Angie Abdou's Reviews > Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing

Workbook by Steven Heighton
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Mar 26, 2012

it was amazing

Workbook is an aphrodisiac. Better than raw oysters.

In the pages of this beautiful new meditation on the art of letters, I fell in-love with writing all over again. Nothing in its title hints at the passion between its covers. Neither "Workbook" nor "Memos" nor "Dispatches" leads potential book buyers to think: hot read coming up! Lovers of literature might expect a novel to have steamy scenes or a book of poetry to arouse a sensual response, but a philosophical reflection on the discipline of writing? Not so much. Nonetheless, I stand by my claim: Workbook is sexy.

This effect is created partly through the immediate access to the author's voice. In a novel, the author hides behind the characters. In poetry, distance manifests itself in other ways. Maybe the poet and the reader are separated by a speaking persona, or perhaps the poet retreats into the specific technical demands of a given poetic form. In Workbook, on the other hand, there is a real feeling of intimacy. Here, we have a writer sharing ideas that matter deeply to him directly with the reader. Even more intensely, in sections like "Memos To A Younger Self" or "Memos To a Writer a Decade Deep in the Work," Heighton speaks (almost) to himself, and we have the voyeuristic thrill of dwelling within the inner-most (though finely crafted) thoughts of a very accomplished writer.

More than the direct and intimate access to the author, though, this book's energy can be attributed to the thrill of witnessing a mind at work, an intellect creating truly original, even rebellious, thought. With great energy and insight, Heighton rejects some of the key defining features of contemporary society. The prevalence of social media, the obsession with celebrity, the emphasis on productivity and efficiency – all come under pointed attack.

The wisdom of this book, then, extends far beyond the writing life. This sage advice, for example, applies to writers and non-writers alike:

It's said that your unlived life will kill you. True, but not before it
has killed or maimed others around you first. (Heighton 46)

To listen to critics, pro or con, and take their words to heart is to
subcontract your self-esteem to strangers. (Heighton 28)

Don't feel discouraged when you find yourself falling out with
your earlier work. Dissatisfaction is the price of improvement. (Heighton 26)

Workbook inspires and excites me, and I didn't even know that I needed an injection of inspiration until I started reading it. Upon reflection, I realize that a book about writing should be sexy – writing is, after all, a passion. We do it because we love it.

Why else?

Though there are many books about the writer's life and craft, there are none like Workbook. I couldn't help racing through it on the first go, but as soon as I finished I started again, this time to read it more slowly, taking time to reflect on my favourite sections. Even the size of Workbook is perfect: it fits right in the front pocket of my book bag, where I keep it handy and revisit it often.
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