, when my parents moved, I put it in a box and forgot about it again. There's a theme here that applies to my entire life.
The reason it languished for so long is because I had this twisted idea of the value of books about writing. I thought that a real writer didn't need instruction manuals to write well. For some reason I didn't see the irony in taking writing workshops every semester of my undergraduate career until quite recently. After that embarrassing revelation I decided that I'd done my cousin and Heffron an injustice.
This is the first book on writing that ever came into my possession and it seems appropriate that it should be the first I review.
What became outstandingly obvious to me after about the first two pages is that Heffron has a definite target audience: middle age, middle class parents. In and of itself, this isn't a bad thing, but it is frustrating if you don't happen to be a middle age, middle class parent. Heffron accidentally taught me something about white-male privilege.
If you do happen to be a middle age, middle class parent and you have had no previous instruction in writing, this is a good book. He has many valuable insights about motivation and if your life is hectic and your free-time is scarce that could be exactly what you need. What Heffron does here – and he does it well, I think – is explain how to integrate writing into an already busy life and to treat the act of writing not so much as a hobby or moonlighting, but just as a craft worthy of pursuing for self-fulfillment.
What I did appreciate – though he beat it to death – was his exploration and encouragement of using one's own life and experiences as inspiration. Heffron writes –and he's not wrong – that most people tend to see their lives as banal and that's simply the wrong attitude. Actually, he spends about the first half of the book doing nothing but talking about ways and reasons why the reader can and should mine his or her life for material. Others have said it before, and more eloquently, but I still can get behind him pointing out that nothing is inherently uninteresting and our lives are probably more exciting than we give ourselves credit. We can all stand to be reminded of that every so often.
The book is a user-friendly introduction into the general craft of writing. He explores poetry, fiction, and the personal essay in equal parts, though I wish he would have spent a little more time talking about script writing. The last part of the book is a series of meditations on some very difficult concepts in writing (tone, figuring out what a story is "about," stakes, etc.) and I think that he explains them admirably. These are lessons I take for granted since I learned them over the course of a few years from various writing teachers and it was interesting to see them placed side-by-side in chapters.
Heffron is not a particularly entertaining writer, but he's not an engineer either. I could imagine him sitting across from me at my grody kitchen table, politely ignoring the months of recycling stacked in the corner, in order to give me a bit of advice that I didn't really want in the first place. He's nice, and I can't bring myself to tell him he's not wanted. When I open my mouth to ask him to leave, he asks me what kind of tea I have and why and when I purchased it.
That's what annoyed the hell out of me: his prompts. They're about as bland as they are tedious. At first, I thought Heffron is just trying to ease the reader into things by rephrasing ideas a few times. But he keeps doing it. Throughout the whole book. After a while I began to wonder if there was something more insidious going on. About half the book is prompts and, since almost every one sounds like it was recycled from the previous, I am forced to conclude that Heffron ran out of ideas very quickly. I had to remind myself several times that I was redressing an injustice in order to keep reading.
It's hard for me to recommend this one. I read it a month ago and set it aside, thinking that I might warm up to it in that time (hey, it worked for The Rum Diary), but instead I just forgot everything I read. It was a struggle to write this review mostly because I couldn't remember why I disliked it so much initially and whatever seemed appealing at first faded away.
Now, Heffron, you shall return to the shelf, but at least now cluttered with marginalia. I feel better about this now. Do you?