Bad Writing, Fun Reading

drivel book
Imagine my surprise when I found two of my all-time favorite writers included in a collection of bad writing.
mary roach
Mary Roach, best-selling author of science for public consumption, presents a facsimile of an early Pet Tips column from the San Francisco Examiner. The opening line is “Why not guppies?” and the closing begins with, “Let’s hear it for guppies!” And in between there are actually interesting facts about guppy gestation, birth, and cannibalism—totally overwritten.
amy tan
Ami Tan’s contribution is a 10-line poem titled “A Juggler Named Jake.”  The first stanza lines end with Jake, fake, air, pair, and break. The second stanza endings are Hoodit, to do it, plates, break, and glue it.

 

This book works on so many levels! First, it reminds the rest of us that once upon a time, occasionally, even the best writers suck—which can be very good for morale!

 

Then, too, reading bad writing and knowing why it is bad is good for one’s self-esteem.

 

Finally, it’s full of bite-size reads. With 51 contributors and fewer than 200 pp of text, including photos and section breaks, each entry can be read in a flash.

 

The pieces are grouped by topic: Totally Professional, Bad Romance, Ill-Advised Confessions, Oddities, Dark Matter, and Terrible Angst—all so bad they’re good!

 

drivel

Writers’ Notebooks

notebooks

Virtually all writers have heard the advice that they should keep notebooks—books of whatever sort in which one jots down ideas for stories, images, bits of dialogue, whatever might be useful sometime or other. I’m not very good at that. I kept extensive notes when I was writing Nettie’s Books, but mostly it is catch as catch can.

 

But don’t take me as a model! Better look to Agatha Christie. When Christie died in 1976, at the age of 85, she left behind 73 hand-written private notebooks, including illustrations and two unpublished Poirot stories.

 

agatha christies secret notebooks
She wrote more than one book a year from the 1920s, all bestsellers. Her notebooks included notes, lists, and stories. Such notebooks give depth to the published works, reveal the originally planned endings, and plots that were rejected.

 

agatha christie murder in the making
Not surprisingly, such a successful, prolific writer left behind more material than one book could contain. This volume explores Christie’s techniques for surprise and entertainment. John Curran discusses how her plots evolved, presents previously unpublished short stories and chapters edited out of published works, and discusses her final unfinished work.
hawthorne's lost notebook
Keeping a notebook is not a modern idea. Hawthorne’s notebook from 1835-1841 is testimony to that. It is the earliest notebook that Hawthorne is known to have kept, containing more ideas for stories and articles than any other, including facsimiles in his own hand with more readable typescript alongside.

 

I urge you to read such notebooks. For one thing, they are fascinating reading. But also, you might come across bits that the greats abandoned but which inspire you to new heights.

 

In any event, consider keeping your own writer’s notebook—or expanding what you’ve already started. As in virtually every case, there are books to help you do that!

 

novelists notebook

How People Read

how people read
I read slowly. Back in college I tried to learn speed reading, but it just didn’t work for me. I always feared I’d miss details. Now I read both for pleasure and to gather information important to my writing. I still read slowly, savoring the words, images, and ideas.

 

I also read voraciously. This dates from my childhood, when I took home as many books as I could carry from the county bookmobile every two weeks. (I’m not alone here, but I also know people who came to reading well into adulthood. For them, stresses imposed by school or parents made it a chore rather than a pleasure.) Now, my voraciousness is especially true of fiction. I love finding a series and reading one after the other as fast as I can—which, being a slow reader, isn’t all that fast! Still, when the individual books are shorter, that sometimes means one a day.

 

I’m not alone. I know a woman who reads so many books that she actually has a budget item for book purchases.

 

kindle reading
For pleasure reading, I choose Kindle. I read with slightly enlarged type, and carry it everywhere—while en route and while waiting.

 

research
For research, I prefer physical books—books I can bookmark, underline, and annotate. (Yes, I know people can do those things on electronic devices, but I am not one of them.) For reference books, I don’t go cover-to-cover. I skip around, and treasure a good index to help me find the relevant pages.

 

I recently discussed this with my writing group. Judy Witt and I agree that the last thing we do before sleep is read. But more often at home, I read in a recliner, feet elevated.

 

How do you read?
how people read

The Value of a Top-Notch Writing Workshop

nimrod writers workshop
Each summer for more than ten years, I’ve attended Nimrod Hall summer writing workshops. Unfortunately, I cannot attend this year. But you could! There are still a few spaces left.

 

Why am I recommending Nimrod? You could see my blogs from years past. But here is a brief overview.

 

Excellent writing teachers. I’ve worked with all of the Writers in Residence—Cathy Hankla, Charlotte Morgan, and Sheri Reynolds—and they are all great. Published writers all, they give informed comments in one-on-one conferences and lead productive group critiques. And every one of them goes above and beyond the scheduled hours.

 

sheri reynolds
Sheri Reynolds [Source: Nimrod Hall]
Valuable writing colleagues. Attendees are a combination of returnees and newbies. Maybe it’s self-selection, or maybe it’s the atmosphere of collegiality, but everyone wants everyone else to succeed—no back-biting, no competition. All accept the responsibility to read and critique the work of others in their group. They are honest, telling what is strong and what needs work, always delivered respectively.

 

Protected writing time. No meals. No laundry. No childcare. Every morning and as many afternoons as you want can be devoted to your own writing projects.

 

Leisure options. There are several walking trails, swimming, tubing on the Cowpasture River, just to mention a few. Personally, I love going to the nearby Jefferson Pools, where the women’s (and men’s) baths allow me to relax in the historic waters—bathing-suit optional!

 

Great food. Prepared fresh, creative and tasty, and vegetarian is always an option. Meals are served family style, and seating is fluid. Over meals, one can get to know people not in one’s own writing group.

 

Wonderful conversation. Some of this happens over meals, but also at evening readings, while relaxing on porches, etc. I have never met a boring writer!

 

Lasting friendships. I am in touch with Nimrod colleagues all across the country, especially within Virginia. It’s an enduring network.

 

A productive week. I’ve polished short works for submission and edited sections of novels while at Nimrod. The energy is contagious.

 

A bargain price for so many benefits, room and board, for a week. I cannot recommend it too highly!
 
nimrod writers workshop

Musings on Number Titles

Every once in a while I come across something that makes me say, “Humph.” And then my thoughts hare off in any number of directions. Such is the case for books that have numbers in the titles.
george orwell 1984
The first book with a number in the title that I recall noticing was George Orwell’s 1984. Surely anyone who hasn’t read it knows about it. It was copyrighted in 1949, and what seemed like a distant future is now the distant past. Still it endures.

 

Immediately after that, I recalled that Dorothy L. Sayers used number titles in Five Red Herrings and The Nine Tailors.
That led to other mystery writers who have done so, Agatha Christie for one: Five Little Pigs, 4:50 From Paddington, The Big Four, The Third Girl.

 

And what about Sherlock Holmes? Sure enough, The Five Orange Pips.
 
sherlock holmes
Even Raymond Chandler had Five Sinister Characters.
 
five sinister characters raymond chandler
Beyond mysteries, there is creative non-fiction. All sorts of things come to mind in this category. For example, in London 1849, Michael Alpert used the records of the police files and murder trial of Maria and Frederick Manning, along with contemporary journalism and fiction, to recreate ordinary people’s day-to-day life in the London of 1849.

 

london 1849
Similarly, 1491 and 1493 bring to life the Americas just before and just after Columbus’s famous voyage.
So, there is a whole category of books dealing with a specific year or time frame. For example, Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927.
 
bill bryson one summer
Of course, annual anthologies must be dated.

 

poetry anthologies
And then there are books that have numbers in the titles because they have delimited the contents that way.

 

So what? Nothing, really. All of this is just following my mental ramble on numbers in book titles. It made me think about another aspect of titling books. And I came across a couple of books I still haven’t read, though they’ve been on my shelves for quite some time.

 

What are your favorite books with numbers in the title?

Exercising Your Creativity

The program is simple. Take an ordinary event and consider all the ways you could add tension, conflict, humor, surprise, etc. For example, having the house power-washed.

 

My house was scheduled for power-washing at 8:00 this morning. At 7:50 a loud—make that thunderous—noise outside the bedroom window made me jump and exclaim. What if it had caused a heart attack?

 

I was asked to back the car up a bit farther from the garage. What if I backed into the work truck? Or one of the workers? Or ran over a box turtle?

 

exercising the creativity
At one point a high-pitched squeal pierced the early morning silence. What if it triggered an epileptic seizure? Caused me to knock the tofu scramble from the stove-top to the floor, and I was running late already? Made the dog howl, the cat leap onto the curtains and pull them down, knocking over the parrot’s cage?

 

Then a worker moved all the potted plants to the far edge of the patio. What if he dropped a pot containing a rare heirloom orchid? Or wrenched his back moving the hanging baskets of rocks? Or dropped a decorative rock on his foot, breaking a toe, and falling through the French doors?
exercising the creativity
All the window screens were removed and set aside, leaning against a tree by the flowerbeds. What if squirrels played tag across the screens, knocking them from the tree and crushing the newly planted begonias?

 

When the washing actually started, what if the water roused a black snake from the foundation plantings? What if it had been a poisonous snake? Or what if an open window was overlooked? Who or what got drenched, and to what effect?

 

exercising the creativity
And I haven’t even touched on the possibilities of one spouse having scheduled the power-washing without informing the other spouse. Or the reactions of the neighbors. Or the dog-walker passing by. Or children who escape to play in the spray. Options go on and on.

 

Your assignment: Choose any mundane activity from today’s wealth—anything from doing laundry to going to the gym to hosting six for dinner—and take a few minutes to consider what if?

Read it Already

new yorker june 2017
The June 5 & 12 issue of The New Yorker is fabulous.

 

It is jam packed with work by well-known writers. Philip Roth wrote the Life and Letters piece, “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names,” and discusses his early influences.

 

sherman alexie clean cleaner cleanest
This issue includes not one but three fiction stories. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorites, and his “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” article is great, though not as off-beat as some of his work. He is joined by Will Mackin and Curtis Sittenfeld.

 

toni morrison work you do person
There is a whole section titled On The Job. Another of my favorite authors, Toni Morrison, has a very strong piece here: “The Work You Do, the Person You Are.” Others in this section include Jennifer Egan, Richard Ford, Chris Ware, and Akhil Sharma.

 

This issue includes two poems, by Kaveh Akbar and Tracy K. Smith. The usual book reviews and commentaries on TV and Movies are present as well, of course.

 

If the cover price of $8.99 seems a bit steep, get thee to the library. And read it already!

A Satisfying Writing Life

I recently read that two things will make or break a writing career. The first was passion that (among other things) wakes you in the night to jot down ideas, steals time to write, learns the craft, bounces back from rejection and criticism, and spurs investment (money implied).

 

The second was a strong submission strategy. By this, they meant, “…a streamlined, organized, efficient, highly functional, easy-to-execute…” strategy. Submitting should feel joyful rather than burdensome, and put the right work in front of the right eyes.

 

All of the above strike me as good, desirable things. And probably they are necessary for a brilliant writing career. But not all writers expect—or actually aspire to—a writing career in that sense. Surely everyone who published writing sometimes fantasizes about writing a best seller, but that is seldom a realistic goal. Perhaps writing is so inherently gratifying that it’s a necessary part of a satisfying life.

 

Satisfying Writing Life
Which brings me to important elements of a satisfying writing life. The first is enjoyment. Taking pleasure in crafting artful descriptions and effective dialogue is key. Then there is the gratification that comes from a job well-done. Every once in a while, I read something I wrote years ago and think, “Damn! That’s pretty good.” Then I smile, and return to writing with renewed energy.

 

The second in my list is writing that suits your purpose. Of course, that means you must figure out why you write. I started writing as therapy for my post-profession depression. As a former academic, I found that cooking and gardening just didn’t engage me intellectually. I did—and still do—enjoy both activities. But I need to keep my brain engaged. So, I enrolled in adult education writing classes and began learning the craft. (I’d never had a composition class, having tested out of freshman comp in college.) Today, one of the greatest joys of my writing life is doing the research to get the story line right, whether that involves the effects of ketamine on humans or the price of gasoline during the Great Depression.
Satisfying Writing Life
Writing as a source of self-esteem doesn’t require being a Steven King or a J.K. Rowling. Praise from fellow writers in classes and critique groups, and from readers, is great for my ego. And every time I have a short story or essay accepted for publication, even with no monetary reward, I feel like someone pasted a gold star of my forehead!

 

Perhaps one of the most common reasons to write, especially memoir, is to leave a legacy for family. This can be a way of letting them know who you are and how you came to be you, and/or leaving a record of their roots and the relatives who have gone before.

 

Many writers have more than one reason to write. In my opinion, why people write is less important than that it contributes to a gratifying life. Be clear in your own mind and heart about why you write, and then choose the path and activities that will achieve your goal.
Satisfying Writing Life