June 4, 2022

Review: Never Say You Can't Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories

Never Say You Can't Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories Never Say You Can't Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories by Charlie Jane Anders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have more than three shelves worth of writing books, but this one is unique. It's not so much concentrating on the nuts and bolts of the craft (although Anders does provide a little of that) as it delves into the emotional how-to's of writing. It's right there in the title: How To Get Through Hard Times By Making Up Stories. The author's central thesis is that the past few years in the world have been a fucking dumpster fire, and more than ever, creativity and stories are the way to survive.

This is a slim little book, but there's a lot of wisdom in it. It's one of the few books where I tore off bits of paper and napkins to mark pages as I was reading (it's a library book, so I couldn't make notes in the margins, and I wouldn't do that anyway) so I could refer to them later. For instance, from chapter 8, "The Most Powerful Thing a Story Can Do is Show How People Change," this sentence just hit home for me: "A character that doesn't evolve is just a pet rock: fun to look at, but not super compelling." (Unless, of course, you're Michelle Yeoh's googly-eyed rock from the wonderful film Everything Everywhere All At Once.) I wouldn't even call a pet rock fun; that would be more under the definition of meh and weird. In any case, this is one of those insights that are obvious in retrospect, but one that I hadn't heard stated in quite this fashion before.

Another napkin marker comes from chapter 12, "Hold On To Your Anger. It's a Storytelling Gold Mine." Like the best insights, it's simply stated, but it reveals so much: "Anger is like a primary color of emotion. If you can summon anger, you can write anything." Further down the page, the author expands on this thought (Charlie Jane Anders is trans):

For a lot of us, especially people who aren't cishet white men, anger is a huge taboo. We've been taught over and over that we should swallow our outrage. Marginalized people, in particular, are often told to censor our anger, or to act "reasonable" in the face of endless fuckery.

(Which reminds me of the unforgettable moment at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner when Barack Obama brought forth his "anger translator" and proceeded to let out a great deal of the stuff he had been forced to bottle up for the previous eight years.)

The entire book is full of hidden gems like this. It won't tell you to blow adverbs into the sun like Stephen King's seminal tome On Writing, but it has a great deal to say about the emotional heart of writing, and working through your own emotions to channel into your stories. As Anders points out, writing is and should be a joy, and this book will help you to achieve that. I think it's an essential writing companion.

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