Want to write? Start by reading this book

Bill Castanier

“Write what you know” is a common piece of advice given to aspiring authors. Lansing area author Thomas C. Foster, who has taught college writing for more than four decades, has taken that wisdom to heart in his new book, “How to Write Like a Writer: A Sharp and Subversive Guide to Ignoring Inhibitions, Inviting Inspiration, and Finding Your True Voice.”

Foster, who has written several books on how to read, including “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” and “How to Read Poetry Like a Professor,” was searching for a topic for his next book when he decided to write about what he knows best “how to write.”

“I pretty much ran out of genres to write about,” Foster said.

“This is a writing book for everyone interested in writing,” Foster said.

In his new book, Foster also decided to take a different tack on how writing is taught at the high school and especially the college levels. Instead of focusing on “process writing,” also known as workshopping, Foster decided to write about his preferred model, which uses a less rigid formula than the one imposed on students for more than 50 years. In process writing, writers revise and edit drafts with advice from students and teachers. This process can go on for an entire semester and has been used in composition classes almost exclusively for decades.

Foster finds two problems with process writing: “First, such sustained attention and group oversight can squeeze the life out of an essay or short story or poem … and second, in many cases, that such classes produce three finished pieces (only) in a 15-week semester.”

Instead of the formulaic process he taught as a professor at the University of Michigan-Flint, which was more about teaching students through a “do this-do that” process, his new book “is more about learning on your own,” he said . During his tenure, Foster taught many non-traditional and older students who were adversely affected by auto plant closures in Flint.

He espouses one tenant in “How to Write”: “You are the most important being in your writing world.” With one chapter titled “The “I” at the Center of “Write” is representative of his approach in teaching writing.

In his book, he writes, “How much anxiety have we burdened, would-be writers with before anything gets written?

Foster said new writers get “their fingers all tongue-tied and words stammer and stagger our disconnectedly.”

He blames this on the modern world which has seen reduced reading, too much time spent on a digital screen, poor instruction and what he calls “the root of all evil” — social media.

In 21 chapters ranging from “What to Write and How” to “Even the Nile Has a Source,” Foster walks young and older writers through the process of writing.

Certainly, this book is accessible for the lone reader, but it is likely to be used to advance writing classes in high school to beginning writing at the college level. This was also his formula for his previous books, which have caught on with high school writing teachers.

As with all his books, Foster writes with a breezy, often funny, style that gives a somewhat dry topic life.

Foster said the workshop method is often too strident for most writers to face.

He also said that beginning writers generally “don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.”

“There is no right or wrong way to write, and beginning writers have to find a way to write that works for them,” Foster said.

The author also believes it is essential to teach all types of writing styles, not just those that help you write fiction. I said most people often write memos for work or emails to family.

One-chapter writers will want to pay close attention to is “Interlude: The Writer’s Seven (or However Many) Deadly Sins.”

“He writes: “Notice that nowhere on this list is there a mention of semi-colonists.”

The deadly sins not in order of importance are: worry; self-doubt; overconfidence, muddiness; vagueness poor structure and dishonesty. Foster said the only unforgivable sin is dishonesty.

“If we intend to deceive our readers, the writing has no legitimacy,” Foster writes.

“The sins are things that interfere with writing,” he said.

Foster said that recently he has begun to read “younger” writers such as Emily St. John Mendel (“Station 11”), Colson Whitehead (“The Underground Railroad”) and Kelly Ronan “Chevy in the Hole”).

He is especially excited by Ronan, a former student in one of his classes while still in high school at nearby Southwestern High School in Flint. She obviously “wrote what she knew,” Foster said.

Foster calls his book “for the rest of us,” and his advice to aspiring writers is “to write.”

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