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Book Review: The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long

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It’s good that someone sent me Eric Maisel’s latest creativity volume, Mastering Creative Anxiety. I’ll need it if I put into operation the writing plans suggested by Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.

At the beginning, The Writer’s Portable Mentor reminded me of Judy Reeves’ A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Lively Muse for the Writing Life. (I’ll be so happy when long subtitles fall out of fashion again.) Both handbooks offer many similar suggestions of exercises, practices and prompts for beginners and published writers.

Long’s book differs, however, in that she has all types of writers in mind — not just novelists — and all types of writing from poetry and flash fiction through essays, magazine articles to full-length books of nonfiction as well as novels. That is a refreshing attitude to find in a field dominated by a focus on novels. It is also similar to Maisel’s, whose book is for all types of creatives, not just writers.

The stronger aspect of Long’s guidance is that she offers a systematic plan, a set of multiple activities that fit into a larger whole, from learning language to dealing with success. Both Reeves and Long advocate “practice writing,” which I thought sounded silly until Long demonstrated how it leads to increased productivity. She has a plan, remember? For a journalist or freelance nonfiction writer, it’s all about making money. Why practice writing, I thought, when I can practice by writing an article to sell?

Long shows how to use this type of writing activity to improve craft skills and translate learnings directly into earnings. She had my attention there. It held through descriptions of keeping word lists (I remember doing that naturally as early as junior high school, ever enlarging my lexicon), writing observations and descriptions for future use, maybe in novels or short stories, and trying out ideas in different structures. She integrates the “practice” with ongoing efforts to produce works for submission:

We do our assignment (and do get our practice). Then we go on to revise the piece, send it out, and ultimately see it published.

Nerve-wracking, though, are the numbers of times that “copy out” is suggested and the variety of exercises, notebooks and lists recommended: timed writings, writer’s notebook, lexicon, sentences list, objects list, observations — sounds exhausting. No doubt the pace and practices would induce the anxieties for which Maisel offers coping advice. See why I’m glad to have his book, too?

But Long’s volume sums up exactly the notions I’ve dribbled out in blog posts for the last six years. That is, to become a successful, published writer takes dedication, hard work, and putting the writing first in your life, just to name a few. Daily writing practice is what Long advocates, and she does mean every single day.

Being a successful writer also takes tremendous productivity and an ability to accept and learn from failures. Every over-achiever has a higher number of flops, but also a greater number of successes. As productivity increases, so does success (if you’re been paying attention). With increased learning and experience, the rate of failures minimizes. “Basic productivity underlies everything else,” Long states in the Introduction.

The exercises, advice and insights are abundantly illustrated with writings by published authors or writers, sourced down to the last jot and tittle in footnotes, epigrams, and an excellent bibliography — oh, joy! I have no doubt that beginning writers who follow Long’s plan will achieve success much sooner than those who merely piddle around, playing at being a writer. And those of us with years of successes behind us can find more to learn from this book. I only wish she could have handed it to me fifty years ago.

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About Georganna Hancock

Retired San Diego publisher, journalist, freelance editor and writer, blogged almost daily for eight years at A WRITERS EDGE. She helped writers on the path to writing success with critiques, edits and publishing advice. Find her author page on Amazon and her tweets on Twitter, where she's aka @GLHancock. Georganna's first writing appeared in print in the 1960s. She worked as a journalist for many years. She reviewed books for the FORT PIERCE NEWS TRIBUNE and THE LOUISVILLE COURIER-JOURNAL and wrote for THE MIAMI HERALD, regional publications, and many national magazines. She was a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the San Diego Professional Editors Network and the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, for which she served as Web Manager. Books reviewed may have been received as gifts. All her writings are protected by U.S. copyright law.