I was planning on doing a post on that need to write but then had the opportunity to write a Guest Writer article on the subject for The View From Here Magazine. It is online today with the print issue coming out November 6th, I believe. Here’s the first paragraph:
For six years, I was a lawyer. I went to law school; I passed the bar exam; I was sworn in, and I paid my licensing dues. Et voila. It fits, doesn’t it?
Far more difficult to know if you’re a writer.
There’s the obvious, “You’re a writer if you write.” But that’s like saying you’re a cook if you cook. When I was in law school, I heard over and over again, “You have to learn to think like a lawyer.” But that doesn’t work here either. What defines a writer is not “thinking.”
I sit at my desk and write on this cloudy fall Saturday, working on this new story. Outside, the leaves are changing. But what keeps drawing my attention is this eucalyptus bush in the left panes of the window. When I first started this blog in September of 2008, the top of that bush, which I planted, was below the window.
I sit at my desk and write. Sometimes it’s easy to see change.
On Friday, I read the essay “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life,” by novelist Alexander Chee who took a class from Annie Dillard in 1989. He writes, “By the time I was done studying with Annie, I wanted to be her.”
Over the weekend I kept thinking about that essay. Then on Sunday I saw that Moonrat had written a post to let her readers know about the essay. I wanted to let you know about it too.
With detail after detail, Chee conjures Dillard during class as she drinks coffee from the thermos cup and eats caramel after caramel, letting the plastic wrappers pile up on the desk. But the heart of the essay comes from Chee’s description of Dillard’s rigorous take-no-prisoners approach to the craft of writing. “Very quickly, she identified what she called ‘bizarre grammatical structures’ inside my writing.” She also identified his overuse of the passive voice and his “museum of cliches.”
Chee shares some of the key points he learned from Dillard:
My favorite line in the essay is in Chee’s voice and about voice:
“You could think that your voice as a writer would just emerge naturally, all on its own, with no help whatsoever, but you’d be wrong. What I saw on the page was that the voice is in fact trapped, nervous, lazy. Even, and in my case, most especially, amnesiac. And that it had to be cut free.”
Read the words from the guy who was there: “Annie Dillard and the Writing Life.” And let me know what you think.
This essay will appear in the anthology, Mentors, Muses, & Monsters, forthcoming October 27 from Free Press.
The books that sit on Lynn Neary’s “shelf of constant reproach” are “the books I know I should have read…but haven’t.” She borrowed this term from Luis Clemons, who chooses which authors to interview for NPR’s Tell Me More, and who refers to the worthy titles that don’t make it as “the shelf of constant reproach.”
Emily, of Evening All Afternoon, would take issue with this view. “…the level of stress and sheepishness about even having a to-be-read stack is a little dismaying to me….should a person feel guilty about the number of books…waiting to be enjoyed? I feel strongly that we shouldn’t….”
Nevertheless I often feel, as piscivorous tweeted yesterday, that “a stack of books is following me about the house.” I have a book shelf full of books I’ve already bought that are waiting To Be Read (see photo). In my head is a list of books I feel I should have already read. Finally, I have books I want to reread. And new books are being published all the time.
Moonrat came up with a list of 100 books that she wanted/needed to read. She labeled it her: Project Fill-in-the-Gaps. Once the book is read, the ink changes from black to red. [list toward the bottom of her sidebar]
How to make sense of all these books? How do I decide what to read next? Infinite Jest had been on my to-be-read shelf for 13 years, but Infinite Summer persuaded me to dust it off and open it up. Recently I began adding how I chose the book I was reading to my Reading List page. I thought this might make me give the selection a little more thought. But other than my monthly writing group selections and review deadlines, it seems to be similar to the way I choose what to write about–at that moment it’s just what gathers enough weight to cause me to reach for it.
Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge is a book I forgot I had on my shelf–a forgotten book. Every now and then, I will pull a book off the shelf that looks unfamiliar–an old book–and thumb through its pages to see what it has to say to me now and whether I should keep it in my library or send it on a new journey.
Poemcrazy was published in 1996. It’s difficult to believe that in that short amount of time, the pages have yellowed around the edges, giving it the look of a book that was surely published before I was born. But no, 1996.
As I said in the last post, I do not write poems. Still I loved reading this book. It’s divided into 5 parts: following words, listening to ourselves, hi there stars, open the window, and lights and mysteries. Lovely. These five parts are further divided into 60 short sections, many offering writing exercises.
Wooldridge writes that it is often when she is walking that words and poems come to her. Then she gives us this snippet from poet Brenda Hillman:
“We walked through night ’til night was a poem.”
As I mentioned in the last post, Wooldridge often writes or tapes words on tickets. “Like a poem, a ticket is small, often colorful and valuable, allowing entrance to a special place.” She loves E.E.Cummings: “love is more thicker than forgot.”
Wooldridge gives us little bits of Emily Dickinson: “Inside a moment, centuries of June.” And Wallace Stevens: “…there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and singing, made.” Little facts like: “Donald Hall claims he wrote 150 drafts of his poem ‘Henyard Round.'”
Wooldridge suggests keeping a notebook and a flashlight on the night table. “We have to be quiet and listen for a bell or a knock. And we have to open the door.” Then she gives us the poem “Writing in the Dark” by Denise Levertov.
I am putting this book back on my shelf.
Last week, before I went out of town, I was looking for my new book, The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. I looked on my ToBeRead shelf–not there. I looked behind me on this long built-in shelf that theoretically holds the things I’m working on–not there. I glanced around at the various piles of books on the floor.
I knew it wouldn’t be on my regular shelves because I hadn’t read it yet. Then I remembered the shelves to my right–my reference section, so to speak. I had stuck it there.
These four shelves–one for poetry, one for short story collections I refer to as I write, one for books on craft, and one for books on writers writing about writing–were overflowing with papers stuck everywhere, books piled horizontally on the tops of other books. When I had looked for Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor on my computer a while back, I had thought I didn’t have it, but here it was. So I realized that none of these books were on my computerized list of books. New project…
Taking one shelf a day, I wiped off dust, looked through tables of contents, thumbed through my underlinings, discarded the ones I no longer needed (and by discarded I mean put in a pile to donate to the library) entered the title in my computer, and re-shelved in alphabetical order. Well, they had to go back on the shelf some way. And yes it could have been randomly or by color, but, as some of you know, I’m an alphabetical type of person. I need to just admit that and move on.
During the process I discovered Poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. I don’t write poetry, but I love words. In this book, the author writes about how she collects words. And prints them on tickets–admit one. More about this book later.
Do you have books you’ve forgotten about? What books do you refer to when you write?
“The lake rose and fell and murmured beneath his paddle like a primitive animal mass, then fell silently back into its mineral existence.”
What is happening in the novel is so magical and alive and so delicately parallels the story the character Claire is writing that the reader is unsure whether Claire is writing about what is happening around her or whether Claire’s writing is causing what is happening around her to happen.
“Who knew if diving into the void [writing] shattered the already porous walls between what appears to exist and what does not yet exist?”
Proulx wields repetition like a wand—within sentences, within paragraphs, within the content and the structure of the novel. Take a look at the opening sentences:
“Lila Szach liked uphill paths. In life so many things—and life itself, in fact—go only downhill.”
Wildlives is so beautifully structured that it gave me goose bumps. It begins with a section entitled “Lila,” in which the young Lila is able to imagine herself an old woman. The last section is entitled “Jeremie,” and in it the old Jeremie thinks he sees the figure of a child. In each of these sections, the sun surprises the character so that the world appears to be on fire.
In between these sections, the story takes place: Lila is 76 and Jeremie is a boy. Age and youth, the past and the future. And who’s to say it doesn’t all come together at a certain moment in time.
Wildlives was originally written in French and is beautifully translated by David Homel and Fred A. Reed:
“You think you’ll grow old gracefully, so slowly that you’ll hardly notice it; instead, it leaps on you and reduces you to rubble.”
“…but she could not move, weighed down with nostalgia, suddenly stabbed by the brevity of the whole adventure. How cruel it is; we barely have time to master three steps of the immense cosmic choreography before we’re yanked from the ballet.”
“Night had officially ended, but it still hung in the trees.”
Wildlives was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
For today, I had planned to write a review of the book I finished yesterday, but as I sat down to write, I realized that the piece of fiction I started on Saturday and continued with on Sunday and Monday is the first altogether new piece of fiction I’ve started in over two years.
In the spring of 2007, I began a story a week for ten weeks, and when I haven’t been working on my novel, which I began in 2004, I’ve been working on those. I’ve also finished the novel (although it’s waiting for a 6-month read) and three stories, and I have five more stories lined up behind me waiting for what is probably a final revision and one of those, for just that final clean read.
Over two years. No wonder writing something new was feeling…unfamiliar.
So when I started this piece on Saturday–and for the first time I have no feel for whether it wants to be a novel or a story–even without realizing how long it had been since I had started fresh, the thought did cross my mind, I wonder if I’m going to get it right this time.
And I don’t think I meant the story. I think I meant the process.
Which is for sure an individual thing, as in there is not one right way to do it. It has to do with what works for each person. The thing is, I’m not sure I’ve yet hit upon what works for me.
I know one thing though. I think up to now, I’ve spent too much time trying to get the words right before I knew what the story was. Almost as if, if I could get the words right, I would have the story. This time, I’m trying not to get so attached to the words. This time, when I wonder if Lucy accepts her situation or feels bitter or is using humor to cover up how she really feels, instead of choosing one, I’m going to try each one. I’m going to ask more questions.
Actually I know another thing too. Especially for me because I prefer working on a novel, having the opportunity to begin something new is a moment to catch.
What about you–are you satisfied with your process?
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Adam Braver:
I never thought of myself as an early riser. I always preferred the quiet of night, followed by a peaceful sleep well into mid-morning. However, my cat and my son do not share a similar sensibility, and, in direct proportion with the graying of my hair, my circadian rhythms have become inverted.
My day now begins somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30.
In terms of writing, this particular day requires careful management. While a normal morning involves reading several newspapers online, answering overnight email, and getting myself organized for the daily writing schedule, this is a day of deadlines. A promised blurb has run itself up to the final hour, and a magazine article also needs to be delivered. (Luckily, this is a non-teaching day, and I am thankfully caught up, if not ahead on that front.) Deadlines can bring out the worst—cursing the lack of available hours, and rerunning the daily idiocies that have knocked me off schedule for weeks. Warning: run all these grievances through your head long enough and they become their own set of idiocies and time wasters. Best to get to work.
A pot of coffee is always involved, and once my son is off to school, and my wife safely secured into her day, I’m parked at my desk. The goal is to get everything done by 3:00, leaving me ample time to get to the novel I’m working on, and at least end the day with a couple of solid, new pages. Focus and discipline have never been an issue. It’s more about negotiating the obligations.
First up is the blurb. My desk is piled with stacks of papers that, to the layman, might appear to be clutter. It’s a system I fully understand, but if were I put in unfortunate circumstances, it’s one I could never explain. On the back of a National Grid envelope are the notes I have been jotting down while reading Steven Church’s upcoming memoir, The Day After the Day After. It should be simple to distill these notes into a two or three line blurb. But this is a book that I truly like a lot. And I’m scared to death of not quite “getting it right.” I draft out several similar iterations, labeling each appropriately: academic, thoughtful, hip, clever, literary. Eventually I settle on a hybrid of all the versions. In order to stanch the obsessing, I immediately email it to Steven.
A new pot of coffee.
Because I’m constantly being saved by music, I was fortunate to have been assigned to cover last summer’s Newport Folk Festival for Rhode Island Monthly Magazine. I’d spent two days in Newport, listening to music, interviewing organizers, performers, vendors, and attendees—leading to an essay about experiencing the festival. Hours and hours of recorded interviews. Pages and pages of notes. All distilled down to 2,500 words. And today I’m parsing words, part shaman, part mechanic. Trying to fix with precision, yet still foresee the choices that will cause me to cringe two days later. With each tweak, it seems, another not-quite-right word is revealed, as though it’s been secretly lying dormant under other troubled words, just waiting to be awakened. Eventually, as with the blurb, I push the send button.
I have managed to meet my 3:00 deadline with tangible accomplishments. But here’s the truth, and this part is undeniably real—I miss not having the distractions, because now it’s just me and the blank pages of this new book; and again, this is the truth here—it’s hard work writing a novel, because, particularly with first drafts, there’s so often very little pleasure.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?
- The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. I’d come across her previous book (stories) via word of mouth, and the simplicity of the prose against the power and smarts of the stories blew me away. The latest novel had the same effect.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- It’s rarely the story itself that’s interesting, it’s the way you tell it.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- The delusion that I have no strange habits.
Books by Adam Braver: