Pierre Berton's 'The Joy of Writing'
I picked up Pierre Berton's 'Joy of Writing' while in Vancouver. Though he's claimed as 'Canada's best-known writer' (I thought Margaret Atwood had snagged that one) this was the first book of his I'd read ... but a good one. It's a writer's guide disguised as a memoir, and a handy tome for non-fiction writers.
I don't agree with him all the way (and have one fact-check: T.E.Lawrence wrote 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom', not 'Ten', and left the manuscript on a station platform , not a taxi)-- but I did come away with some guidance under my belt. For one, I was pleased to see that only academics start biographies with the subject's birth. I now come to see where to start my own J.S.Haldane work.
I also admire the sheer stamina of Berton ... and am grateful that he bothered to turn out this book in an old age that still read vigorously. He's right, bring nonfiction to life with details, and never forget to include the weather - which is easy to get hold of from newspaper weather reports of the period.
One problem I have with the idea of getting nonfiction to read with the immediacy of fiction, however, is that the models provided generally read like bad fiction, often melodrama. I was pleased while in Vancouver to discover a novel that provides a fine model for biography, with vivid, telling language and Berton's love of period detail to boot - Timothy Findley's The Wars. A splendid book. I'd only read one of his before (a late one - Pilgrim) - so brought a few of his novels back with me. They can be my fun reading matter when I'm writing my bio - I like working with such an apposite choice of writer to hand, a companion and model.
Here's a jolly anecdote from the The Joy of Writing:
'"How many of you really want to write?" asked Sinclair Lewis when invited to talk to a class on creative writing.
A forest of hands shot up.
"Then why the hell aren't you home writing?" the irascible author demanded, and strode from the room.'