Swallowed by a Whale: How to Survive the Writing Life
Edited by Huw Lewis-Jones
I picked up this book, a compilation of advice from sixty different authors, on an excursion to the Denver Public Library. It was a bittersweet detour while I was in the city for a day. The majority of the seven-story library is inaccessible due to construction and will be for the next year or two. Most of the artifacts and books are hidden from view, but at least it is open again.
The librarians have been busy transferring a small rotating selection of books from all seven stories of the Central Library to a single hallway, ensuring that visitors have a varied selection of books to choose from. If there had been a larger selection of books specifically about writing I probably would have left with a more narrowly focused, instructive book. As it was, Swallowed by a Whale was one of four on the shelf, two of which I had already devoured.
I chuckled at the quote that the editor, Huw Lewis-Jones, chose to introduce the book. The table of contents was peppered with well-known and varied writers like novelist Lev Grossman, travel writer Jan Morris, and children’s book author Cressida Cowell, and the list started with Escaping and ended with Beginning. I checked it out.
Huw Lewis-Jones put this collection of interviews, short essays, and playful illustrations together masterfully. A compilation of sixty writers telling other writers how to survive could have come off a bit preachy or tired. Huw Lewis-Jones, however, also designed it to entertain. Interspersed among the serious advice from authors are whimsical instructional graphics and humorous essays. I was particularly delighted with the section To the Temple by Piers Torday and the Write Like an Animal graphic by Lorna Scobie.
In the interview sessions, Huw gave authors nearly free rein, apparently just asking for each author to give ten pieces of advice. The authors still broke the rules, as authors frequently do. Some had their say with as few as three points, while others went over by a question or two. The editor himself had a list of three pieces of advice, followed by a second list with eight new writing tips.
With sixty authors offering their wisdom there is a useful tidbit in this book for every writer. Although the tidbits and essays often contradict one another, it is also acknowledged that the most important thing to understand is what works best for you as an individual. Knowing how and when to break the writing rules was a skill that was often mentioned. Also frequently noted were allowing yourself to make mistakes, and the need to honor the part of writing that isn’t writing—the thinking and the dreaming.
While reading this book I found myself laughing, relating, and contemplating new techniques to use with my writing. While not every piece of advice in this book will resonate with every writer, every writer should be able to come out of this with at least one or two new ideas.