Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Cate's Favorite Craft Books #5 Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo

 Hey everyone, Cate here.

This is Debby's usual spot, but she's on deadline right now, so we swapped weeks. Given the topic of today's post, that's actually rather appropriate.

This month's craft book is an oldie but a goodie - Dennis Palumbo's Writing from the Inside Out. The subtitle is Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within.

As I was choosing a book to focus on this month, I spied this one on my shelf and was immediately transported back to that day in 2000 when I first bought and began to read it. Yup, over 20 years ago. I can testify to how long it's been sitting on my shelf based on my sneezes when I opened it to refresh my memory.

Opening this book was like sitting down to visit with an old friend. You immediately remember why you are drawn in. In this case, as soon as I read about the author alone in a rustic cabin in Carmel, CA with "only eleven or twelve bad pages, strewn about the room, two wastebaskets filled with crumpled paper" pacing and "rereading the same dozen pages," I knew I had found a kindred spirit.

As I was rereading the book, it dawned on me that my craft books are really divided into two main categories: Craft and Writer's Life.

As a pre-published author, I devoured both. I wanted to glean any bit of wisdom I could from those who had gone before me and made sense (and word magic) out of this writing process. I was a sponge absorbing all the advice.

But the books I preferred fell into the other category. Those, like Bird by Bird and this one (Writing from the Inside Out) spoke to my writer's soul. They let me feel like I was part of the secret club. They got me. They understood, really understood, that writing is not always (or even often) the blissful existence our more innocent selves might have imagined.

Writing is work. It can be fun, but it's hard work. It's hours spent staring at a blank screen or page on a day when the ideas won't flow. It's those crumpled balls of paper spilling from the trash can or the endless versions of a computer file. It's beautiful and uplifting (when it's working), and it's demoralizing and terrifying (when it's not working). It's messy first drafts, editor revisions, line edits and last minute changes. It's joyous and frustrating. It imparts a euphoria or has you pulling your hair out.

There are a lot of books that document the writing experience because authors love to talk shop and that often means sharing their own misery along with the successes.

I've always found it helpful to know I'm not alone in what I'm experiencing. There's comfort in knowing that no matter how big a hole you've dug for yourself, another author has been there before and, if you're lucky, can offer a figurative rope to pull you out.

Writing from the Inside Out is one of those kinds of books.

Dennis Palumbo is a highly successful novelist. Interestingly enough, he is also a licensed psychotherapist. But before he was either of those things, he was a Hollywood Screenwriter. The opening chapter that I mentioned above? It was his experience trying to write the screenplay for the Peter O'Toole movie My Favorite Year.

And despite all the horrid writing times in that cabin, he went on to be nominated for a Writer's Guild Award for Best Screenplay for that script. That serves as a good reminder that, no matter how arduous the task, the result can be glorious - if we keep at it!

Larry Gelbart starts off the forward to the book saying 
Be warned: 
This is not a how-to book. It offers nary a rule, formula, nor recipe that will allow you to turn out a best-selling novel or a fabulous, million-dollar screenplay.

He adds:

It is not that handy-dandy kind of book and that is just as well. Never before have so many of the smugly expert advised so many of the seemingly inexpert on how to write successfully... The pages that lie ahead provide far more valuable insights and practical tools for the working and/or would-be writer. Instead of a how-to, what Dennis Palumbo has written is a how-come book.

 I love this Amazon blurb from Gary Shandling:

"Dennis Palumbo has great insight into a writer's psyche.... Every writer should have a shrink or this book. The book is cheaper."

So, a craft book from someone who is a writer and a therapist. Win-Win.

What do you think? What kind of craft books do you prefer?


  1. I like both kinds of craft books, as well. I loved both Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and On Writing by Stephen King but I do like the how-to books more like Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell. I know I've said it before, the downside to reading craft books is that it can be time-consuming and distract me away from actually doing the thing I need to do: write. And trust me, it doesn't take me to keep me from it. LOL Thanks so much for another great post, Cate!

    1. I answered the questions in backwards order, Glynis, but I mentioned below that it really is determined by my need at any particular moment. We seem to have similar taste in books!

  2. This actually makes me want to read a craft book. And that honestly doesn't happen very often. Thanks for sharing, Cate.

    1. I'll take that as a win, Amy. He has a very easy-to-read style.

  3. I like both kinds, although I probably prefer the craft of writing books.

    1. Sandy, I guess it depends on the mood I'm in. If I need help with something, then craft books are the go-to. But if I'm feeling like a failure, then knowing that other, better writers have felt the same inspires me.

  4. Thanks, Katie, for switching blog days. Dennis' book sounds interesting. I buy craft books, but I don't always read them. My bad! But I love learning about books that should be on my reference shelf, and this sounds like one of those. So thank you for the info!

    Heading back to my manuscript and the epilogue I need to write TODAY! :)

  5. Hi Cate:

    I like craft books that are short and focused on one topic. I like "GMC" and just about all the craft books by James Scott Bell. I want to deal with one problem, like dialogue, and read a whole book about it and really try to cover the topic.

    I'm not much on the 'writing life' books as I was an advertising copywriter for years and had to write all day long creatively and under great daily deadline pressure. I kind of think of those books as diet books: that is, books I'd read when I wanted to feel good about myself while not dieting but 'preparing to go on a new diet'. Oh, sure. Of course, it is OK to read 'writing life' books if you enjoy reading them. Why not?

    The lesson: just diet, just write.

    Oh, and please believe me, I'm not trying to sound just like Ruth. :O)

    1. Vince, one of my favorite craft books (that I didn't actually buy) was called Just Write. I figured those two words gave me all the necessary advice that was in the book!

  6. Hi Cate!

    I had never heard of Writing from the Inside Out, but I'll put it on my list of books to look for.

    I read both kinds of craft books, but gravitate more toward the "how to" than the "writer's life" type. I enjoyed "On Writing" by Stephen King, but hated "Bird by Bird." Go figure.

    But a biography of a famous author always tends to inspire me. I see "On Writing" as that type of book. Biographies and autobiographies often explore an author's development as a writer and what inspires them to write.

    Thanks for this series, Cate! It's like a best-of-the-best of craft books. :-)

    1. Interesting, Jan. I hadn't thought to go looking for autobiographies, but I agree that author inspiration (and coping techniques) interest me. I loved On Writing.

  7. I've never heard of this book before! I shall have to check it out. These days, with lots of how-to book read with various success in applying, I find myself more drawn to the writer-life sorts of books.

    1. I'll admit with all the chaos in my life right now, I did not have a chance to completely reread it to see how the advice holds up after 20 years, but what I remember added to what I did reread made it all seem just as relevant.

  8. Really interesting post, Cate. Excellent, thank you.

  9. My shelf is more craft, genre-specific books, but I do have a number of writer life books too. I tend to gravitate toward the craft books more because I just want to know how it's supposed to be done. I'm not a non-fiction reader normally, so if I'm going to spend time reading non-fiction, I want to be able to apply what I learn. So, my non-fiction includes marriage and parenting books too. :) (But I do have Bird by Bird, and On Writing)

  10. I should really read a craft book. Ruthy? are you there? Don't you think I should go ahead and read a craft book? I don't want to rush into anything.


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