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Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

My Goodreads account is making me feel guilty.

At the beginning of this year, I made a goal to read 52 books and, well, it is letting me know in its calm yet non-confrontational way that I am “21 books behind schedule.”

Yikes.

I could chalk it up to, I don’t know … writing my own book, finishing my thesis, reading the thesis submissions from my cohorts in the MFA program, and moving ourselves to a new house.

Or maybe I was just lazy.

That’s sad news for someone who regularly lists her favorite hobby as “reading.”

So now I’m attempting to make amends, although since we’re a third of the way through September, I’m not sure I’ll reach my 2017 goal. And it certainly isn’t for lack of books to read. In fact, as I mentioned, we moved ourselves to a house in a new town. That of course meant packing up our many shelves of books. As we packed, I attempted to organize the books into boxes so that unpacking and placing them on new bookshelves would be an easier categorizing process.

We purchased 5 new bookshelves. A few of them are here on our sunny landing where I also have my work office and an old library table that doubles as my desk.

sunny landing

Then we bought a couple more shelves for our entryway:

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And we have shelves in our bedroom. I have one shelf that is now dedicated to my “to reads.” In other words, as I shelved the books from the boxes, I set aside all the books that I’ve been meaning to read for a long time — books that were purchased and then made their way to various nooks and crannies and promptly were forgotten.

Now, this way, I always have my “to reads” right in front of me. Here’s a picture of my shelf.

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It’s an eclectic mix of fiction and fantasy and memoir and nonfiction. There are 40 books on the shelf; reading half this shelf will get me to my reading goal.

But more than just meeting a goal, I’m excited to finally get through each of these books. They sit there in all their glory, promising so much.

Right now, I’m reading a book written by one of our Professional Writing graduates — a debut novel that won a prize from Simon & Schuster, was first an ebook, and then was released in paperback. I’m so proud of Chandler and what he has accomplished in his young life as a writer. It’s fantasy, so a new genre to me. I’m diving into The Facefaker’s Game.

After I finish that, then I’m on to another book on my shelf. No more looking around wondering what to read next. No more feeling at a loss. The shelf is there. When I finish one and move it upstairs to the other categorized shelves, I’ll have space to add another that I will inevitably purchase.

Because, no matter how far behind I get, I’ll just keep on reading.

What are you reading right now?

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I hyperventilate when I go into used bookstores. For thirty years my husband has dragged me to antique stores and the only saving grace to these excursions (where eventually every antique begins to look the same) is that sometimes the booths will have books. I zero in on these, turning my head sideways to read along the spines. I don’t feel the same way in my local Books-a-Million, although if I have to go shopping that’s where I want to go.

There’s just something about the smell of used bookstores and the possibility of treasures to be found. If I’m going to by one of the classics or a book on my list, I don’t want one of those repackaged recent releases or (God forbid) the ones that put on the cover not the person but the movie star playing that person (seriously, a book about Julia Child with Meryl Streep on the cover?). And I’m not all worried about getting first editions or signed copies. Instead, I just want to pick it up and know that I’m giving it new life. It was written (by hand, in the case of those classics), edited, typeset (when typesetting was really setting type), printed bound, and sent out into the world. Someone bought it and put it on a shelf. Sometimes that person’s name will appear handwritten inside the cover. Chances are, that person read it. I love it when evidence of that shows up with underlines or marginal comments.

I love the feel of those books. I will often buy it if it feels right in my hands. I look forward to reading it just so I can hold it and turn the pages. The last time the book felt that was when that person decades ago did the same as I am doing now. It’s a kinship. We read the same words, get engrossed in the same story, get pulled away into the world that writer created.

What is it that pulls us into books? Why do we read, anyway? In her book, Ruined by ruined by readingReading: A Life in Books, Lynne Sharon Schwartz muses about why we are willing to spend hours of our lives with tales others have spun.

I have read for so many years but, like Schwartz, I wonder at why it is I cannot recall so much of what I’ve read. Thus I’m glad to know that others have been in the same boat. Schwartz writes, “I don’t remember much of what I’ve read. My lifelong capacity for forgetting distresses me. I glance at a book on the shelf that I once read with avid interest . . . and while I struggle for the details, all I recall is the excitement of the reading. . . . What do I have, then, after years of indulgence? A feel, a texture, an aura.”

Precisely for this reason of forgetting what I’ve read (and the accompanying distress), a few years ago I gathered up some of those lists of “must read” classic books. I began to work my way through it, hoping to recapture the wonder. As I began pursuing an advanced degree in English, I realized that I had to be able to actually discuss the classic works, not just pretend that I had read them or, even if I had, pretend that I remembered them. So the past few years I dove into Moby Dick and This Side of Paradise and The Old Man and the Sea and Portrait of a Lady among many others of the great classics. Some I enjoyed. Some I wanted to pull my eyes out (hello, Moby Dick. I’m sorry. I probably need to turn in my credentials to speak such blasphemy). But I felt accomplished reading them and saying I’ve read them and being able to, while perhaps not remembering all the details (a problem I wish I could overcome, but maybe no one remembers every detail), at least remember the basic story.

And that makes me feel something.

What is that feeling? And why do I feel it? When I finish a classic work, I join a club—a club of readers across months or years or decades or centuries who also have gently opened the cover, absorbed the words, turned the pages, finished and imbibed the story. No matter what I do, it’s there forever. Of course, not all the details (as I’ve already established) but the story. I am forever changed, I have a new view on the world, I learned something.

That tends to be my “divining rod” (as Schwartz calls it) helping me work my way through the morass of books stacked in teetering piles in used bookstores. I go straight to the reference section to find books about writing that I can use in my teaching. Then I’m over in the classics, then memoir, then the books of essays. I have never been a reader of romance or popular fiction. (On a visit, I once picked up a copy of a Danielle Steele at my mother-in-law’s house. By the fourth page I was so appalled by the terrible writing I laughed out loud.)

When I read, I want to learn something. And if a book isn’t pulling me along with its lyrical writing or keeping me turning pages or giving me info that helps me see the world in a new way, then I’m not interested and am not above putting it back on the shelf unfinished.

Life is too short to read a bad book.

But I feel like I came late to the reading game. I wasn’t precocious. In fact, I remember being mortified that many of my fellow fifth graders were reading from the advanced areas of the reading box when I was down in the “average.” I stunk at math and hated science, but reading? I loved reading. I felt like I should have tested right into those higher levels. It didn’t make sense.

I didn’t go to grad school until I was in my fifties and felt the sting of both not having read the classics and not being “up” on even recent authors. So I made my list of the must-reads and began to work my way through it.

Now I read voraciously, as if trying to make up for lost time. Which I am. But, again, why? It gets back to that feeling of knowing¸ of learning. Is my life better for understanding the whaling culture explained to me (ad nauseum) in Moby Dick? Actually, yes, I think so. Do I have a better understanding of writing from studying The Old Man and the Sea and The Great Gatsby? I do indeed. Is my writing life inspired by the writing of Flannery O’Connor and  Ernest Hemingway and Anton Chekov? Yes.

In short, I read because it inspires me. Sometimes it is the grace of the writing. Sometimes it is the very encouragement I get to live better and be better and write better.

So tell me, what is it about reading that enthralls you?

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The things we carry tell a lot about us.

In my Writer’s Craft class, we studied the value of details in our stories — you know, those little words or tiny descriptions that can make a whole story turn and give a complete description without having to say much at all.

To illustrate how this can work, we read part of the first story of Tim O’Brien’s work, The Things They Carried. This essay collection details some of O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Published in 1990, twenty years after O’Brien returned from the war, the story still resonates with its gritty realism. Such a story could only be written by someone who lived it.

The titular essay describes the various soldiers in the 23rd Infantry Division with vivid descriptions mostly of — you guessed it — what each soldier was carrying. From these lengthy paragraph descriptions, my students and I could detail on the board the job each soldier had within the unit, what he cared about, and even a bit about what he was like (the things carried could be something like “fear”). Here’s just a taste:

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The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

This first essay gives a brilliant picture of this group of men, together by necessity, bound to one another, trying to do the tasks assigned and stay alive.

So my students did a writing exercise. I asked them to dig into their backpacks or purses or pockets or wallets and list everything they were carrying. Then they did some free writing. My challenge to them was to write a couple of paragraphs describing what the things they were carrying revealed about them.

There’s the girl who was lugging around in her backpack papers that she didn’t even need (and she couldn’t remember what class they were from). There’s the girl with the detailed calendar. There’s the guy with the extra pens and the other who probably needs to bum writing implements. Almost all of them were carrying books (one read Shakespeare constantly!). The students carried pictures or other items that brought back memories.

I looked in my purse. First, it’s way too big, but I like a big purse when I need to carry extra — you know — stuff. I have a big make-up bag with extras of all the basics after one day a couple years ago when I arrived at school and had forgotten to put on any make-up! I vowed that would never ever happen again! I have a notebook like what I tell my students to carry so that they can write down brilliant ideas when they strike. It’s pretty much bereft of brilliant ideas, although I do use it to jot down names of books I want to read.

In other words, I’m carrying things I hope not to need (extra make-up) and things I hope to need (a place to write down brilliant ideas).

I have a wallet and three sets of business cards and too many pens. I like to be prepared. I have my datebook because I don’t have nor want a smart phone. I like to have lists and organization and for that I need my datebook.

My bag tells me a lot about myself. My students learned a lot about themselves by looking at what they carried. We talked about using such details for the characters in their fiction–how can what the character carries be part of the description of him or her?

So, what’s in your wallet? What do the things you carry say about who you are and what you care about?

 

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I tried an experiment in one of my writing classes this past week. We’re talking about the power of words and learning to, as Francine Prose writes in her book Reading Like a Writer, “put every word on trial for its life.”

We looked at the words used (and not used) in Cynthia Ozick’s ‘The Shawl.” (They were amazed to realize that the word “Nazi” is nowhere in the story, even though that’s what it’s about and they knew that’s what it’s about, even without that word and many others one might expect.) We studied the descriptions of place and people in Guy de Maupassant’s, “The Piece of String.” We watched how Flannery O’Connor chose words and led us along in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

Then I read them some quotes from one of my recent favorite books, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. Here are some of the beautiful, lyrical lines:

When the train pulled into the Bahnhof in Munich, the passengers slid out as if torn from a package.

All was dark-skied and hazy, and small chips of rain were starting to fall.

In Liesel’s mind, the moon was sewn into the sky that night. Clouds were stitched around it.book thief

That was when a great shiver arrived. It waltzed through the window with the draft. Perhaps it was the breeze of the Third Reich, gathering even greater strength. Or maybe it was just Europe again, breathing. Either way, it fell across them as their metallic eyes clashed like tin cans in the kitchen.

<a scene of the Nazis burning books> The orange flames waved at the crowd as paper and print dissolved inside them. Burning words were torn from their sentences.

The cold was climbing out of the ground.

Snow was shivering outside.

The window opened wide, a square cool mouth, with occasional gusty surges.

Pimples were gathered in peer groups on his face.

I love how Zusak uses words, putting them together in surprising ways to make descriptions that are exact and yet so unusual and unexpected. It’s that very unexpectedness that delights me.

So we did an exercise in class. I gave students four small pieces of paper. On each paper they were to write a word — two papers would have adjectives, two papers would have nouns. Any adjective, any noun. I gathered the papers into two piles, shuffled them, and then each student chose one adjective and one noun and had to find a way to use them together in a sentence.

We got “chilling sun” and “soft children” and “shiny dream.” And the students wrote amazing new sentences, allowing these unusual pairs to work together.

In a weekly journal post, one of my students wrote, “I liked the adjective and noun game. Combinations like chilling sun made me think about the ways I described things throughout the week. Instead of relying on easy, conventional descriptions, I searched for different, more unusual word pairings that still made sense.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

What are some of the most lyrical, surprising, and unexpected sentences you’re read — and where did you read them?

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to killYou’ve probably never heard her name–I hadn’t until last night when watching a TV special about Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and her unknown and previously unpublished second book titled Go Set a Watchman.

The editor’s name was mentioned in passing, and I asked my husband to pause, replay, and help me catch it. Tay Hohoff is described in a blog post by Clarissa Atkinson, a fellow employee at J. B. Lippincott, as a “respected editor” and a “challenging presence.”

Ms. Atkinson goes on in another post to describe the To Kill a Mockingbird years at the publishing house:

J.B. Lippincott . . . was a family-owned Philadelphia firm, old-fashioned even in the 1950s.  I worked in the branch office at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street – an editorial office, in which the New York tail wagged the Philadelphia dog. My tenure at Lippincott coincided with a few of the many years during which Harper Lee was working on To Kill a Mockingbird. According to office legend (more or less substantiated by Wikipedia), Lee had arrived from Alabama with a trunk full of mixed-up parts and pages of an enormous manuscript, she lived in a garret on macaroni while she transformed the pages into a stunningly successful book, and this was accomplished through the faithful support and encouragement of her Lippincott editor.

Is anyone surprised by this “faithful support and encouragement” from an editor? Not me.

We’ve all heard the story by now. How friends of Harper Lee’s gave her a year’s worth of pay and told her to just go write for that year. The result was this astounding book published in 1960 that was an instant classic and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. 

And those of us who write wonder how in the world this writer crafted one book (well, now we know of two) that had this kind of success. We can only dream of that.

I think it has much to do with her upbringing–her father was a well-respected lawyer in her small hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in the deep South in the days before the Civil Rights movement. She touched a nerve by taking on the topic of racism and showing what it takes to stand up for what’s right.

Still, she also had a good editor who helped to shape the book into something readable. In 2010, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Newsweek ran an article titled, “Who Helped Harper Lee with Mockingbird?” that discusses Tay Hohoff’s role in the book:

Lee had dropped out of college during her senior year to move to New York to become a writerto the dismay of her father, who wanted her to be a lawyer. She spent nearly a decade doing odd jobs and scraping by before she submitted five stories to a Maurice Crain, an agent who, frankly, wasn’t overly impressed. But he and his wife liked Lee, and he encouraged her to try a novel. The result, then called Atticus, was a mess. “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance—but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.

It’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?

That’s the role of a great editor. Sending a writer back to keep rewriting. Being there when the writer is facing a brick wall and muddled pages. Making sure the pages tossed out the window get gathered up and worked on because the editor sees something that maybe even the author can’t yet see.

ADDENDUM 7/14/15: Reviews of Go Set a Watchman are popping up online, and most of them are not kind. This one, in particular, gives credit to Tay Hohoff for the work she did in shaping To Kill a Mockingbird, a touch clearly missing from this most recent publication. But I disagree with the sentiment that there aren’t editors like that around anymore–there are, and they work very hard to bring diamonds out of the rough.

7/25/15: Excellent commentary from The New York Times. Unfortunately, I do feel that this may have been far more about money than about the writing or the writer.

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That’s it–The Writer’s Craft. That’s the name of a required class in our Professional Writing department at Taylor University–a required class that I will be teaching for the first time this fall. I’m so excited to teach this class because we’re going to read great writing, unpack it, understand what makes it great, and learn what we can use to improve our own writing.

ProseThe class has traditionally used Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

I love this book because it gives examples of great writing in areas of words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. All of this is studied by way of what she calls “close reading,” taking the time to annotate a chosen text and study it carefully.

So I’m excited to bring to the students stories from John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and John Updike and Tim O’Brien and Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce and Anton Chekov, among others. I can’t wait to have my students do close reading of amazing writing, discuss it, learn from it, be inspired by it, use it.

I’m just a little thrilled to teach this class.

It is important that writers read “textbooks” about writing–and those textbooks are the great works that have stood the test of time. Prose (don’t you just love that the author’s name is “Prose”?) writes that these great works are “textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction” (3). What is it about this piece of writing that makes it great? that has stood the test of time? that makes it classic? She continues, “A masterpiece can inspire us by showing us how a writer does something brilliantly” (11).

We’re not going to look at the big picture–the why of the writing. Instead, we’re going to focus on the mechanics, the how. What words does the writer use? How are those words making this piece sing? What about sentence structure? Paragraphing? How is this dialogue telling us the story without telling us the story? (For the last one we’ll read Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”)

In his wonderful little book Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon talks about making sure we artists surround ourselves with other great artists (I talked about this book more in this post). He advises us to be collectors, collecting the things we love.

You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with. My mom used to say to me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It used to drive me nuts. But now I know what she meant. Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by. (13-14)

Seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage will help you feel less alone as you start making your own stuff. I hang pictures of my favorite artists in my studio. They’re like friendly ghosts. I can almost feel them pushing me forward as I’m hunched over my desk.

The great thing about dead or remote masters is that they can’t refuse you as an apprentice. You can learn whatever you want from them. They left their lesson plans in their work. (17)

So we’ve got our readings, our lesson plans, our pens, and our desire to collect and learn from the greats.

Can’t wait!

What great writers or particular pieces of writing have inspired you?

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As I continue to write about editors and editing, I came across some very interesting insights in Jack London‘s masterful work, Martin Eden. Written as a thinly veiled autobiography, the story follows a low-class man and his desire for self-improvement in order to impress a high-class woman with whom he has fallen in love. He reads voraciously; learns language, grammar, and syntax; and teaches himself manners, politics, and philosophy. Eventually, he decides to become a writer–after all, he has many stories to tell from his travels around the world as a sailor.

Alas, every story he sends in is rejected and returned in what we would call the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). For years, he toils. He goes back and rereads the magazines to which he’s submitting to discover the “secret formula” for getting accepted. He spends hours and hours working at his craft, steadfastly refusing to bow to pressure from the woman he loves (and everyone else in his world) to just “get a job.”

He knows he’s a writer. He can feel it in his bones. He knows he has stories to tell, and he knows his stories are better than anything he’s reading in the magazines.

His money runs out. He barely survives. And the rejections keep coming. Martin begins to wonder:

He began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine. He poured his soul into stories, articles, and poems, and entrusted them to the machine. . . . There was no human editor at the other end, but a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that change the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps. (160-61)martin eden

The chief qualification of ninety-nine percent of all editors is failure. They have failed as writers. Don’t think they prefer the drudgery of the desk and the slavery to their circulation and to the business manager to the joy of writing. They have tried to write, and they have failed. And right there is the cursed paradox of it. Every portal to success in literature is guarded by those watch-dogs, the failures in literature. The editors, sub-editors, associate editors, most of them, and the manuscript-readers for the magazines and book-publishers, most of them, nearly all of them, are men who wanted to write and who have failed. And yet they, of all creatures under the sun the most unfit, are the very creatures who decide what shall and what shall not find its way into print–they, who have proved themselves not original, who have demonstrated that they lack the divine fire, sit in judgment upon originality and genius. (322-23)

Ever felt that way as a writer? Ever felt like the editors either don’t exist or are simply cogs in machines that send out nothing but rejections?

As an editor, I do have to take a bit of offense that Martin sees me as “unfit.” But as a writer, yes, I have at times wondered if anyone with any taste receives–and rejects–my queries, my articles, my blood-and-guts pieces of creative nonfiction.

I’m sure many writers feel the same.

But let me put in a little bit of a plug on behalf of myself and my editor friends.

  • We truly do want the very best writing. But, you need to understand how subjective that is. It’s a gut reaction to a piece of writing. And if you get rejected one place and you really believe in your piece, keep trying.
  • Everything needs to be edited–everything. Trust us. We will work with you to make your writing the best it can be.
  • Editors are human, and each one of us is different. No two editors will edit a piece the same way. Take the advice, but also understand that we are in a conversation with you when we edit.
  • We are busy. Sure, no one wants to wait months for a response, but we’re reading hundreds (sometimes thousands) of pieces. Hence, the form letters that get returned in your SASE. We simply don’t have time to give personal responses to everything. (That said, if you get any kind of response–such as a quick hand-written note on that rejection letter–take that as a huge compliment and keep on trying with that editor.)
  • And generally we aren’t failed writers who defaulted to editing. Many of us write on the side (and get the same treatment from fellow editors). There’s no club. Our work has to stand on its own, just as with everyone else. Many of us have no desire to write at all–editing is our calling and we’re committed to that.
  • Rejection doesn’t mean failure. A piece can be rejected for any number of reasons. It may be that your writing isn’t good–but if you’re in a critique group and you’re taking advice, that probably isn’t the case. It could be things you have no way of knowing–maybe a story like yours has already been accepted and now yours isn’t needed. It could be that gut thing I wrote of above.
  • We really do care about the submission guidelines, the formatting advice we give you, etc. Read these guidelines and follow them. Because we receive hundreds of manuscripts, if it’s apparent you can’t follow the simplest guidelines, then we won’t take the time to read what you sent.

Eventually, Martin Eden does find the success he so long sought, but it comes at a price. He discovers the down side of fame and some of the hypocrisy in publishing, which begins his undoing.

Bottom line, Martin Eden teaches us that it takes persistence, faith in yourself, and hard hard hard work to be a writer.

Don’t give up. Don’t let the editors get you down. Realize that they aren’t “rejection machines.”

Nothing’s perfect, but work with us. Your great writing will find its home.

Quotations taken from Jack London’s Martin Eden: The Annotated Edition by Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. Upland, IN: Taylor University Press, 2006. This edition is pictured above.

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