In recent weeks, I have spent many hours re-reading various books about writing. A friend had asked me about an issue she had encountered in creating her own novel and I wanted to do my best to help her. In the end, I chose some of my favourites to lend her—Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Revision and Self-Editing and also The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell, as well as Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donald Maass.
But there was a second reason for my jaunt into reading these books. During the weekend of 24-26 October, I will be presenting a workshop on memoir writing at the Christian Writers’ Conference in Victoria here in Australia. Yes, it is about writing memoir, but I also plan to include several books on novel writing in my suggested reading list. In writing my first memoir, Soul Friend, after having produced six novels, I realised how helpful it was to have already come to grips with the process involved in telling a good story. I already knew to think about such things as the structure of my book and its narrative arc, what aspects I would include in my ‘plot’, how I would portray my characters, how I would keep my readers hopefully turning those pages and so many other matters important for novelists to remember.
And, of course, I have also read or re-read books specifically on memoir writing, not only in preparation for my upcoming workshop but also to help me personally in creating my second memoir, Coming Home to Myself, which I have just completed. I love Australian author Patti Miller’s The Memoir Book, but have also enjoyed Natalie Goldberg’s book Old Friends from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, as well as Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart.
As a result of all this reading, there is so much excellent information running around in my head. But another less positive result has been that solid dose of self-questioning and self-doubt I have experienced at times about my own ability to write well. Often, I have caught myself thinking along the lines of ‘Oh, I didn’t realise that when writing my novels’ or ‘Goodness me, I’m sure I never did that when I wrote my earlier books at least’ or ‘Eek—is that how I should have gone about my last book? How did I write Soul Friend and not know all that about memoir writing?’
Reading books about writing, I have discovered, can turn out to be informative, enjoyable, interesting, challenging and overwhelming all at the same time. It is an essential part of the whole process for aspiring and even established authors, I believe. Yet, unless we are careful, the whole process can also be a little hazardous to our emotional health and wellbeing. How blessed we are then, as Christian authors, to know God’s reassuring presence with us, whatever we are reading, and to be able to listen the Spirit’s encouraging voice even as we discover old habits we need to get rid of and new things we need to put in their place! Yes, we might have made those mistakes in our writing—but we are learning and moving forward with God in it all. And that is what matters.
Jo-Anne Berthelsen lives in Sydney, Australia. She holds degrees in Arts and Theology and has worked as a high school teacher, editor and secretary, as well as in local church ministry. Jo-Anne is passionate about touching hearts and lives through both the written and spoken word. She is the author of six published novels and one non-fiction work, Soul Friend: the story of a shared spiritual journey. Jo-Anne is married to a retired minister and has three grown-up children and four grandchildren. For more information, please visit www.jo-anneberthelsen.com.