Dancing on the Head of a Pen [Book Review]

Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life from prolific writer Robert Benson is not just a book about writing a book. It’s a book about writing (you know, the action part) a book.

Dancing on the Head of a Pen

Dancing on the Head of a Pen

Don’t let the title fool you. Sure, it’s an artful look at the philosophical side of the craft, but it doesn’t stay there. From making decisions to the discipline of showing up and writing every day, this book about writing a book takes the reader on a journey from inquisition to inspiration. Really!

Of the nearly eight million words that have floated through my head onto a page, some of which have been deemed publishable, I am happy with about four dozen sentences. Four of those sentences I think are especially fine. I weep whenever I read them in public, mostly at the thought of having been lucky enough for those words to have chosen me and for my having been smart enough to say yes to them when they came my way. (80)

The book came into my life at an interesting time. I had been exhausted for months and used it as an excuse to watch TV instead of write.

I didn’t know what to write, my ideas never went anywhere, no one seemed interested, my day job took the best of me.

My excuses, although true, weren’t the truth. I wasn’t writing because I got out of the habit. Instead of pushing through when things got tough I reverted to thinking about writing, wishing I was writing, and reading books about writing. Then I read Benson’s chapter on staying sharp. “Whether working on a book at the moment or not, a writer should always be writing.”

The book dropped out of my hands and I picked up my notebook. I plotted a short story and entered it into a writing contest. In an instant (understatement!) my attitude turned and my excuses evaporated. He’s right. Even when I’m not working on anything I need to keep writing.

Always be writing

After my breakthrough I picked up Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life and continued on. It was here I found advice I’ve never considered: don’t share your work too soon.

Too many suggestions from too many directions too early and a writer can be devastated and unable to write for days, certain the work is no good and never will be. Too much talk too soon and the writer gets lost, causing the work to slow to a crawl. (152)

I thought about my short story and recalled a few months before sharing the idea with friends. They laughed it off and I laughed with them. “Yeah, how silly.”

At the time I thought little of the event, the idea was silly. So why did I stop writing? Was this where things derailed? Because I shared my silly idea too soon?

I don’t know if the idea is good or not, I don’t know if I’ll win the contest or if it will go any further. But now I know my story needed to be written.

No matter what, keep on writing. Keep it close, until it’s finished, and then share it with anyone who will listen.

There are stories that must be told and must be heard, stories waiting on you and me to do the telling. (164)

Dancing on the Head of a Pen from prolific writer Robert Benson is not just a book about writing a book. It's a book about writing (you know, the action part) a book.

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