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Word Smiths

Prospective writers can't help but be motivated by 'Writing Brave and Free'

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Writing Brave and Free announces the book's intentions loud and clear in its subtitle: Encouraging Words for People Who Want to Start Writing. Having made a decision to put pen to paper 22 years ago, I dove into the book by Ted Kooser and Steve Cox with the hope that I'd find new ways to jump onto my next blank page. I wasn't disappointed.

I knew I'd be in good hands. These guys know their way around the art and business of words. Kooser has served as the nation's poet laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Cox has been a publisher and a "lifelong" editor, as well as a writer. The authors share thoughts on a wide spectrum of topics in a succinct fashion. A few of the chapters are no more than a page--nothing extra pads the prose except for their engaging humor.

Kooser and Cox talk about getting started, making writing a habit, a writer's relationship with the reader, writing spaces and tools, revision, libel, copyright and money. They include samples of their own writing so readers can't help but get the power of metaphors. The examples speak loud and clear. Admire an Ansel Adams print through clean glass, and the viewer focuses on the details of the image, just as transparent writing allows readers to ignore the writing and stay with story. They include quotes and work habits from famous writers like Hemingway, who stopped his writing mid-thought so that the next day, he'd have a clear place to begin again. They build a context and use stories in their unique way to make even familiar anecdotes feel fresh.

I used some of the exercises and came uncomfortably close to missing my deadline for this review. It was way more fun using the book than reviewing it. I let the writing be brave and go where it wanted and sometimes couldn't reel it in. Then again, who would want to stop if inspiration struck and snagged new scenes, lines of poetry and ideas for stories?

Did you know typing on a manual typewriter leaves the left side of a typewritten page with the strongest words? "Moving the carriage return sets up a kind of regular rhythm--the writer pauses at the end of the line and attacks every new line afresh." Knowing that, it makes perfect sense to tear a page down the middle and work with the left side to find a poem. I wonder how much an old Underwood would cost?

Considering what they had to say about Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I had no choice but to add it to my personal library. Their official to-read list includes many treasures like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Stephen King's On Writing, the essential The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and William Zinsser's On Writing Well. I trust these authors' recommendations enough that I'll hit the bookstore to check out a few of their other picks.

Writing Brave and Free suggests some new strategies and reminds me of some tried-and-true ones. I've already changed a few bad habits and may even clean out a closet and drag in a chair for a writing space without distractions. I mean, if a closet worked for Barbara Kingsolver for The Bean Trees ...

That's not to say the book was perfect or all-encompassing. I'm more than a little disappointed there's no index and surprised no mention is made of print-on-demand in the section on self-publishing. I wouldn't have minded a few more examples in the suspense chapter. The libel section left me clueless at my chances of getting sued if I call a corporation by an unflattering name in an opinion/editorial piece. But maybe none of these concerns would have bothered a new writer.

If you've yearned for the courage to put pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, after reading Writing Brave and Free, you probably will.

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