"Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life" Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, eds.

Pros: Hilarious comic strips; touching memorial; fun little snippets from famous writers
Cons: One or two minor issues of personal taste
Rating: 5 out of 5

First published 10/18/2002
Review copy courtesy of Writer’s Digest Books

It was a dark and stormy review. Suddenly, a shot rang out. A reader screamed.

No, wait, that’s not right…

Oh, hi! Sorry about that. I was caught up in working on my latest short story. You see, I’ve gotten inspired by this great new writing book I read last night. It’s called “Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life,” and it’s edited by Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz.

It’s sort of a tribute to Charles Schulz, the late great creator of the Peanuts comic strip and the famous beagle-with-a-typewriter, Snoopy. It’s filled with various strips exploring all sorts of aspects of writing, and little tiny snippets of advice from famous authors.

Rediscovering “Peanuts”

Unfortunately, my parents got me started reading Peanuts when I was a small child. Why do I say unfortunately? Because I wasn’t really old enough to understand the comic strip, so it failed to catch and hold my interest. Having read this book, I can tell you that this is a real shame! Reading all these writing-related comic strips I can now see why it is that the comic didn’t hold my interest when I was very young. Much of the humor in it went straight over my head; it really isn’t aimed at small children. But it’s perfect for us adults – particularly adults who do any sort of writing!

The strips in this book are so funny that I had to share many of them with my husband as I read– particularly all the ones that contain some variation of the line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Snoopy seemed fixated on that idea, unable to get past it to anything more original than “it was a dark and stormy noon,” or perhaps, “he was a dark and stormy knight.” And in between all of these stormy nights we get to see Snoopy’s clashes with editors and publishers of all kinds: “Dear Contributor, We are returning your dumb story. Note that we have not included our return address. We have moved to a new office, and we don’t want you to know where we are.” Ouch! We can all identify with some part of the poor beagle’s struggles for fame, recognition, and a fifty thousand dollar check.

The Snippets on Writing

I was a bit surprised to find out just how short most of these little essays are – a few paragraphs, generally. On the other hand, it meant there was more room for comic strips, so how can I complain? This book isn’t meant to be an exhaustive textbook or guide to the writing life. It’s a joyful riff on the pain, excitement, and perspiration that is writing. You’re bound to find something in here by a writer you love, and it’s neat just to see what these preeminent folks have to say:

Danielle Steel discusses inspiration and discipline: “And the less important I feel, the better the book goes.”

Clive Cussler says, “What If?” while Sidney Sheldon gives us the three rules for writing a best-seller. Cherie Carter-Scott provides 10 quick tips on writing self-help books, while Thomas McGuane talks about getting the words to come. Leslie Dixon has a bit of fun with us whining writers, while Oakley Hall talks about rules.

Dominick Dunne handles criticism: “It’s just as hard to write a bad book as a good one, you know.” Catherine Ryan-Hyde gives us the editor’s view, while Fannie Flagg talks about inadequacy. John Leggett chose to talk about setting; William F. Buckly, Jr. discusses book reviewers; David Michaelis gives us an odd bit about biography and truth; Frances Weaver talks about what’s funny; and Herbert Gold goes into finishing while Barnaby Conrad takes us through beginnings.

Sue Grafton is one of several authors who talk about handling advice and evaluating your own writing. “Most of us learn to write well by writing badly for a long, long time. What’s deceptive is that early in the process everything you write sounds terrific to you.” Elizabeth George also chimes in on this subject: “I always tell my writing students to become completely aware of their bodies as they write. I tell them that their minds will lie to them all the time, but their guts will never lie to them.”

Jay Conrad Levinson just loves writing, Sol Stein is into love stories, and Budd Schulberg wants Snoopy to give short stories a try. Monte Schulz talks about style, A. Scott Berg talks about Thomas Wolfe, Ed McBain discusses titles, and everyone talks about rejection letters: Shelly Lowenkopf, the inimitable Ray Bradbury, and Jack Canfield: “Jack London received six hundred rejection slips before he sold his first story.”

Charles Champlin has a few words to say about autobiography and journaling, while Laird Koenig talks about what characters want. Julia Child even steps in to teach Snoopy about cookbook-writing, while Elmore Leonard focuses on characters. Finally, J.F. Freedman tells us about “sitting your butt down and making something happen.”

Each essay is preceded by a related comic strip, and many of the essays address Snoopy or one of his friends directly, or mention poor Snoopy’s latest plight – it’s an endearing conceit. Each is then followed by several more strips just to keep us laughing.

A Small ‘But’…

Now that I’ve enthused about this book for so long, I do have a confession to make. You see, the book starts off with a foreword and an introduction. The introduction by Barnaby Conrad is a wonderful view of cartoonist Charles Schulz, full of life and color, and I’m so glad I read it! The foreword, by Schulz’s son Monte, is, umm, kind of dull. I wish he’d given the same life to his words about his father that Conrad did.

And while I’m loath to be a cynic in this case, given the nature of this book, I can’t help but notice that Monte is the only author who provides an essay for this book (you’ll note from the list above that he provides a writing essay in addition to the foreword) who hasn’t either had a gazillion things published or won some award, or in some other way distinguished himself. No, I don’t think that you need to be famous in order to have something helpful to say, but his essay was… again, I’m loath to be cynical right now, but it and his foreword both came across as… snooty, and dull. It’s a tiny smudge on an otherwise stunning book, so it really doesn’t affect my joy in recommending this book to you.

As a very tiny note, given how short the essays are, the choice to have inset quotes from each essay in the middle of that essay seems kind of overkill. On the other hand, if you’re using this as a coffee table book and people flip through it to glance at things, I guess that could still be useful.

This is a wonderful coffee table book; it’s a great gift for your favorite struggling, would-be, or even successful writer. All of us can relate to Snoopy’s trials and tribulations. All of us can enjoy seeing these brief words of wisdom from such accomplished authors. And all of us could use a good laugh at ourselves and the “hardships” we endure in the writing life!

Posted in Reviews, Writing

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