I was on the reference desk this afternoon when a young woman, certainly not even yet twenty, walked up and asked about books to help one become a better writer. I asked a few questions to figure out what she was trying to do. As it turned out, she was seeking advice not so much for assignments but on how to become a writer herself. Once I learned that I asked her a question one should ask of all aspiring writers: what do you read? I would rather not go into the details but her answer included many well-respected novelists and essayists, most of them from the past 30-40 years. She also expressed an interest in Renaissance art, which came up because of the discussion about the writers. I told her to start keeping a journal and that while it was not necessary to fill it with Deep Thoughts, it is crucial to establish a routine. Even one paragraph a day is sufficient. What I ultimately suggested was a book that all aspiring scribes should read at least once, Simple Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun. I remember buying my own copy of the cultural critic’s classic twenty-five years ago. Writing simply and directly is about the most difficult thing one can do. I don’t claim to be on Barzun’s level by any stretch, but his lessons I have always taken to heart. Thankfully the young woman indeed checked it out. Hopefully she will have the same experience that I did all those years ago.
(image/portrait of Jacques Barzun by Eric Robert Morse)