Like any other dough boy in the trenches I need something to keep me fighting when I'm up to my knees in mud, dodging bullets and subsisting on the meagre rations the writing game doles out. I don't wrestle a glossy of my sweetheart back home out of the pocket in my battledress but instead turn to Sam Delany's About Writing.
It's one of the few books that utterly changed the way I think about writing and what writing can be. I turn to it when I'm labouring on a story or when one is going well and it has never let me down. It is packed with good sense, useful insights and all round encouragement. There's so much in it that I can open it pretty much at random and find something useful. I'm heartened to discover that successful writers like it too.
But like Nicholson Baker when he wrote about John Updike my liking for this book of Delany's is not based on any familiarity with the rest of his work. I thought I had read some SDR but it turns out I haven't. So I've no idea if SDR's good sense on writing is carried through to his own work. I don't regard that as a problem given that sometimes the best managers were mediocre exponents at their particular trade.
I think that what I like about it most though is that it hums with the sense of what writing can be. Delany claims that writing is about creating false memories - painting a scene so vividly that it feels like a distant memory of an event someone lived through. In example after example in the book he shows how that can be done and how most prose fails to reach such heights. I have to admit I much prefer over-fed prose that borders on the purple though very spare text, such as found in Cormac McCarthy, can be just as good at evoking a sense of place. What matters is that a writer tries for that effect.
Despite buying About Writing a year or so ago I've not rushed out and bought any of SDR's books partly because I don't want to lose the sense of wonder and sheer possibilities that it has brewed within me. By reading quite a few books about being a writer I feel that I've got an idea of the craft it takes - in a way they've taught me how to build a brick wall. But Delany is the only one that has got me thinking about building cathedrals.