From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.
Jane Yolen’s Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, was first published by Kalmbach Publishing as Take Joy: A Book for Writers. The edition I read, and which is still available, was published in 2006 by F+W Publications, and includes essays that were originally published in various other forms in magazines, journals, and Ms. Yolen’s own web site. At 208 pages it’s a slim little volume—one that won’t take you long to read—but that I’m sure will leave you as relieved, inspired, and, well, joyous, as it left me.
And I don’t tend be big on “joy.”
Jane Yolen is the author of almost 300 books for adults and children. She’s won a couple of Nebula Awards, a pair of Caldecotts, the World Fantasy Award for Favorite Folk Tales from Around the World, and more other awards than I can list here. She’s published fiction, essays, poetry, travel books . . . anything that seems to bend or even shatter the idea that authors are “typecast” into a certain genre. Her most recent release is the children’s picture book My Father Knows the Names of Things (illustrated by Stéphane Jorisch), though she’s probably published something else while I finished typing this sentence. Only someone who has found a way to love the act of writing can write this much and be that good at it at the same time. And Jane Yolen shares that secret in Take Joy.
In the very first chapter, she grapples with the long tradition of authors who describe the process of writing in the most derogatory terms. She reminds us of Gene Fowler’s famous quote, “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” I remember reading Take Joy the first time, even knowing from the title of the book if not the back cover copy that she was about to tell me why Fowler was wrong, and thinking, Preach it, brother. The drops of blood are oozing from mine right now! I’ve always thought writing was painfully hard, at least I’ve thought so as long as I’ve been trying to get paid to do it.
And ah, there’s the rub.
I really, really don’t want to belittle this exemplary book by trying to narrow it down to one sentence, but this is the internet, so here it comes:
Value the process, not the product.
I pulled that quote from the book and made it the wallpaper on my laptop for two years, while I finished up the Watercourse Trilogy and started A Reader’s Guide to R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt. Had it still been there when I was writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I might not have struggled so badly with that deadline. But even if it wasn’t sitting there in front of me, its advice I’ve tried and many times even partially succeeded in heeding.
There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of books aimed at authors (aspiring and otherwise) that give you all sorts of helpful tips for getting published, advice on getting an agent, and detailed lessons in grammar and usage, but this one helps you actually love it—even, which is much, much more difficult, love it again. And that’s where it was most inspiring to me.
Writing and editing shared world fiction, as I do, is hard. There’s a lot of research, a vocal and unforgiving fan base, new game and world material to absorb and incorporate—and it’s easy to get caught up in the work, a sort of creative grind that can produce some good work at the same time it produces some agonizing stomach ulcers.
I have always been more than a little bipolar, in general, but when it comes to writing, I can’t even live with myself. The experience of writing, for me, vacillates between soaring highs and desperate lows. Take Joy addresses that, and not in some neo-hippy, New Agey sort of way, but takes it head on. Jane Yolen’s writing is so clear, so friendly, so accessible, that this book was like 200 pages of therapy for only fifteen bucks, and without the inconvenient but inevitable addiction to anti-depressants that come with the in-person sort of therapy.
Take Joy never tries to replace your process with Ms. Yolen’s. You are never belittled for thinking or feeling a certain way. She just tells us, in simple and kindly terms, to remember why we wanted to write in the first place, and that’s not for money, fame, a low return percentage, positive reviews, or because some asshole told us we couldn’t. Jane Yolen helped me rediscover the joy—and there’s just no other word for it—of sitting down and making up a story. And if you can write joyously, you can write the most bleak, horrifying thriller or the most farcical comedy with that same sense of delight.
And there’s more. Within these covers lurks real advice on finding your voice, beginnings and endings, letting characters come alive, and other aspects of the craft of writing. I wish I could just copy right here all of Chapter 15, “The Alphabetics of Writing,” but I can’t. It’s worth the price of the book alone.
A few years ago, I bought five copies of Take Joy and gave them to my editors at Wizards of the Coast as holiday presents, foregoing for that year the usual $15 Starbucks or Barnes & Noble gift card. Boy, do I hope they all read it, and are practicing at least some of it. I can’t afford to buy a copy for all of you, you’re going to have to manage that on your own, but boy, do I hope you will.
I still hate myself, my writing, and all of God’s Hopeless Creation when I’m at certain junctures of the writing process, but Take Joy has helped me limit that to certain junctures rather than all of it. And at a very difficult time for me, in my own career, it got me writing again for all the right reasons.
Thank you, Jane Yolen.
I, too, have this book on my shelf, and have always appreciated Jane’s compassionate support of other writers who are just starting out, or are mid-career.
She’s delighted with this blog post, btw and posted it on her Facebook.
Thank you so much for your article about Jane Yolen. The complete article was brilliant and articulate and nostalgic for m. I have been a Yolen fan for years-first…just as a reader. Then as a media specialist/teacher, and now as a writer. I once searched over a year to find one of her out of print books and paid four times its price just to own it (The Girl Who Cried Flowers).
I am a great believer in process-especially when it comes to writing. I tell everyone that writing saved my life. During a very difficult and dangerous divorce, I wrote to someone for over two years. Basically, I was journaling to a person because I had so many trust issues I would /could not form friendships in the “real” local world. The person rarely responded, but it is the process of writing as I did that saved me-it was my counselor, my sounding board. Years later, my then new husband told me that had I not written all that I did, we would probably not be together. He recognized what the process had done as well. I have compiled the letters and am working on getting them published through the encouragement of many. But even if it never does get published, I am thankful for the process and thankful that the compilation is complete.
Thanks for listening-I will be following you!
I have this book and love it for the same central reason Philip Athans quotes – Jane reminds us to love the process. My first book was the book of my heart, as is usual. After that I became more and more aware of deadlines and the mechanics of publishing and I too became more and more depressed. Not so this latest work, thanks in part to reading Take Joy and in part to listening to Jane herself. I can’t say I am completely filled with delight when I sit in front of my computer every single morning, but it’s getting that way, which is a vast improvement to dragging myself there to meet some deadline or other. Thank you Jane!
And what an excellent appraisal of her work by Philip Athans! Well done sir, and I am going to go off and order one of your works on the strength of your insight.
Thanks for this. I bought a copy of Take Joy, and it sounds like a great book.
Btw, I found you through your Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction. I’m about half-way through it. Great stuff, thanks very much.
Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Phil!
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