"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Teacher


A writer must take infinite pains—if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones—and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.
—John Gardner

In praise for John Gardner’s book, On Becoming A Novelist, my copy is underlined and annotated and always close at hand. I’ve read it and reread it, all the while wondering: do I have what it takes? And then self-doubt sets in, as it always does, especially when I awake in the middle of the night and all seems lost. Then, in the light of day this self-flagellation retreats like the bogeyman under the bed and off I happily go in search of the perfect word.

He explains better than any teacher I’ve ever had what writing teachers really mean when they say we should show and not tell. “One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways,” he says. “The abstract adjectives mean almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what the writing teacher means by “show,” not “tell". And that is all they mean. You can tell a reader about almost anything in fiction except a character’s feelings. The characters’ feelings must be demonstrated, through an action (or gesture), dialogue or physical reaction to setting.”

If I would share any other thing from this generous book, it is his frequent reference to what he calls the vivid and continuous dream. A good writer, he says, evokes in a reader a vivid and continuous dream. This is the state of mind your reader falls into if you’ve done your job. Absorbed in the dream you’ve artfully weaved, they forget that they are reading printed words on a page. But be wary, for the dream can be abruptly interrupted. One misplaced word will jar them back to reality, one clumsy out-of-character action (why she would never do that!) will make them question the writer’s honesty, one grammatical error will make them page ahead looking for one more reason to stop or, worse, set the whole thing aside.

I think it relates back to the mysterious trancelike state all novelists experience when they’re writing a serious novel. We can’t explain it, even to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone who doesn’t write novels. The writer’s trance evokes the vivid dream in the reader. Good fiction requires it and the serious reader expects it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Writers on Writing


This is a writer's chair. What? you say, where are the writing tools? Where is the electrical outlet? Don't jump ahead. One must first sit and watch, and much has passed by the front of this chair. Generations of writers have sat in this chair.

This is our old milkhouse which I hope to turn into a produce washing and storing station. The cement block exterior keeps the interior cool. I see a face looking out, eyes wide so as not to miss a thing. If you look at a thing long enough, it becomes something else, just as words can change their meanings right in front of your tired eyes.

Because I'm a sucker for tidbits of brevity and wit, I like quotations. I have compiled a list of my favorite quotes by writers and arranged them in an order that makes sense to me.

It is not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.
T.S. Eliot

A book ought to be an icepick to break up the frozen sea within us.
Franz Kafka

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.
Saul Bellow

There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets….when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.
Charles Bukowski

Loneliness is your companion for life. If you don’t want to be lonely, you get into TV.
William Styron

When you’re writing, that’s when you’re lonely. I suppose that gets into the characters you’re writing about. There are hours and hours of silence.
Dick Francis

Suffering is the main condition of the artistic experience.
Samuel Beckett

When I have one martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second, I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no holding me.
William Faulkner

Read all the Faulkner you can get your hands on, and then read all of Hemingway to clean the Faulkner out of your system.
John Gardner

Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Use one startling adjective per page.
Anne Bernays

As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
Mark Twain

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Mark Twain

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.
John Steinbeck

You must avoid giving hostages to fortune, like getting an expensive house, and a style of living that never lets you afford the time to take the chance to write what you wish.
Irwin Shaw

I am profoundly uncertain about how to write. I know what I love or what I like, because it’s a direct, passionate response. But when I write I’m very uncertain whether it’s good enough. That is, of course, the writer’s agony.
Susan Sontag

You can never know enough about your characters.
W. Somerset Maugham

We like that a sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end.
Henry David Thoreau


In looking over these, I realize that four of my favorites have to do with angst, which is the writer’s lot in life. But I believe there is nothing more worthwhile than writing. And when you get the words right—find the perfect word or an original metaphor—it’s like a mental orgasm. The highs, however infrequent, far outweigh the ever-pounding lows. If you are a writer, you will write, regardless of the clanging gong of the critic and the shattering rejection of the agent.

So, are you a writer? This is my list of ten attributes I believe you must have to be a writer.

1. Perseverance
2. Empathy
3. Affection for alcohol
4. Self-esteem
5. Imagination
6. Drivenness
7. Indifference
8. Willingness to sacrifice the ordinary TV-watching pleasures of society
9. An accurate eye
10. Fondness for daydreaming and eavesdropping.

Numbers 6 and 7 go hand in hand. Drivenness is what allows you to be indifferent to whether or not your novel sells which allows you to plod ahead. It helps you shrug off the well-meaning questions about what you’re doing with yourself and are you still working on that book and why don’t you answer your phone or organize your life and do something worthwhile (meaning something that will make you money). Questions asked with a puzzled look, because if you aren’t a writer you can never understand the trancelike state that writing requires and the sought-after solitude that is our aphrodisiac.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Laying in for Winter


My ferns huddle under a blanket and my last crop of lettuce is covered with a double layer of shade cloth. The eggplant and basil are dead and the peppers are on their last wobbly leg. I threw old flannel shirts over a couple of roses that were still covered with buds as we try to survive this spell of unusual cold, holding unto one last bloom, one last crunch of green, holding out for one more sunny day when I can hang my ferns back up on the porch and watch their fronds sway gently in the breeze. Come Indian Summer.

But this winter we will have a heated greenhouse. My father is getting an outdoor wood stove that will take big logs, tapping into his existing furnace and running a connecting pipe into my greenhouse which will sit beside it. The wood is ready to burn and I have spinach seeds left from summer for my first experiment! Maybe I can set up a little corner for myself to write, a corner where no one can find me, a corner of my own. And about my short story The Echo, while it is fiction, the problem with frogs is very real. Often this summer my husband commented how he never heard them anymore in the creek that runs behind our house. It is very worrisome. One more thing to worry about.

But look! I now have fifteen followers! Thank you all very much for reading.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Banned and the Challenged

The list of banned and challenged books is like a Who's Who of the literary world. Not only should we writers strive to write something with the potential of making somebody uncomfortable, we should make a commitment to read at least five banned/challenged books a year. I have composed my list of personal must-reads and my top five are......

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY- Irving (cause I'm a sucker for Irving)
AS I LAY DYING- Faulkner (ditto Faulker)
THE SOUND AND THE FURY- Faulker (can't believe I haven't read this one)
THE GIVER - Lowry (cause I just realized it's buried in my bookcase)
FANNY HILL - Cleland (cause I'm a sucker for sex)


Down with fluff!! It isn't going to be enough to just be published....I want to be on the Banned Book list!