Just as I was deciding I would find the time to get more seriously back into my adored fiction writing, along came the perfect catalyst: an email from a publisher asking me to review Carmel Bird’s Dear Writer Revisited. I replied immediately with a big YES PLEASE because I have an old copy of the first edition of Dear Writer on my shelf and it easily rates as one of my all-time favourite books about writing. I jumped at the chance to review the new edition, revised a little and reissued as an ebook.
It was truly a pleasure to read Dear Writer: Revisited and this pleasure had nothing at all to do with getting a free copy. If you have an original, there is much that you’ll already recognise. Bird explains in the introduction that the purpose of writing Dear Writer: Revisited was essentially to get it back into circulation after it went out of print, as she still gets so many requests for it. I was initially worried that it may have been brought totally up-to-date for the internet age but Bird made the (I think) sensible decision to leave the core of Dear Writer there, typewriters and all, and instead she has littered “Author’s Note 2013” sections throughout the book when it seems necessary to point out how things have changed since the original writing back in 1988. A lovely example: “Poor Virginia, poor Writer, how they would have loved google.”
The book is written as a series of letters from Bird (but with the alias of one of her characters, Virginia O’Day) to an unnamed writer who has sent his/her a story to be critiqued (I feel like the writer is a woman but I’m not sure I recall any evidence either way!). Each letter cleverly covers a topic of writing, a mini-lesson in a sense, but also exposes the development of this unnamed writer’s story as s/he gradually takes on Bird’s advice.
It’s such a conversational book that you can’t help but feel personally involved, as though you are chatting with a favourite aunt who is the kind of aunt who never stops giving you advice, who verges on being annoying except that you can’t really get annoyed because her advice and even her criticism is so sound. A simple example of her beautiful explanations, from when she speaks about creating realistic dialogue and doing an exercise by listening to real people talking:
You are not taking a photograph of speech, you are creating an impressionist picture.
Bird makes no apology for the fact that the letters from Virginia will be seen as quaint. While the technology and the surrounds might be somewhat outdated, the advice certainly is not, and personally I loved re-reading these letters from a 2013 perspective. I do wonder what a younger reader would think – would it seem too far removed from their experience to be useful, or would the distance actually help them to take some real notice of the writing tips and strategies explained? (Sadly, I’m not young enough to know!)
There is so much advice here, but above all Bird emphasises that to write well you should be passionate about it and really want to say something. The exact nature of what you want to say might take some working out as you right (or it might be the very catalyst for your writing) but writing just for the sake of writing is unlikely to produce brilliance.
All of which made me feel a bit better. I have lots of things I want to say. I just need to work on how I say them. So I’m half way there, right?