H Is for Hawk is my most recent book purchase—as in, I downloaded it to my Kindle last night. I am looking forward to a great read.
Yesterday, the teacher in my Creative Nonfiction class read aloud from Macdonald’s book as an example of exceptional nature writing—though if you look it up online, it’s labeled a memoir. The section she read revealed the process Macdonald went through before finally naming her goshawk Mabel. The writing was rich and compelling.
Several people in the class had already read the book and they all praised it to high heaven—which isn’t surprising, given that it’s not only a bestseller but also the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction, the Costa Book of the Year Award, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger in France.
Class discussion revealed a very complex book. It’s factually fascinating, with all sorts of information about falconry and training a hawk. It has quite a lot about an earlier British falconer White. And it’s about grieving her father’s death. As Dwight Garner put it in The New York Times, “Helen Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, H Is for Hawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing can lay bare some of the intimacies of the wild world as well. Her book is so good that, at times, it hurt me to read it. It draws blood, in ways that seem curative.”
Over lunch, another long-time writing friend whose work I admire said H Is for Hawk is her all-time most loved book. Who could resist endorsements such as these? Would you care to read with me?
The upside to writing is almost limitless! Which is fortunate, because few of us gain significant income for our efforts. Here are some of the best things about the writing life for me.
1) It’s good for your brain. Writing requires rational thought, planning, focus, and practice, all of which is good exercise for maintaining one’s intellectual health.
2) It helps develop empathy. Getting inside heads other than one’s own, being able to take the other’s perspective, even express an opinion not one’s own are all conducive to a broader world view.
3) Writers are interesting people. I’ve never met a boring writer—although I can’t say the same for all their spouses! But writers all seem to have rich, complex lives and thoughtful views on everything from history to art.
4) Writing is good for your physical and mental health. Yes, there is actually evidence of this! You can look it up online. Writers get sick less often, heal faster, and are less likely to be depressed.
5) Writing gives you something to think and talk about besides your poor health, job complaints, etc.
6) It makes you a more discerning reader. You notice bad, poor, sloppy writing. You may even drop some formerly favorite authors—which I guess could be a downside, if you look at it that way. But you will appreciate good writing more than ever.
7) When you finish a piece of writing, and especially when something is published, you have a rewarding sense of achievement.
The downsides are fewer, but powerful.
1) It’s difficult and time consuming. Enough said.
2) When it becomes a habit, you feel guilty when you don’t do it.
3) Writing to deadlines can raise your blood pressure and exacerbate your ulcers. (However, you’re less likely to have these issues if you write. See above.)
Dialogue is essential to every genre of fiction; however, sometimes it’s hard to get it just right. Bad dialogue can trip up a reader, and sometimes doing so will make them want to stop reading altogether. That being said, here are a few dialogue dos and don’ts that can help you with writing speech:
Try breaking up characters’ dialogue with action. Full pages of dialogue tend to make the reader’s mind wander (that being said… don’t overdo dialogue tags, e.g. said, exclaimed, whispered).
Do research. Sit in a coffeehouse, restaurant, movie theater, etc. and listen to the conversations around you (make sure you’re not caught!). This can help you establish natural ways of speaking without needing to rack your brains.
Read your dialogue out loud and act it out if necessary. Does it feel unnatural? Edit it out.
Don’t have characters tell each other things they already know just because the reader doesn’t know those things. For example, if two sisters are talking, it’s highly unlikely that one would say, “When Mom and Dad adopted our brother John, I was devastated.” Find another way to convey relevant relationships or bits of backstory to the reader.
Don’t have an exchange between two people weighed down by repeatedly calling each other by name. “Hello, John.” “Hi, Sharon.” “How are you doing, John?” “Oh, Sharon, I am so low I have to reach up to touch bottom.”
Don’t put in greetings and leave-takings that are pro-forma, tell us nothing about the characters, or don’t move the story forward. Just because they would happen in real life doesn’t mean that every amenity has to be spelled out to the point of diluting the scene.
There are many more resources online that can help you with writing dialogue. Check them out for more inspiration!
You may recall that I am enrolled in a Creative Nonfiction class at the VMFA Studio School this spring. The first day of class Amy Ritchie Johnson distributed a page of books labeled “resources” and “writing craft.” Resources turn out to be books she considers to be well-written examples of the the variety available in creative nonfiction—ranging from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) by James Agee and Walker Evans to a couple of local blog writers.
Under writing craft, the first book listed is Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (1986) by Natalie Goldberg. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, pretty much anywhere, you’ve probably come across Goldberg fans. Writing Down the Bones is now out in the 30th Anniversary Edition. Yep, it’s been around that long—and is still relevant as ever, including writing advice and get-going exercises.
If Writing Down the Bones is already an old, familiar friend, check out some of her other books. Consider her memoir and poetry. But if you really want to focus on writing craft, you can do that, too.
So, I wasn’t surprised to see Writing Down the Bones on the class booklist. But seeing Ursula K. Le Guin there knocked my socks off.
Apparently this book first appeared in 1998. This is now the 2015 edition. Le Guin labels the book “a handbook for storytellers—writers of narrative prose.” And it is just that. As you can see by the chapter titles, she’s organized it by the nuts and bolts of saying what you mean.
Although the topics sound mundane—if not actually boring—the book isn’t. Each section has excellent exercises and variations, and a very informative discussion of the topic. The extended sailing metaphor wore on me a bit, but the book is a very manageable 140 pages.
Although I read some of her fiction decades ago, I never knew of her as a writing teacher. She died recently and this is her only book on the craft of writing. Buy it!
I’ll mention just one other book on the recommended list. I’ve had Bird By Bird on my shelves forever but haven’t read it. Maybe this year.
Last but not least, consider this bi-mothly magazine for writers. This is the January-February issue and could be useful all year with the 52 IDEAS TO BOOST YOUR CREATIVITY IN 2018. You can see from the cover what the main topics are for this issue. In spite of the focus on poetry, much of the magazine is of interest to virtually everyone.
Lots of the contents never age, but the classifieds section is the exception. Calls for submissions and contests can be time sensitive.
Bottom line: there are a lot of helping hands for our craft. Take one or two—or more!
For decades my escapist reading—with few exceptions—was mysteries. Once you know who did it, what would be the point? The one exception for me was Dorothy L. Sayers. My motivation for rereading the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries was to discover the early clues and figure out how she built to the big reveal. But I also discovered that Sayers’ characters—clear, distinct, and appealing—grew and developed.
I seldom read non-mysteries then, and rereads were even rarer. Two of those exceptions were Austen and Mitchell. They both were mirrors reflecting a period in history and characters that reside in real people, regardless of historical period.
Not too long ago I read and then reread Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I reread because this is a far ranging saga. By the time certain characters play a major role I’d lost track of earlier cameo appearances. On rereading, I could appreciate how intricately interwoven the people, places and events were. Having written only two books with repeating characters (Dark Harbor and Tiger Heart) I marvel that the details didn’t trip over each other, that they didn’t contradict themselves, and that the characters matured (as opposed to changed).
More recently I read Sarah J. Maas’ series Throne of Glass. And now I am rereading it. Partly that’s because of the great experience rereading Gabaldon. But in addition, Maas has created a whole new world. As fantasy fiction, she’s created a new physical world, but also new history, new creatures, and new personal powers. The first read familiarized me with these aspects of the series. Like Gabaldon, Maas has characters who grow and change over time—but her timeframe is much more compacted. And as a series targeting young adults, I became very aware of the meta-messages inherent in the plot and characters.
My experience is that rereading a series is especially gratifying. Perhaps it should be required—in the interest of fully appreciating the author’s creativity and craft.
I’ve now committed to reading A Wrinkle in Time between now and March 9, prior to the movie premiere. It was touted as a reread. For me, it will be a read. My youngest daughter has read it many times. Her older daughter has read it. Her younger daughter received it for Christmas but hasn’t read it yet. Could I resist such a recommendation?
And the best part is, this is the first book in a series. There may be more rereads in my future!
Bottom line: Reread a favorite you haven’t read for several years. Is it as good as you remembered? Better? Different? Let me know.
The January-February issue of Smithsonian included a two-page spread about books whose heroines changed lives. “The bravest and brainiest girls in literature have been breaking the rules for 150 years.” This resonated with me. Consider the metamessages contained in works of fiction.
You may recall that I recently blogged about fantasy fiction. At the urging of my 13-year-old granddaughter, I agreed to read the Sarah J. Maas Throne of Glass series. It’s fantasy fiction, complete with diabolical evils, biologically created monsters, witches, Fae heroes, magical powers, and a driving determination to save the world. The female protagonist is a trained assassin.
After I finished the series, I talked with my daughter about the metamessages her daughter was likely absorbing from this series. Here, in no particular order, are the points I raised.
—Women can be as strong, capable, super smart, and evil/vicious as any male.
—Men can/should follow a capable woman leader.
—Men can/do admire/love women who are smarter/more capable than they are in at least some ways.
—There isn’t just one person to love. If you lose a love, you can love another.
—The person one loves in youth or in a certain circumstance isn’t likely to be the love of one’s life/soul mate as an adult.
—Former enemies can become allies or even friends.
—Men and women can be allies and friends even without a love interest.
—Sex should be a loving act, intentional rather than just happen.
—One can go through some really shitty situations and thrive later.
—Those who are different (witches, Fae, etc., in this series) are accepted or not based on behavior.
—Good people can do bad things or make mistakes.
—Life circumstances are powerful. Bad beginnings can be overcome.
On the other hand, not all the messages are sterling, feminist, humanist values.
All heroines and heroes are gorgeous! And usually have special/magical powers.
The ends justify the means.
Violence is a way of life.
No doubt Maas intended at least some of these messages. But all of them? Sometimes readers see things in my work that I didn’t plant intentionally. Bottom line: As a reader AND/OR writer, be aware of the metamessages in literature. What seeds are you planting? What “truths” are you absorbing?
The January-February issue of Smithsonian is a must read. Whether you lived through it or not, you will learn something new on every page. (Well, maybe not the ads at the back!) Many people living through turbulent times experience some segment of the turmoil so deeply that it changes them forever, but I’d venture to say few grasp the whole.
And if you were a child in ’68—or not even born yet—you definitely need to read this. The year still reverberates through our lives, and this issue of Smithsonian is a vivid panorama of the times.
The grief and anger surrounding the Vietnam war are made clear, from the war itself to the riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Popular culture is highlighted: the Beach Boys and the Beatles in India and teen sensation Frankie Lymon. It was a year of protesting the Miss America Pageant, and getting the first pictures of earth from outer space. What Martin Luther King, Jr. was doing days before his assassination, and the legacy of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination—it’s all there. It was a year of violence, but also of innovation as the groundwork was laid for personal computers and the internet.
Issues of street violence to threats of world hunger made 1968 a year of fear and anger. Read all about it!
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a fan of The New Yorker magazine. I like their covers. I like their cartoons. And I especially enjoy “Shouts & Murmurs.” This particular issue has one that totally cracked me up.
It is a parody of a modern-day interview with Shakespeare. It purports to be newly discovered quotes from interviews with the Bard when he was promoting his work. Shakespeare says things such as, “I hate getting notes from theater owners. They’re always, like, Romeo and Juliet shouldn’t die and stuff. I thought that was a cool ending. I don’t know.” I’d recommend getting this issue for that article alone.
This week’s “Shouts & Murmurs” takes on the current issue of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea. It is unabashedly making fun of Trump, and if you are a fan of the president, you would think it insulting rather than humorous. But If you are a Trump supporter, you probably wouldn’t be reading The New Yorker much anyway.
But as a writer, it is worth reading regardless because it is a good example of what some—lots of?—people find funny.
Wikipedia lists 23 genres of comedy in this format:
Consider the various forms of comedy. What do you find funny? And would any of them enhance your writing?
I bought this book recently because I’ve enrolled in Creative Nonfiction, a class that begins later this month at the VMFA Studio School. I haven’t taken a writing class in years, but why not?
Once upon a time I took a class with a title something like “Writing Memoir Using Fiction Techniques.” It was a great class. And now there is a whole genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives written to entertain. There’s quite a good Wikipedia essay about it, and/or you can check out www.creativenonfiction.org.
Once I started thinking about it, I realized how much of my pleasure reading is some version of creative nonfiction.
Dean King is a Richmond writer who is a master of the form. He brings history to life, whether he’s writing about a shipwreck off the coast of Africa in 1815 or the legendary American Hatfields and McCoys.
Three of my other favorites are Bill Bryson, Charles Panati, and Mary Roach.
Each is an educator in his or her own fashion. Panati gathers fascinating bits and pieces, often organized around quirky themes.
Mary Roach researches current themes and issues, including their historical roots and cross-cultural connections. And she’s humorous!
Bill Bryson varies between historical research (e.g., Mother Tongue) and personal experience (e.g., A Walk in the Woods).
And then there are the personal adventure stories. The first of these I read was Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille about living alone in the Adirondacks, isolated by winter.
The next creative nonfiction book on my agenda will probably be Wild (2013) by Cheryl Strayed. Obviously, I don’t jump on the lists of just published books! But I expect a thrilling read.
Bottom line: Creative nonfiction can be as varied as fiction. And why not try writing a genre I so enjoy reading? I’ll keep you posted.