writing about writing

Because no one asked, here’s a list of my top five books about writing–the ones I go to when I need encouragement or advice (or just want to procrastinate and feel productive about it). They are my comfort foods for writer’s block worry. And it is high season for comfort foods.

1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Once I attended a Bernie Sanders rally and the women standing to the right and left of me–one 70 and one 17–became wildly unhinged, crying and swooning in his presence as he came through to shake our hands like he was Mick Jagger. Or Elvis. Or Justin Beiber. It was disturbing. I liked the man’s message, but I wasn’t going to put up a full-sized poster in my room, you know? But I think that’s exactly how I would act if I ever got to meet Annie Dillard. She is a literary goddess and I worship at the altar of her sentences. Is that too much? Oh well. Sometimes we are all a little much. Her book on writing is poetry and truth and quite frankly, a classic.

Who will teach me to write? a reader wanted to know.

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against which you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.

2. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury was a prolific delight. He basically merged the literary and sci-fi genres into his own, new genre. His exuberance is catching and makes me remember that writing can be wildly fun.

But how did I begin?…I wrote a thousand words a day. For ten years I wrote at least one short story a week, somehow guessing that a day would finally come when I truly got out of the way and let it happen….If this all sounds mechanical, it wasn’t. My ideas drove me to it, you see. The more I did, the more I wanted to do. You grow ravenous. You run fevers. You know exhilarations. You can’t sleep at night, because your beast-creature ideas want out and turn you in your bed. It is a grand way to live.

3. This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond

I think the only way to obtain this small, self-published book is to track down the author and buy a copy with cash. It is the single best condensed practical guide to writing fiction I’ve ever read. It always snaps me back on track. Bonus: Almond is hilarious.

When I really admire an author, someone like Bellow or Austen or Toni Morrison, I don’t think of them having a style. They’re not writing to impress the reader, but to implicate them. They’re not throwing beautiful words at the page and hoping to produce truth. That’s not how it works. That’s the exact opposite of how it works. The effort to capture complex and painful feeling states is what lifts the language into beauty. Style, in other words, is the redidue produced by the dogged pursuit of truth.

4. Still Writing by Dani Shapiro

Dani Shapiro has written four or five memoirs, all of them spectacular. This book on writing, for me, reads like yet another angle of memoir. Her insights are rich and I paced myself on purpose the first time I read it, savoring the delight, not wanting it to end.

The page–if you spend your life in deep engagement with it–will force you to surrender your skepticism. It will keep you open and undefended. It doesn’t promise comfort. But if you hurl yourself at it, give it everything you’ve got, if you wake up each morning–bruised, bloody, aching–ready to throw yourself at it again, I’ll make you a promise: it will keep you alive to what you see and hear and taste and touch.

5. The Getaway Car by Ann Patchett

This is not a book; it’s an essay. But it’s “everything [Patchett] knows about writing”, and it is dynamite.

If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap.

Please add to my list! What are some of your favorite writers on writing?

chronicle

I don’t like subscribing to magazines because they end up piling up on the back of my toilet (and sometimes falling into it), unread. And I can’t bring myself to throw them out because they look an awful lot like books and throwing away books is evil and I’m typically too disorganized to donate them to the library and also, there’s the chance that I might one day read an article in one of these magazines. Usually I never do, but there’s the chance.

Last night, I took advantage of such a chance. In the bath. Sometimes, for 30-min increments, my life is really heavenly.

Anyway, I read the recent Writer’s Chronicle interview of Joan Wickersham. She had so much wisdom to offer. And now I want to read her new novel The News from Spainwhich I had heard good things about and already wanted to read, but now I really want to read it.

I’ll leave you with some of her sage writer-parent wisdom, for those of you who, like me, rarely get around to reading magazines:

“I’m glad I had two [children], but you know that cliché about doing it all? I think you can do it all, but you just have to do it sequentially. I wish I had understood that when I was younger. I spent a lot of time beating myself up about not writing. I wish I had just accepted that that’s how it is right now. It won’t always be that way.”

2012 favorites

I’ve been making lists of the books I read since I started reading books. It’s a bit of an obsession. Like a photo album, I like to peruse what I’ve read years past and reminisce. Also, it gives me an inflated sense of accomplishment. So what if I did nothing truly noteworthy last year?? Look at all these books I read! Thanks to GoodReads—that beautiful encourager of book-list junkies—I realized a few days ago that I’d read 32 books in 2012. And that if I hustled, I could make it 33 by the new year. I just so happened to turn 33 a few weeks ago and so obviously took this as a sign. 33 books the year I turned 33 is a great omen going into 2013, wouldn’t you say?

I’m happy to report that I met my goal around 8pm (then proceeded to raise a teacup of Martinelli’s in an early toast to the new year with my kids, directly followed by a dream-light techno dance party in our living room. Yeah. That’s how we do it around here). Here’s the best of my 2012 reading. Ten books I most adored.

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. You can read a more thorough description of this book’s new standard-setting awesomeness here. Let me just say that reading this will probably ruin most other contemporary books for you. Because they just won’t compare.

2. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. You know how people are always throwing around the word “genius” in their descriptions of artists? Well, I’m not one of those people. That said, Woolf is a true and unabashed genius and I count the reading of this book as a life experience.

3. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present by Gail Collins. The prose here reads more like a novel than a history text. If you’re looking for a sweeping view of modern feminist history (which I felt like I’d been looking for for a decade or so), look no further.

4. God Went to Beauty School by Cynthia Rylant.  God set down in the world of couch-buying, dog-walking and beauty school attendance. Okay. So these are poems intended for YA. But each is witty and lovely and surprising and perfect.

5. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. A must-read soul crusher, folks. Talk about unsung authors. Yates is at the top of that list for me. Also, if you possibly can, you must also read his short story Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired. Because it’s brilliant.

6. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Another heart breaker. Well-researched, compassionate journalism. I’ve got a serious soft spot for the plight of defected North Koreans. 

7. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m a painfully slow reader. But I read this book in a day. Beautiful prose. Hideous (but compelling!) subject matter. It’s the end of the world, after all. McCarthy has hit some kind of authorial nirvana. Both writing and story here soar in unconscious perfection.

8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This would have been so life-saving to have read in my twenties. C’est la vie. I’ll just have to pass it on to my own daughters at the appropriately poignant moment in their lives.

9. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. We are all loathe to admit it, but Oprah got a few things right.

10. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro. Last but not least; this book is not an afterthought. It’s more of a given. It’s the Munro book I happened to have read this year. And any book by Munro is bound to blow one’s mind.

Cheers to good books! What were your favorites of 2012?

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