"Discovering the Writer Within," Ballenger and Lane

Pros: Personal voice; day-by-day approach; interesting and useful observations
Cons: Some material will be old hat to experience writers (but then this book is aimed at beginners)
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 6/18/2002

“Discovering the Writer Within: 40 Days to More Imaginative Writing” is sort of like having a classroom in your backpack (I was going to say pocket, but the book is too big to fit in your pocket). It’s organized by days, and each day starts with an exercise for you to play with. This is followed by a “Seeing What You Said” section that briefly asks you questions about what you wrote. Following this comes a longer “Writer to Writer” section in which one of the two authors (Bruce Ballenger or Barry Lane – you can tell which because they initial these passages) discusses the exercise and its related principles at length.

Often the author will take the opportunity to share his own exercise results, complete with commentary on what works and what doesn’t, why, and what the author got out of the exercise. Finally each day includes a “Follow Through” section, suggesting further things you can play with if you’re in the mood.

A willingness to openly and enthusiastically try things that you think you cannot do well – like painting, or poetry, or prose writing – is an act of faith.

Is this book right for you?

This book is primarily designed for those people who don’t really call themselves writers yet. It’s for people who aren’t sure of what they’re doing or how to go about getting started. If you haven’t written professionally yet, if you still sit around wondering what you should do when confronted with a blank page, this could be the perfect book for you.

That isn’t to say that the book doesn’t have something to offer experienced writers as well. However, I think most experienced writers will find the first handful of days to be a rehash of things they already know quite well.

For those who haven’t done a lot of writing, I do strongly recommend that you use the book’s intended format and do one exercise a day; this keeps things from seeming overwhelming and allows you to incorporate each lesson before moving on to the next. More experienced writers might prefer to jump around a bit and do the exercises that seem interesting to them. I found the first handful of exercises to be familiar and not terribly exciting, but I think they are perfect for someone who needs to ease into the craft.

For something a little unusual, you’ll find a list of “Workouts for Writing Problems” before the introduction. It recommends specific days of exercises for specific writing problems you may be having, ranging from “I want to become more observant” to “I have a hard time with endings.”

One of the hardest things for me to learn about writing is that I don’t have to get it right the first time. Drafts often have holes big enough for the wind to blow through.

What works

One of the better aspects of this book is the very personal voice it’s written in. Usually co-authored books are written in a neutral voice in order to avoid noticeable differences between each author’s work; in this case each author is allowed to retain his voice. Sometimes one or the other will even discuss his reactions to one of the other author’s exercises, and this very personal viewpoint is often exactly what’s needed to convey the real lessons Ballenger and Lane are trying to teach. It also makes the material more interesting, and gives you the feeling that you really are sitting in a small classroom with interesting and enthusiastic teachers.

Ballenger and Lane are in fact teachers as well as writers, and it shows – in a good way; they have a knack for gently encouraging their students. First they encourage us to write without judgment (through free-writing, clustering, and brainstorming, as well as other techniques), then they gradually bring our inner critic out to join the fun. They neither kill our enthusiasm with criticism nor promise us that evaluation and revision don’t matter. They use their own experiences to show us the ups and downs of being a writer, and the lessons to be learned therein.

To be honest, I really couldn’t find any problem with this book. The only remotely negative thing I can think of is the fact that some of this book will be old hat to experienced writers – but then, it isn’t aimed at experienced writers.

If you’ve ever wanted to write but couldn’t quite make yourself do so; if you’re early in your career and could use a kick in the pants; if you’re wondering whether you, too, can write – then buy this book. Do an exercise a day for 40 days, look back at the end, and see how you’re doing. It can’t hurt, and it might just surprise you.

When students ask me what is the most important thing I’ve learned about writing, I tell them it was learning to write badly.

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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