Writer’s Corner: Your Life is Always Good Material

(Steve Lyon)

(photo by Steve Lyon)

When I was teaching — I taught for a while — my students would write as if they were raised by wolves. Or raised on the streets. They were middle-class kids and they were ashamed of their background. They felt like unless they grew up in poverty, they had nothing to write about. Which was interesting because I had always thought that poor people were the ones who were ashamed. But it’s not. It’s middle-class people who are ashamed of their lives. And it doesn’t really matter what your life was like, you can write about anything. It’s just the writing of it that is the challenge. I felt sorry for these kids, that they thought that their whole past was absolutely worthless because it was less than remarkable.

David Sedaris, January Magazine, June 2000

Remember, there’s a lot of stories out there, yours included. Ultimately, it’s the telling that matters.

Reader’s Corner: Keeping Up

bookswantedAny serious reader is never satisfied with how much they’re reading. They’re more likely to be anxious and perturbed by the ever-growing stack(s) of books that threaten to blot out the season’s weak winter sun.

Still, few readers have a to-read list to rival that of Times critic Dwight Garner, who says he gets about 25 books a day in the mail and that it takes him on average 8 hours to read one. Do the math.

Here’s a few of the better lines from a recent interview with Garner:

One doesn’t review one’s friends. Having said that, “friend” is an elastic term.

A lot of books are like first dates. You know in 25 seconds if it’s going to work out.

[On whether he reads every page of every book he reviews] I do. Out of moral obligation. Also out of fear. You don’t want to miss something crucial. You want to be definitive in your pronouncements. You want to be able to write things like, “Not once in 350 pages does Mr. Borges huff paint.” You don’t want to worry about a huffing scene on Page 211 that you skipped over.

Writer’s Corner: Grim Children’s Stories

It seems like the youth of America are about the only ones still reading these days. According to NPR:

Young Americans are more likely to have read a book in the past year than their older counterparts, a new study finds. According to data from the Pew Research Center, “88% of Americans under 30 read a book in the past year, compared with 79% of those age 30 and older.” The findings go against the oft-repeated narrative that the Internet is degrading the reading habits of the young (those millennials supposedly Snapchatting themselves into a cultureless stupor). In another surprise, people under 30 were also more likely to say that there is “a lot of useful, important information that is not available on the internet.”

Bookstores are filled with new and ever-burgeoning series of novels targeted at the young adult market, not to mention slightly simplified versions of nonfiction bestsellers like Unbroken. In other words, this is a big and potentially growing market.

grimm_talesAlso, young readers are generally being given more latitude in terms of the subject matter deemed appropriate.  Jack Zipes’ new translation of Grimms’ fairy tales from Princeton University Press makes a point of including some “gruesome” additions previously unknown to modern readers:

How the Children Played at Slaughtering, for example, stays true to its title, seeing a group of children playing at being a butcher and a pig. It ends direly: a boy cuts the throat of his little brother, only to be stabbed in the heart by his enraged mother. Unfortunately, the stabbing meant she left her other child alone in the bath, where he drowned. Unable to be cheered up by the neighbours, she hangs herself; when her husband gets home, “he became so despondent that he died soon thereafter”. The Children of Famine is just as disturbing: a mother threatens to kill her daughters because there is nothing else to eat.

Whether or not any children will be read these as bedtime stories remains to be seen. But in any case, if you’re looking to sell books, write with the youth market in mind.

Quote of the Day: No Armistice for the Dead

ww1trench

Today marks the signing of the armistice in 1918 that put an end to the First World War. The United States marks the occasion as Veterans Day, while in England it’s Armistice Day.

Although the day is meant to commemorate all the men and women who have served and died in the armed services, something particularly tragic and horrific remains in the collective memory of World War I. An official statement of Congress ending the war included this aside:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals …

Over 8 million soldiers and nobody knows how many civilians died in the four-year conflict. Some 36 percent of all British soldiers, and 65 percent of German soldiers, were either killed or wounded. And still nobody still quite understands why it was fought.

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon

One of the war’s great poets was Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). He served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers in France. In 1917 wrote a protest letter to the House of Commons, refusing to fight anymore: “I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” He was hospitalized later that year.

Here’s his poem, “Absolution“:

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes
Till beauty shines in all that we can see.
War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

There was an hour when we were loth to part
From life we longed to share no less than others.
Now, having claimed this heritage of heart,
What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?

Writer’s Corner: On Style

For a writer, having a style helps define you. Although Strunk and White and other minders of the literary store have long pushed for the plain and unadorned style that disappears on the page, numerous writers make their name by being absolutely idiosyncratic and unique in how they string words together. Ernest Hemingway might have striven for simplicity, but it was always his type of simplicity. You couldn’t mistake it. Sometimes, this is how careers are made.

Andre Malraux, circa 1974.

Andre Malraux, circa 1974.

Nevertheless, style can be dangerous in the wrong hands. See Anthony Daniels’ aside in his review for the New Criterion of Stephen Parker’s new Bertolt Brecht biography, which clocks in at 600 closely-typeset pages:

The writer of a very long book should at least be a good prose stylist, but unfortunately Professor Parker is not such a stylist. As Sartre said of Malraux, he has a style, but it is not a good one.

In other words, if you’re going to write so that the reader notices, make sure it’s worth their while.

Writer’s Corner: Novel Writing Month Has Already Started

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

Every year, a small but intensely committed band of writers try to ensure that November is known for something besides candy-hangover and Christmas dread. November is also known as National Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the dedicated), to at least a few.

The basic idea is to write a 50,000-word manuscript in just 30 days. Last year, over 310,000 people apparently took part. It’s more than just an idea, the NaNoWriMo group offers writing spaces and the occasional pep talk, as well as ways to get together with your fellow scriveners.

Maybe you’ve got a novel in you, maybe you don’t. Either way, churning out 50,000 words in a month (that’s about 7 double-spaced pages a day) will at least give you an idea of whether you have what it takes. Better get started; after all, it’s already the 2nd.

Writer’s Corner: Getting to Work

train1Now that the dream of the Amtrak writers’ residency is over and done with, it’s time for the rest of us to get back to the business at hand: crafting words and pages from nowhere out of nothing. Place matters; thusly the desire for inspiring places to put fingers to keyboards.

But there’s always that unfortunate reminder that, dream though we may of the perfect place and time to do one’s writing (cabin, nice view of the lake, maybe a dog who only wants to be walked at convenient 3- to 4-hour intervals), at some point one does have to get past inspiration and put one’s tender nose on that unforgiving grindstone.

Per Doreen Carvajal, who wrote about using the TGV train ride south from Paris as a way to unblock a long-dormant book proposal:

I settled into a cushioned seat by the window, thinking of my own family’s love affair with trains and the basic writing lesson they knew better than me. There is no better way to craft a book than to toil like a railroad worker, every day, all day.