Category Archives: Books!

On Writing, By Eudora Welty

Probably due to the reader, not the writer, there were times when I struggled with this short book on writing fiction, times when I just didn’t get it and times when the texts used to illustrate the point were unfamiliar to me. Yet, there were these moments of connection that kept me bobbing along the surface all the way to the end of this heady exploration of the art of fiction and the role of the writer. Some quotes that emerged as meaningful to me:

“No two stories ever go the same way, although in different hands one story might possibly go any one of a thousand ways; and though the woods may look the same from outside, it is a new and different labyrinth every time. What tells the author his way? Nothing at all but what he knows inside himself: the same thing that hints to him afterward how far he has missed it, how near he may have come to the heart of it. In a working sense, the novel and its place have become one: work has made them, for the time being, the same thing, like the explorer’s tentative map of the known world'” (45, Place in Fiction)

“Place, to the writer at work, is seen in a frame. Not an empty frame, a brimming one. Point of view is a sort of burning-glass, a product of personal experience and time; it is burnished with feelings and sensibilities, charged from moment to memnet with the sun-points of imagination” (49, Place in Fiction)

“Making reality is art’s responsibility” (53, Place In Fiction).

“And if life ever became not worth writing fiction about, that, I believe, would be the first sign that it wasn’t worth living” (80, Must the Novelist Crusade?).

“Fictional time may be more congenial to us than clock time, precisely for human reasons. An awareness of time goes with us all our lives. Watch or no watch, we carry the awareness with us. It lies so deep, in the very grain of our characters, that who knows if it isn’t as singular to each of us as our thumbprints. In the sense of our transience may lie the irreducible urgency telling us to do, to understand, to love” (Some Notes on Time in Fiction, 100).

 

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What I learned from binging…

 

When I read I almost always pick up something longer. I subscribe to magazines and journals but rarely read them. I have read plenty of short stories and essays, but I read them here and there, one at a time. I re-read the ones I really love, because I tend to find a way to feed them to my students.

A dear writer-friend gifted me with a subscription to One Story a while back and though I wanted to read them, the pile just grew higher and higher over the past two years.

Nothing like spending twenty three days as the passenger in a car to encourage binge reading. And did I binge!

I didn’t read only short stories, but I did read a lot of them. I read the sixteen One Stories that had piled up and I read half of the Best American Short Stories of 2011.

I expected to pick up nuances of structure and style. That’s what I keep a pencil handy for when I read. It’s what I didn’t expect that I want to talk about here.

Empowered

I read over twenty different stories in the span of a few weeks. You don’t get that scope of style and structure and voice when reading books. Especially if you read as slow and careful as I do. What happened from reading that range of stories? From seeing how many ways there are to approach any tale?

I feel empowered to write what I want to write. All those rules about showing versus telling and adverbs and scene versus summary are scaffolds put in place for novice writers, like the five paragraph essay, and the more I think about these rules and structures, the more I wonder if in the end teaching them does more harm than good.

There are no rules in writing fiction. There is only the story. You’ve got to tell it however you can and probably not everyone will love the way you tell it.

Humbled

A short story is somewhere between a poem and a novel in density of language, often leaning more toward the poetic. So much has to be accomplished in so short a span of pages that every word truly does count.  There were sentences in those stories that I wanted to eat slowly with a knife and fork, bite by bite, licking my lips in between.

I noticed them more than I do when I read longer works and have to worry about enduring hundreds of pages, tracking a longer sequence of events.

Binging on short stories reminded me how important slow writing and editing are, how patient we must be to produce our best work.

Awed

I love writing short stories and short pieces and responses to prompts and I am reminded through my binging how it feeds my writing overall. Even if they are never used. They are practice for the mind, like running is for the body.

 

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Tell me the stories that have left you burning for days.

At first, I couldn’t manage more than a poem, but the poems came so fast I carried a notebook with me everywhere. I wrote my first short story when I was eighteen on a manual type writer bought at Clevinger’s Thrift Shop downtown Aberdeen. Coincidence that I had just finished Still Life With Woodpecker?

So much time has passed since then. I’ve written three first drafts of novels, started a couple more. And yet, here I am, cozying up to the short story again.

What do you think is the essential difference between the a novel and a story? What are your favorite stories?

A short list of stories that have truly moved me?

The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin

Happy Endings by Margaret Atwood

The Swimmer by John Chever

Corporal and 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 by Richard Brautigan

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been by Joyce Carol Oates

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

To Build A Fire by Jack London

Tell me the stories that have left you burning for days. Those are the ones I want to read.

 

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Sunday Book Review: History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Powell’s synopsis of the book:

“A long-lost book reappears, mysteriously connecting an old man searching for his son and a girl seeking a cure for her widowed mother’s loneliness.

Leo Gursky is just about surviving, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbor know he’s still alive. But life wasn’t always like this: sixty years ago, in the Polish village where he was born, Leo fell in love and wrote a book. And though Leo doesn’t know it, that book survived, inspiring fabulous circumstances, even love. Fourteen-year-old Alma was named after a character in that very book. And although she has her hands full — keeping track of her brother, Bird (who thinks he might be the Messiah), and taking copious notes on How to Survive in the Wild —she undertakes an adventure to find her namesake and save her family.History of love

With consummate, spellbinding skill, Nicole Krauss gradually draws together their stories. This extraordinary book was inspired by the author’s four grandparents and by a pantheon of authors whose wo

rk is haunted by loss — Bruno Schulz, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and more. It is truly a history of love: a tale brimming with laughter, irony, passion, and soaring imaginative power.”

My Review: 

Before I delve into what I observed regarding craft in Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love and the applications of that novel to my own craft, I have to clear the air with some straight-up praise. I love this book! I read it eagerly, woke at three in the morning one Saturday to pick up the story where I left off when I’d fallen asleep at midnight. I underlined gratuitously, drew smiley faces in the margins and wrote things like: WOW, LOL, and Yes! Let me see if I can boil down my infatuation with this book that like a new love seems to hold not a single flaw, to some element of style that holds uniqueness, importance.

I can get at this, I believe through a couple of lines from the book that seem to me to not just apply to the situation to which they refer, but to reveal something of the writer’s talent, that can be observed in her style. Zvi Litvinoff, when he comes upon his friend Leo Gursky’s (protatgonist) manuscript while nursing him to health, observes something that though he was “wrong in every way about”, resonates with me beyond just the story itself, “Where he [Gursky] saw a page of words, his friend saw the field of hesitations, black holes, the possibilities between words” (116). Within that manuscript, Gursky himself writes of the deceased writer Isaac Babel, “When he read a book he gave himself over entirely to commas and semicolons to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next senetence” (114). It is within those spaces between word in Krauss’s novel where I found myself sighing, laughing, welling up with tears. Her language is joyful and I couldn’t help seeing the writer behind Gursky’s outburst, “The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!” (76). Extremely varied sentence lengths, the way she plays with punctuation and the space on the page, and the surprise at the end of the sentence are three of the elements that make this book an outburst of its own: What a language! What a world!

But.

This sentence, one word with a period used throughout the novel to characterize Leo Gursky’s “butiful” (79) world, “I kept walking. I went into the drugstore and knocked over a display of KY Jelly. But. My heart wasn’t in it” (76). This word, this one sentence characterizes Leo’s life. He wrote this great novel. But. He had to flee Poland and left it with a friend who he never saw again and who published it in his own name. He fell utterly in love. But. Her parents sent her to America and by the time he found her their son was five and she’d remarried and had a second son. He never knew his son. Looking at a picture of his son in the paper, Leo “wanted him to turn his eyes just to [him] just as he had to whoever had shaken him from his thoughts. But. He couldn’t” (77). Why? Because the photo is above an article announcing his son’s death. Krauss uses fragments and short sentences throughout her novel, often to call our attention to the scene, as in “A fly landed on his shriveled penis. He mumbled some words” (158), so intentionally, so interspersed with longer sentences. This same intention is evident in how she punctuates, uses space on the page.

Colons, semicolons, dashes, lists, italics, roman numeraled lists, bulleted lists, numbered lists, letters: Krauss keeps your eyes and mind popping with her skill and her willingness to roll around in all the tools available to her. What a language! What a life! The only words on one page (Gursky is trying to think of a title, “LAUGHING AND CRYING” (27). And then the next, “I studied it for a few minutes. It wasn’t right. I added another word”, followed by only these words on the next page, “LAUGHING & CRYING & WRITING”, and on for four more pages, creating a verisimilitude to how time passed as Leo tried to come up with a title for the story of his life. The sections in Alma’s point of view are broken up into numbered, titled subchapters. There is one subchapter at the end of a section titled, “23. OUTSIDE, IT WAS STILL COMING DOWN” (152). No words follow it. And that space on the page communicatse so much about Alma’s being at a loss to understand her quirky brother (whose journal she’s just read). A third technique, but not the last that Krauss uses to express her delight of language and tell a story that has the capability to move a reader, to change a reader (as it did me) is her use of the surprise at the end of the sentence.

So many of Krauss’s sentences lead you to places you did not expect to go. About a goose that was supposedly the spirit of someone’s grandma, “It stayed for two weeks straight, honking in the rain, and when it left the grass was covered with turds” (99). Expressing how she often does how beauty and harsh reality are often intermingled. “She said all I had to do was sit naked on a metal stool in the middle of the room and then, if I felt like it, which she was hoping I would, dip my body into a vat of kosher cow’s blood and roll on the large white sheets of paper provided” (75). A sentence that expresses how sometimes overwhelming and ridiculous life can be. “Crossing the street, I was hit head-on by a brutal loneliness” (129). Car is what I was thinking. And yet, loneliness broke my heart just the same, perhaps more so, since it’s much more difficult to understand in the scheme of human tragedy.

What a language! What a life!  The History of Love inspired me with its intention. To be truthful, my first reaction was to just give up now, because I just couldn’t see me ever reaching this level of prose. After my ego settled down though, I too wanted to burst out in the coffee shop where I finished the book: What a language! What a life!

 

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Sunday Book Review: Lolita

I finished reading Lolita last week. It took me a while because originally I started reading it for my writer’s book group and didn’t finish it on time. After our meeting, other obligations rolled in and it wasn’t until summer that I found time to pick it up again. Once I began again, I couldn’t put it down.

The fact that you spend the entire story in the warped point of view of a narcissistic, delusional pedophile holds a valuable lesson regarding writing. I’m not going to review Lolita here. That has been done and the status of the novel as a classic and the fact that the writing is fantastic isn’t arguable. What I want to talk about is the lesson the book offered me as a writer.

We are all of us thoroughly socialized. Our individual sense of right and wrong in any given social or moral dilemma has been years in the making. We judge without thinking about it. We act to the best of our ability in accordance with the rules we have internalized. This reality is the primary cause of boundaries between people of different socioeconomic statuses.

Our desire to be good people can be a crutch in our writing.

It is extremely hard to create characters outside of our own boundaries of morality and propriety convincingly. It requires objectivity and a commitment to character and story and a faith that the characters we write are not projections of ourselves. They are fiction.  Writing fiction requires stepping outside the self and into other.

Is it just me that finds that task to be the greatest challenge of the work we do?

Humbert Humbert is the perfect villain. He thinks he is really quite good: good intentions, good looking, highly intelligent, and charming. It is entirely up to the reader to read between the lines and see Humbert as he truly is: predatory and gross.

This extreme example of flawless characterization serves a model for all character-building. The consistency and depth of detail Nabokov employs in rendering his villain really shouldn’t be missed. lolita

 

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Sunday (It is Sunday somewhere, right?) Book Review

I picked The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women up on a whim for 50% off what are already delightfully low book prices at Goodwill. This is not the sort of book I usually buy.  Maybe 10% of books I read are non-fiction and those are usually not so screamingly self-help. I don’t mean to disparage the genre. I’ve read some life-changing books of this sort, but aside from a binge I went on between the ages of 16 and 18 and my final year of college when I read five books on anxiety hoping to put and end to increasingly crippling panic attacks, I don’t tend to like them very much and they almost always go on longer than they should.

Though this book did go on longer than I wanted it to, I remained engaged and inspired through the first seven secrets. McMeekin manages to write good advice based on her own experience and the experience of women she interviewed and successfully spin that advice in a cultural context of who we are as women and to what extent we can reclaim our individual spirit in a culture perfectly happy to let us submerge our own creative urges for any perceived collective good. Each chapter covers one of the twelve secrets and moves through describing and analyzing to an exercise for the reader to use to reflect and set goals. The margins throughout the book are filled with quotes on all of the twelve topics. I found myself circling the ones I liked best or drawing a little heart next to the quote.

I skimmed the last five secrets as McMeekin at this point got a bit too prescriptive for me in her calling for logs and charts and  hair-splittling list of feelings. Ironically, I think that sort of thing just zaps my creative energy and takes my creative time.

But I LOVED the parts that just mused and the book is worth a read at least for that.

From the margin of page 97: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deep fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” –Marianne Williamson, Writer

12 secrets of highly creative women

 

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On Writing by Stephen King

The only part I didn’t like?

The very ending. And that’s my fault. It makes me uncomfortable when people get too mushy and the very ending was definitely a syrupy shot of courage to would be writers out there.

All in all?

I loved it!

I should tell you first that I listened to King reading on audio mostly while walking the dog or heading downtown to my weekly fiction critique group.  So a small part of what I liked was the sound of his voice–full of confidence–telling me what was and more importantly that if I wanted to–and only if I wanted to–I could do it.

King covers the gamut: publishing, craft, writing process, and why write anyway because it’s freaking hard work?

His advice is specific, practical, and encouraging. Read it. You’ll be glad.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”  –Stephen King; On Writing

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.”
―Stephen King; On Writing

 

 

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“Bird by Bird” – Sunday Book Review

“Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life” by Anne Lamott

bird by bird

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

I think most of us writers get ourselves so worked up over the big picture, the completed work, the masterpiece, that we forget larger, greater things can only come together when all the little pieces fit. Everything we write comes together the in the same way: word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

That isn’t to say there is no creativity or mystery involved.  Those words we choose, or that choose us, to build those sentences come in a surprising array of ways.  It is helpful though to remind ourselves to take it all “Bird by Bird,” to relax and let go of some of that control, to tell our internal editor to shut his or her mouth, and to just focus on taking it step by step.

“Bird by Bird” is probably the most hilarious book of writing advice I have ever read, but it is also one of the most practical.  Lamott is frank about the fact that sometimes writing really sucks.  Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into a draft, and re-read it only to find out it was pure rubbish.  Guess what?  Not only is that okay, it happens to all of us.

I know some great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much…Very few writers know what they’re going to do until they’ve done it.

Reading this book is like listening to one side (sometimes more) of a conversation with a close friend (one of those friends who is funny and encouraging, but isn’t afraid to call your bluff).  “Bird by Bird” was published in 1994, and since that time I have read it cover to cover at least three times. I thumb through it constantly.  When I can’t find where I left it the last time I was reading it, I panic.  Whether I need a prompt, a smile, a hug, or a kick in the butt, I can count on this book to give it to me.

 

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Reading Like A Writer

I am lucky enough to be a part of a book group for writers and occasionally we choose a book on craft to read alongside whatever novels we are reading. This is how I came to read Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer s

reading like a writer

Prose’s essential premise is that creative writing is best taught through the close reading of literature. She writes, “It’s like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps” (9). She endeavors to show what we ought to be looking for and how we should respond to what we see. She achieves her goal by breaking the what down by chapter topic (words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, gesture) and showing her own close readings of text within each chapter.ome months ago.

Prose urges us to “slow down and read every word” (15). She explains that, “Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations” (16).

Prose advises us to read with a particular kind of care and to read classic literature–works that have or will endure. She asserts this advice from the start and proceeds to show just how one might go about reading this way.

This showing of her thinking about particular books makes her book a worthy read.  The backbone of Reading Like A Writer is her commentary on style in work after work after work. You might be tempted to skip this part, particularly if you haven’t read the work that contains the scene or sentence she is commenting on. I urge you not to do that. I u

rge you to treat her book with the same care she would have you read Babel or Bowen. She provides model after model of how to look and think as a writer observing the dance of another in order to dance with her own style and rhythm in a way that might move an audience to tears or laughter or insight.

Not only doesProse posit that critical reading is the only way to learn to learn creative writing, but she also suggests that it is the only way to rise about the supposed rules of writing to find a style of our own: “If the culture sets up a series of rules that the writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.” Her implication: A writer who does not read with a discerning eye could never write above average.

I’ll admit that  in my case Prose was preaching to the choir. I have not read without a pen in my hand since I was in elementary school. Whether I am making comments in the margins or copying lines that I like into my journal, reading has for a long while been both a personal experience and an analysis of style. Even so, this book kept my interest and took me through an experience in reading that I learned from, even admired. She notices more than I do and so gave me something to strive for.

 

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The Review I Promised You: The Chronology of Water

the chronology of waterThe reading didn’t happen. I went to my first Gray Skies Reading Series with a marked-up copy of The Chronology of Water in hand only to find that there had been a change in plans. Yuknavich would be rescheduling the reading due to a death in the family. Bummer. Understandable, but still a bummer. There was to be an open mic instead. I enjoyed the open mic and left impressed with the reading series and excited to return to their next and next events. I finished the book and will write the review I promised, though I was hoping that something she said at the reading would help me communicate the wounds and pathways opened by this book in language.

How to begin?

THE LANGUAGE:

A language bandit, she calls herself, and in many senses she is lawless and resourceful as a bandit must be. With the confidence of Cummings to flout convention and the tenacity of Faulkner to push language to the point where it approximates lifetruth, she tells the story of a woman whose love of language gave her the voice she needed to write her life as she could imagine it, literally and figuratively. She pushes words together, pulls them apart and stretches them wide. She makes up words, alludes to words that came before her, and places one word in place of another in a way that makes shocks logic but makes meaning-sense. She follows conventions of grammar, then breaks them. She lengthens or shortens sentences and paragraphs with courage, grace, and mad rhythm. Straight to the heart. Of the matter. Of feeling. Of memory. My attention to her story never once waned.

THE SUBJECT:

She tells us from the beginning that her story is not an addiction memoir, though addiction courses through it and nearly drowns her before the happy ending. It’s also not a story about sexual abuse or sexuality, though  the pages throb with details of her scars and her sex. This is a story about a woman who has the strength of a swimmer and who made a “wordhouse” (191) of her life.

WHAT IT MEANT TO ME:

If you endeavor to write, you should read this book. Yuknavitch closes, “It’s a big deal to make a sentence. The line between life and death” (292).
I will admit that reading this book at times discouraged me, filled me with envy. I have tried to write a book something like this, something about how a woman pulls herself up through language and practice. I finished that book, tried to send out into the world and failed, then put it in the proverbial drawer. I have two other books I’m trying to write. Reading this book helped me come to a truth I had been at the edge of: I’m done with that book yet. I haven’t given it my best. I gave up too soon. I may not have the strength of a swimmer (I didn’t even learn until I was twelve), but I have my own strength and a wordhouse of my own.
Even if it’s the only book I ever finish. Even if the wounds if opens break me and my own dexterity with language falls short of success.

The Chronology of Water succeeds on every possible level.
Read it. It quite possibly will change you.

 

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