The Value of Reading a Book I Hate by an Author I Love

I am 89 pages into a book I am not enjoying by an author I adore. My middle life reading rule has been to abandon books to which I have not connected by page 60. Life is too short to waste reading bad books. I’m reading this one to the end.

My wife calls me a nerd for my compulsive commitment to finishing this book. She’s not wrong. I am reading this book because I am not enjoying it. Reading a book I don’t enjoy by an author I enjoy very much is a wonderful use of time.

Reading an unsuccessful story by a successful storyteller offers direct evidence of why some stories don’t work. What’s different about the way this story unfolds? What is the point of view? How are the scenes framed? How are the characters revealed? How is the conflict different from all the other stories I have enjoyed so much? What, if anything, am I enjoying about this mostly joyless work?

Reading an unsuccessful work by an author I admire very much helps isolate and clarify the variables of writing successful stories.

If I can read one book to teach me what doesn’t work in stories, I may avoid writing many such stories myself. Getting through the next 212 pages will save me a ton of wasted time in my own future work.

This has me curious. What have you learned by reading the worst book of an author you usually enjoy very much?

Manifest

Every once in a while I look up from the activities of my life and wonder what the hell I’m doing. What things are important to me, and why aren’t I doing those things?

I have to ask the questions over and over to be sure I’m paying attention, to be sure I’m answering honestly.

I used to berate myself for constantly stepping off the path. Now, I am learning that I haven’t always been the one stepping off. Sometimes, the path changes under my feet as I grow and learn. Projects that once seemed so vital, so vibrant, matter less. Goals that seemed imperative lose importance.

It is essential to be clear with oneself, to never lie.

I’ve become too small.

I want to pay better attention. It is only by paying good attention that we ever actually meet the people encountered along our path. The work of really meeting people and allowing people to really meet me enlarges us all. This will require courage and patience.

I want to make a life from words because words are tools of attention. I want to practice the craft of telling stories because stories help people see hope where they had seen none before. I want to make poems because I want to live in a world where more people do the work of making poems.

All other decisions I may make in life relate to these. This is not manifesto. This is manifest.

An (Imagined) Letter to Myself from Margaret Atwood

Stop trying so hard to become what you already are. You want to be a writer? Good news! You are writing already. Look at you, right this very moment. You are a writer who is writing.

So, you are already a writer. Now it is time to become a story maker.

If you hope to infiltrate a reader’s dreams and help them care in the way that you care, you must carefully inventory the storymaker’s tools. You must practice the craft.

Storymaking is a kind of alchemy. We cannot explain how lustrous lives are conjured from the everyday dross of syllables and sentences, paragraphs and prose. One learns by doing.

I can offer a few things that arise from my own practice. None of which may help you, but, perhaps, you will feel less frustrated and alone.

Stories come from the breaking of patterns, when the thing that usually happens does not happen. Something new must happen. This is the imperative of story. You don’t know what your characters will do until you put them in new situations. There is a threat from within; there is a threat from without. Combine these and see what the characters do.

Use the stories that came before. Everything you read, watch and hear fit like Legos connecting your stories. The Bible and Shakespeare. Greco-Roman myth and Star Wars. The evening news, so-called reality television and the weird old man across the street who no one has seen in weeks.

Stories are particular. Humans possess five senses. Your stories should use all of them.

Novels are always about time. You cannot write a novel that does not involve time and the changes that occur with time. Place your characters in history. Chart their birthdays, important historical dates, life milestones.

Proceed as if there are no ideas in your stories, only characters. You won’t understand the ideas properly anyway. The teller never does. Ideas belong to the readers.

Storymaking is a hopeful act. You are choosing to imagine future readers who will value things tomorrow that you have valued today.

The story you make is your letter to the world. Let this story say whatever this story needs to say and then let it go.

The story will be delivered or it won’t.

The story will be received or it won’t.

The story will be read.

Or it won’t.

You cannot know if your story will be admired.

You cannot know if your story will earn money.

Make your story anyway, send it into the world, and then, make the next one.

Don’t be afraid of revision. Re-vision is the work of learning to see your story in new ways. Keep what fits. Get rid of whatever doesn’t fit. The trash can is your friend. It was made for you by God.

I am glad you are here, doing this weird difficult thing.

You do not need my permission to make your stories. Your stories are your own.

I have given you my stories because it pleases me to do so. Making and sharing your stories should please you. There’s really no other reason to do this. More than pleasing your spouse, your children, your parents. More than pleasing your ninth grade English teacher and that girl who ignored you in high school, your stories should please you. Find and tell those stories which please you. Those are stories only you can can tell.


Note: I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass course on creative writing. It is excellent. I wrote this imagined letter to myself as a way to process my notes and insights. The voice is not Atwood’s but I like to think the ideas captured are faithful. Aspiring writers needing inspiration could do worse than subscribe to her course.

Negotiating with the Dead | Goodreads Review

Negotiating with the DeadNegotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reader who writes. I am on a journey to becoming a writer who reads. As such, I adore books about reading and writing. Most disappoint. Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing does not disappoint.

Adapted from a series of lectures, Atwood offers a philosophical exploration of writing that is both insightful and practical. There are no tricks or gimmicks. Atwood reflects on what is happening when writer is writing without getting cute or wandering into the weeds.

Negotiating with the Dead looks at a writer’s sense of self; the divided nature of writer as both observer and participant; the question of writing as commerce or art; the artifice of the author’s persona; the weird relationship between writer, reader and book; and finally, the work of going down into the dark to bring up useful insights.

My borrowed copy of this book is a porcupine of tape flags — so many vibrant, useful quotes to capture and keep. This is my favorite:

“As for writing, most people secretly believe they themselves have a book in them, which they would write if they could only find the time. And there’s some truth to this notion. A lot of people do have a book in them — that is, they have had an experience that other people might want to read about. But this is not the same as ‘being a writer.’

“Or, to put it in a more sinister way: everyone can dig a hole in a cemetery, but not everyone is a grave-digger. The latter takes a good deal more stamina and persistence.”

I’ve been digging holes in the cemetery for more than 35 years. This book helps me understand what it takes to become a grave-digger.

View all my reviews

The Courage of Process

We make too much of genius. Geniuses are fascinating in the way that marathon winners and astronauts are fascinating. I know they exist but there is no point in pretending I will ever be one.

Geniuses aren’t the problem. The stories we tell ourselves about geniuses are a big problem. We make totems from stories of sudden insight and inspiration. We venerate anecdotes of quick leaps but ignore the long run that always came just before.

We admire the astronauts floating proud and confidant in zero g. The thousand hour simulations spent mastering crucial motions are unseen. No one wants to watch astronaut trainees puke into their helmets.

The first man and woman to cross the marathon line are celebrated as heroes. If we care a lot, we might also celebrate the oldest and youngest to cross. We only allow ourselves time for a few heroes but a marathon is made of hundreds of heroes. People who have shaped their lives around the effort of accomplishing unlikely things.

We can’t all be marathon winners, but we can all be like those other people. Marathon runners.

As a writer, I read exceptional writers. I read them to understand their craft and try to apply some of that craft in my own. After the first flash of admiration, fear and discouragement often set in. I see the bright flash of brilliance and wonder why I can’t achieve that same flash. Why won’t the same lightning strike for me? I don’t see the dozens of bad early drafts, the tedious mulch of revision built on notes and critiques of brutally honest friends.

When we talk to ourselves about our own success, we think too often of genius. Our stories convince us success is an outcome of mysterious, unknowable forces, genetics or divine intervention. We imagine ourselves standing at the peak without imagining what it will take to get there. We try to teleport ourselves to the top of Mount Everest. We can’t.

Success requires the courage of sustained effort. There are no shortcuts. There is no escape. Success comes from developing a process and building the courage to stay committed to that process. It takes courage to stay focused when things aren’t going well. It takes humility to hone incremental improvements based on constant, ego-bruising feedback.

Geniuses are geniuses because they committed themselves to their process early. Geniuses have found their focus and shaped their lives to feed and support their own development.

No one sees the work, but the work is there. We should stop disabling ourselves with praise of the quick moments of clarified insight and encourage each other instead to start sorting through the confusion and uncertainty to develop and commit to a brave process of our own. That is a useful story. The courage of process.

The Thing About Writing

Some nights the words absolutely pour out, and you are drowning with things to say.

Some nights you write calmly, evenly, almost absent. You surprise yourself days later reading a thing you didn’t realize you had written.

And then some nights you write 277 words about a man watching television with Death and wonder how you ever manage to talk to people at all since words are so fickle and finicky and tiresome.

But the thing about writing, the trick of it, is realizing that each of these nights is the same. The writing is the writing. The dreaming is dreaming. The telling is telling.

Who are you tonight to know what’s good or bad, dishonest or true?

Saturday night poem.

This is a night I wish to write poetry — loud, brash, unrhyming poems that stick sideways inside your head and make you walk around shaking like a dog, trying to jar loose that cockeyed idea that did not start with you but lodged in and got dressed up in your own life, became your own words.

A poem like home invasion — sudden, brutal, unflinching — arriving like a stranger in the dark unlocked hallway of your home. Unsmiling. Dishonest. Up to no good.

A poem could be that one saving shove back away from the subway tracks where you had stood contemplating. Your reverie interrupted by the rude press of unseen hands and then gone, leaving you there to wonder how close you might actually have come to stepping down while the night’s last train goes barreling by.

Poems like coffee taken black too late at night, a sinister brew of dreams which you will imbibe and quickly forget, except for one phrase that reaches out and scalds your gullet, scorching as you swallow, all the way down.

Poems dumped like a box of cockroaches, scurry and scatter everywhere, finding the cracks, the crannies, all the tiny, secret places of your life you pretend are not there. Places even the finest brushes cannot reach. Places inside yourself which you can never get clean.

Ah. Here comes a poem, approaching like the evening’s last shopper casually strolling the aisles in a grocery store about to close. The cashier has made her last announcement. The lights are half off. The grocers have other places to be, but the poem makes its way, perusing the shelves, making its maddening slow inventory, a list of things it does not need and will not buy. They cannot lock the doors until it pushes its empty cart through the checkout line.

Here it is. At last. A poem about poetry, which is the writer’s main retreat. When you do not know what to write, you write about writing. You post it for others, inject it into their Saturday night. They read it with a shrug, except for that one other writer who feels the same inexorable urge and pours herself another heavy draught.

Kinship with Losers

I love the Olympics, even if they are an economic, social and political nightmare.

When I was younger, I used to marvel at the sheer and shining brilliance of the three athletes on the medal stand. Whichever three athletes; whichever three medals. The sport didn’t matter. Mastery mattered. Those three athletes who triumphed above all others through preposterous trials of competence to be crowned the best. All hail the winners. Cue anthem.

Only now, I begin the recognize the actual beauty on display. The opening Olympic ceremony is a parade of people who have dedicated themselves to improbable, ridiculous dreams. Most of these people will not be winners. Most won’t get medals. Most won’t be interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel or Katie Couric. Most won’t appear anywhere in the four hours of nightly prime time coverage. They will go home battered and bruised, some of them broken. Some will get a hero’s welcome but then are quickly forgotten. They’ll take jobs they may or may not enjoy. They’ll have kids and grandkids. Maybe their kids and grandkids will care. Maybe they won’t.

It doesn’t matter. These people burn with weird, impossible, potentially useless urges. They want to push a stone across the ice, 126 feet from hack to tee. Or they want to hurl themselves together in crowded circles at breakneck speeds on millimeter thin blades in races where victories and defeats are defined in hundredths of a second. Or they need to send themselves head first down perilous tubes at interstate traffic speeds with only a helmet and a St. Christopher’s medal. Who sells these kinds of people life insurance?

And then there’s me – this 44 year old person who has spent the last 34 years trying to write a beautiful sentence in hopes that a beautiful sentence might somehow lead to a beautiful paragraph and then a beautiful page and, perhaps, most ridiculous of all, a beautiful story.

There’s no parade for this weird desire. No procession to show the world. No anthem. No medal. No primetime coverage.

I feel tremendous kinship with these Olympic losers, these ridiculous dreamers. We are always working, seldom winning, dreaming our ridiculous, improbable, wonderful dreams.

This Tree. Specific.

I became friends with a tree this weekend.

Campbell Folk School is a very community-centered place, so I arrived fully expecting to make new friends. I met many fine people from all walks of life and from all over the country. I did not expect the closest of those friends to be the tree outside our Orchard House writing room. I spent a fair amount of my weekend admiring that tree and writing underneath its branches.

Throughout the three day workshop, our instructor admonished us to be specific. Don’t say tree. Say white pine or birch or cedar. The work of revision is always moving toward greater specificity. Not just any tree. This tree. Specific.

The problem was we had no idea what kind of tree my friend was. We didn’t know how to name it. One of the workshop participants teaches biology. She used a tree taxonomy guide to move through the criteria toward a name. Deciduous. Broad. Flat. Asymmetrical. Ragged edges. My biology teacher friend suggested our new friend might be an elm. This made sense. My tree friend was both incredibly familiar (an exemplar of treeness) and otherwordly. It is possible that I had never before seen a fully grown elm. Most elms in my part of the country were killed off by Dutch Elm disease before I was born.

“This Tree. Specific.” is the poem I wrote about my new friend. I was able to read this piece at Sunday Morning Song. Reading this poem on that last morning felt like an appropriate offering to show gratitude to my classmates, to our instructor, to the Folk School and, most of all, to my friend the tree.

“This Tree. Specific.”

We are friends now, you and I. I sit

beneath your branches, waiting to know your name.

Don’t bother me with binomial nomenclature. It is your stature I most admire,

and the welcoming way you spread your branches to embrace new friends.

And your tremendous, unwavering patience as you press careful roots into dirt.

Ever mindful of the bustling, burrowing communities teeming below.

So many questions you might answer.

Did you know John Campbell? Did he sit here where I do listening for your secrets?

Can you teach me to make a meal of sunlight and rain?

Never mind. I’m pestering you now. I do that to my friends.

It is enough for now to sit beneath your branches, to appreciate the way you exert yourself in the world. Patient. Dignified.

I do not need to know your name. You are this tree. Specific. Friendly. My friend.

 

Crafting Community: Impressions of Campbell Folk School

We come to Campbell Folk School to craft some thing – a bowl, a scarf, a decorative rod of forged steel, a poem. We come to study and practice our crafts and, in the learning, we create for ourselves an entire community.

Find your community, the instructor tells us. This is imperative. Make a commitment and build your audience. And we set to work.

The writing is easier and better here, more forceful and clear, in the company of others. You meet gifted artists who don’t recognize their own gifts, people, who, like you, are plagued by self-doubt. You begin to notice that the joys and challenges and struggles are universal. You aren’t doing this thing alone. People notice your work. Your specific work. A specific line. A specific tone or phrase. And when they praise, you trust them because of the specificity of their praise. And you take second and third hard looks at your own work to help it be ready to share.

And the generosity of the instructor, laying down sheaf after sheaf of poems, a riot of prompts and exercises. You meet the older fellow, a librarian like you, but struggling today with his nerves, not sure he has found the right words to say what needs saying. You work it through together. Celebrate discovery of the right words. You laugh. You share. You allow yourself to be ridiculous, to say possibly stupid things. You are excited by everyone else’s success. Their success is your success.

The meals are a community of first name neighbors. You eat with black smiths, weavers, musicians, wood turners. In their other lives they are engineers, teachers, research economists. They gather here from Tennessee, Ohio, Florida, Russia, Bulgaria. You pass the bread. You offer each other second and third helpings. You clear the table together. You bring each other coffee. The meal is locally sourced and unbelievably fresh. Michelle jokes that the salad is so fresh someone found a snail in theirs.

And you befriend the elm outside your workshop door. It stands majestically tall, like a magical giant from another age. And only as you are driving home do you realize that the archaic majesty of this mighty tree is a true thing. This tree is thing you have never seen. There are no more elms where you live. They all died of Dutch Elm disease before you were born.

We offer our poetry aloud at 7:30 morning song. People listen. They comment. They applaud.

And in this spirit of wide generosity, poetry is moving. You are writing more today than you wrote the entire month of May. And it is good, strong writing. It is connected, specific. It has something to say.

This place draws art out of you. It helps you believe you are capable of creating beauty. It helps you remember that the effort of art is worthwhile.

And the sunlight is a smiling force. And there is harmony and all is well and all is right and you are finally ready to claim the gifts you have picked up so many times before only to set them right back down again. This time, you know, you can hold on to them. You can shape those gifts into a craft and let those gifts shape you.

This is why you are here. It is why any of us are here.

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