Reading About Writing

On becoming a writer, the one best piece of advice is to read. Read everything. Read all the time. Read what you love and emulate author’s whose work you admire. Separate from that is reading about writing which also helps. It’s helped me anyway. I have shelves of books on writing. Here are a few of my personal favorites.

 Bibliography: Writing Books

Cameron, Julia, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.

Cameron shares her writing tools. This book is a guide to developing a daily writing practice.

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, New World Library, 1949.

“The hero’s journey” can serve as a stepping off place for story-telling. It’s a hefty read but useful for writers of fiction.

Conner, Janet, Writing Down Your Soul: How to Activate and Listen to the Extraordinary Voice Within, Conari Press, 2008.

This is about living your fullest life as much as it is about writing. I came across this one during a particularly vulnerable time in my life. If you are unaccustomed to journal writing, this might be a good place to start.

Darwin, Emma, Writing Historical Fiction, Teach Yourself, 2016.

This one includes exercises on plot development, research, and aspects that are unique to the genre of historical fiction.

Dillard, Annie, Living By Fiction, Harper & Row, 1982.

While this book is less about writing and more about reading, it’s a classic for any writer of fiction.

Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, Vintage Books, 1984.

It is quite a feat to get through this one, but it is filled with treasures and insight that every writer needs.

Goldberg, Natalie, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, Free Press, 2007.

Half of the front cover is missing from my copy; a literate dog tried to eat it. These writing prompts and exercises  inspire going deep in memoir writing.

Goldberg, Natalie, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Shambala, 1986.

An absolute classic. If you don’t already have this book in your collection, I have to question your “writerliness.” Doesn’t everyone own this book?

Hurwitz, Diana, Story Building Blocks: Craft Your Story Using Four Layers of Conflict, Hurwitz Publishing, 2011.

If you are looking for a basic template to outline a novel, this is your book.

Karr, Mary, The Art of Memoir, Harper, 2015.

It’s Mary Karr, what else needs to be said? Seriously, with this book she will help you write the scary stuff.

King, Stephen, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Scribner, 2000.

Another “must-have” for any writer. Get it. Read it. Mark it up.

Lamott, Anne, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anchor Books,1994.

I have so many pages tabbed in my copy! Again, just read it.

Le Guin, Ursula K., Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Here is another book with exercises to help you with your writing practice. Use your current project as you complete these exercises and you might have a good beginning.

Pressfield, Steven, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Black Irish Entertainment, 2002.

I really like this one. It’s a small quick read that builds confidence, guides you toward feeling “professional” and tells you to “slay the dragon.”

Prose, Francine, Reading Like a Writer: A guide For People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Harper, NY, 2006.

Here is my newest discovery and I am excited about it. I have just started reading it.

Wittig Albert, Ph.D., Susan, Writing From Life: Telling Your Soul’s Story, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1996.

Explore your personal narrative, discover the truth of your life and share it with the world. Susan Wittig Albert is a huge proponent of women writers. She is encouraging and a role-model.

Some of these are classics, some newer. All have proved useful to me and I refer to them often. As I’ve been wandering through this stack, I realize that I should revisit some of these. In fact, I look forward to reading them again and finding treasures that I missed before.

My Writing Practice

Over the course of my life and especially the last nine months I have a established a practice of writing that works for me. It is multi-faceted, layered and requires some planning and organization on my part. Using multiple resources, I am able to grow my craft and learn new skills to make my talent work for me. Any form of creativity requires talent and drive, but more importantly, learned skills and collaboration. 

Finding a writing community can be difficult, especially if, like me, you don’t live in a city. Fortunate for writers like myself and thanks to the pandemic, we’ve got Zoom.

STORY CIRCLE NETWORK

Some years ago I became a member of The Story Circle Network. SCN provides an on-line writing community for women and it is wonderful. Three days a week, members of my WIP (Work In Progress) group check in with one another to share goals, share our current reads and brag about our writing accomplishments. It is a way to hold yourself accountable and to know you are not alone. SCN puts out a newsletter and provides enriching workshops that cover a variety of genres and writing skills. I serve as a reviewer for SCN’s book review web page and I am a juror for SCN’s annual Sarton Awards. SCN continues to help me grow as a writer.

WRITER’S LEAGUE OF TEXAS

Although I have been a member for several years, I have yet to take full advantage of my WLT membership. WLT offers so much regarding editing and publishing your work. As of now, I have attended some of the workshops. Every WLT workshop I have attended have been well worth the time and money. I always come away with new skills to add to my craft.

LET’S WRITE CLUB

A month or two ago, Amy Isaman, author and writing coach, started a virtual group with the goal of “let’s write the damn book!” Not only is it an honor to be a founding member, but it is also quite helpful. Amy has scheduled several writing sessions a week when we meet via Zoom and write for a two hour stretch. We all work on our own WIP’s, hold each other accountable and support one another. Amy also provides excellent workshops and Q&A sessions. The concept might sound a little strange. We are all working from our own homes around the country and we are writing. You might wonder why we can’t just write on our own. Well, we can. But coming together provides a sense of community, we get to share ideas and it’s less lonely. 

WORKSHOPS

Not only have I attended writing workshops offered by Story Circle Network, Writer’s League of Texas and Amy Isaman, but I am currently taking a five week course from The Attic Institute of Portland and have registered for another. 

There are millions of workshops out there and I recommend doing some research before committing to any one. Don’t waste your time or your money. Evaluate your needs and look for good reviews. Research the instructor. You don’t have to have an MFA to be an excellent writer. Finding a community of writers and good workshops are super helpful though. Again, talent and drive can only take you so far. Writing is a craft requiring learned skills and a community of collaborators. Writing is communication; it is useless to write into a void. 

JOURNALING, MORNING PAGES AND PRACTICE

For several decades I gave up on journaling; I am not sure why. When the pandemic started and we went on lockdown, I began to journal again. I wanted to make sure to have a personal account of all the incredible things that were (are) happening in these unprecedented times. I am so glad to be back in the habit again. It helps my overall writing.

 I have also started the habit of Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages.” Every morning instead of scrolling through the news and social media feeds, I pick up my “Morning Pages” notebook and write stream-of-consciousness three pages in long-hand. A lot of junk comes out of that, but there is good stuff too. 

Besides journaling and morning pages, I practice. That is, I play with words, sentence structure and experiment with writing styles and cadence.

MY BLOG

Another form of practice is this blog. I am committed to posting something new each week. Since January I have missed two weeks: the week of my daughter’s wedding and the week of an impromptu family reunion. Some weeks I have to force myself to “throw” something out there, anything. Other weeks are more successful. Ironically, the posts I put less effort in are often the ones that get the most feedback. Go figure. The reasons for having a blog are as follows: it serves as a platform to share my random thoughts; the feedback feeds my writing by building my confidence as a writer; it serves as practice; it reminds me that people actually read what I write which makes me work harder at writing better and makes me careful about what I say and how I say it. 

WRITING ABOUT WRITING

 Writing about writing as I am doing now, provides me with the metacognitive insight to better understand my own relationship to the craft of writing. I am also sharing my experiences with others and maybe helping other writers in their own writing journeys. 

READING ABOUT WRITING

There are a lot of crappy books on writing, find the good ones. In a future blog post I will share an annotated bibliography of some of my favorites.

READING

Reading is the single best way to become a better writer. Read everything. Read all the time. 

PLANNER/WEEKLY ASSIGNMENTS

Every Sunday I make a list of things to accomplish and add it to my weekly planner. I follow this list and my calendar religiously. If it’s on the list, it gets done. This serves as a guide and gives me a sense of accomplishment. 

POETRY

Every time I sit down to write, I start by reading a poem or two. This has been my habit the whole of my writing life. Poetry influences my prose writing and I believe poetry is reflected in my writing and makes it better. 

This is how I scaffold my own writing practice. It is a combination of all of the above and it works for me. Find what works for you and dedicate yourself to it. And create!

Story Circle Network https://www.storycircle.org/

Writer’s League of Texas https://writersleague.org/

Let’s Write the Book Club https://amyisaman.com/letswrite/

Attic Institute http://atticinstitute.com/

Living With a Writer

Perhaps the person who should write an article with this title should be the person living with a writer rather than the writer. Since the writer is the one who writes, however, it gets to be written by the writer. If you, like my husband, live with a writer, here are some things you might want to know:

  • Patience. Just be patient, please. This is especially important if you don’t understand the creative process. 
  • Creativity is not an excuse; rather it’s a way of thinking that is different than the kind of thinking required for everyday existence. 
  • Know that your writer has to have the ability to think both ways, and they have to know when and how to move from left-brain to right-brain thinking. Sometimes this is really hard. Sometimes this causes them to be scatterbrained. 
  • Your writer requires both space and time. You know, “a room of one’s own and all that.” A place with a window that preferably has a nice view, for staring out. A place to pin notes of inspiration, ideas, writing advice, and and plans for writing. A place for books. A place that has multiple cups filled with every kind of pen, pencil, marker. Note paper of various sizes. Very likely your writer is an office supply nerd. I am.
  • Give them the time they need to write, to think, to read, research, to daydream. All of that is writing. 
  • Space also relates to sound. 
  • Encourage. The other week my husband after overhearing me tell writer friends that I had written 2,000 words in two hours, woke me up at 6:30 to tell me he had it figured out. He made coffee (like every morning) and excitedly told me that if I start writing at seven, I can have 2,000 words by nine. Who wouldn’t love a man like that! Such enthusiasm! 
  • Know that some days are more productive than others. Know that 2,000 or 5,000 or 100,000 words written does not mean 100,000 words closer to the end of a novel. Those words may not even make it into to the novel at all. 
  • Chances are, your writer regularly interacts with people you cannot see. They have conversations with these folks. They may or may not tell you about them. If they do, listen. I guarantee these people you cannot see, do some pretty insane things and their stories are fascinating! 
  • This is super important, if your writer is folding laundry, working a crossword, watering the plants or walking to the mailbox, they are very likely working out an idea in their head. When that is the case, they should tell you so; please respect this. 
  • Writers are always writing. Period. Always. 
  • Whatever you do, please never tell your writer what they should write. Please. They know what they are doing. If you have a writing idea, write it yourself.
  • Writing is an integral part of your writers life. They should be living holistically with their writing, so that everything they do is related to writing. If that is not the case, know that they are struggling to make it so. Support that.
  • There is an amazing world inside your writer’s head. If you are patient and supportive, it will be revealed to you in its final glory. 

These are just a few thoughts that have come to me. If you are a writer, please feel free to add to this list. I am fortunate that I live with a person who, while he may not always “get” it, he always supports and encourages me. 

Where Ideas come From

Ideas can come from anywhere and from many places. Rarely (at least for me) is a story idea generated from just one thought, but from an odd collection of seemingly random information or experiences.

Today I completed reading a remarkable book, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. It was the acknowledgments at the end that really struck me though. The author, Robert Dugoni, tells the story of how the idea for this novel came about. As a writer I relate to his experience about how ideas develop. In his acknowledgment, we learn about his growing up with a “special needs” sibling who was “different,” his Catholic upbringing and a news article he came across about a child with ocular albinism; all topics relevant to the novel and collected over time.

FIRST DRAFT

An especially important point that he makes, that all writers, myself included, need to remember, is that “a first draft is written for the writer and should never be shared with anyone.” That goes right along with Terry Pratchett’s quote: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

THINKING IS WRITING

I am not sure if non-writers really understand the process; that even when we are not writing, we are writing. Recently, I was part of a conversation with fellow writers where we all agreed that thinking is writing. If you happen to share a household with a writer (God bless you), you may laugh and joke about this; you may see this as an excuse to not write. You would be wrong.

LAUNDRY IS WRITING

Stepping away from the desk to throw in a load of laundry is writing. Gardening and pulling weeds is writing. Even sitting among friends and listening to conversation can be writing. We are sneaky people, us writers! You never know when an idea is growing in our heads! But seriously, sometimes we need to get up and move around, perform a menial task to allow ideas to evolve.

WRITING IS A PROCESS

Writing is a process, something I was constantly reminding my students when I was a teacher and a librarian. You cannot skip steps! One of the most important steps, if not the most important is thinking.

IDEAS MORPH

Story ideas happen in an instant and simultaneously develop in the writers’ mind over a long period of time. Bits come to us from unexpected places sometimes, and sometimes they are right there in front of us having been with us forever. Ideas are not born whole and complete; they gestate. They begin as a seed and slowly grow until one day you have a story, whole with a beginning, middle and end. Ideas have no sense of time; they come upon us at once, in a flash and also slowly like molasses in the wintertime. This is why writers carry little notebooks. This is why we often appear distracted.

AN EXAMPLE

Currently, I am working on a short story whose ideas derived from many sources. I had an idea for the story based on a news article that ignited my imagination. Thinking about it brought up memories of events that actually happened to me. I took those events and molded them to fit the story, gave them meaning. I created a character who embodies what I believe to be some basic truths about humanity.

That story is not yet ready to be “born,” but it’s getting there. I have messes to clean up, the timeline is jumbled, and kinks to straighten. I have not completed the process. Non-writers have commented to me that writing must be fun for me. It can be. Most of the time it’s more like someone is ripping your fingernails off. Slowly. Still, it’s worth it.

Planning

Damn, am I ever behind. If you are a creative of any kind, then you will understand what I am talking about. You will especially get it if you are like me and struggle to settle on any one task.

Several months ago, I prioritized my writing projects. That helped me focus. Perhaps it’s already time for another evaluation.

Currently, I am working on three short stories, two of which are meant to be in an anthology. The anthology work is more than just a commitment to my own writing. I have a responsibility to the other members. I have fallen behind reading their work and that’s not fair. I am also working on a novel outline and a character arc for it. I write book reviews too which I have currently cut back to once a month.

Then there are my weekly blog posts which I skipped last week for the first time. I failed to post it that is; I’ve actually been writing several essays that will eventually make it to my blog. One is on a particularly sensitive and fragile topic and requires much thought and time.  

For the remainder of the summer, I have decided to focus on the anthology stories and calendar my novel work for the fall. I need to stop flitting back and forth between projects. I have got to focus. It’s going to feel so good to accomplish something! As I see it, that gives me six weeks to complete final drafts for two short stories. I am not including the week of my daughter’s wedding because I am at least that realistic!

Come September, I can return to the novel. Maybe I will even participate in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) during November. I did that several years ago during the July event and accomplished a great deal (on another unfinished novel!).

I’ve got so many story and novel ideas in my head and so many incomplete on paper. I know that I am not alone; this is the life of a writer. The good news for me is that I have reached a place in my life where I can devote good chunks of time to completing some projects. One foot in front of the other.

Origin Story

She came up out of the mud where the Mississippi River washes the continent’s silt into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Sound was her place of birth, her embryo, her mama’s womb. She knew the familiar cadence of languages mixed as in a boiling pot. There was the French providing spice, the savory meats of English and the Spanish paella blended to a sound so sweet and soft. A person didn’t have to understand the words, not if she was in tune with this small world and its past. Just listen to inflection, follow the pattern, the hand gestures and facial expressions.

Go sit on the dock at her grandfather’s wharf, pretend to check your crab traps, pretend to watch the boats go past and listen to the old men. There they sit in the shade, Jax beer in hand, talking quietly amongst themselves, a chuckle here, an occasional outburst of laughter there. Their bellies evince years of fried food and pie consumption; a life, if not well-lived, certainly appreciatory of the simple goodness their world provides. Their hands are large and calloused, their eyes deep and tender. They speak of fish and boats and family. They don’t know it, but they speak of love. They offer favors and shake on it. Using few words, they offer comfort when needed, giving each other a pat on the back and maybe slipping a handful of neatly folded bills when necessary. It will come back around.

Find a corner in the kitchen and allow yourself to be forgotten. What you witness will be much the same. Women sit around the table smoking cigarettes and talking about the children or the neighbors. Or the men on the wharf, their husbands.  A grandchild wanders in and is offered a bowl of warm blackberry jam and homemade vanilla ice cream—a reward for picking the blackberries. She is sent away to enjoy her treat on the shady porch. The women carry on with their gossip.

This is the world she returns to in her mind, the world that haunts her and follows her no matter where in the real and present world she might find herself. When she drives up the interstate in Texas, filled with thoughts of traffic, errands, politics, work, suddenly she is back on the bayou watching the shrimp boats go out at dusk. The briny, humid air is the embryonic fluid that kept her buoyant and thriving and she feels it draw her home. Ghosts follow her everywhere. The ghosts of those who came before, whose DNA she shares. They are trying to tell her a story. They want her to understand that she is here now, doing this because they were there then and because of the choices they made.

And what of the others? The ones who came long before the grandparents and great-grandparents? They also haunt this woman, this woman who came from the very chemistry of this American sea that curls into the continent like a bowl being protected in the arms of some great god. She sometimes looks over her shoulder to see a woman, her bare feet, sand encrusted, her skirt hem stiff from sun and salt water. How did she get off the island, ghost or not? How is it that she is here, this Marie, wandering through an air- conditioned grocery store complete with piped in Musak and computerized cash registers? Is she covetous of this new century or disdainful? And why is she so restless that she must follow this descendant, this Elizabeth, who seems so untethered herself?

Elizabeth sees the past through a filter. It appears to be idyllic. Oh, but it was tough! And her ancestors must have been fierce to survive the weather, geography and the culture!

Elizabeth is a child and she dives down for starfish and seahorses. She races along the beach, bare feet pounding hard packed wet sand. She plays and explores. Time is meaningless. Farther up the island, the sea oats dance in the breeze where the sand is dry and deep and thick. It’s hot too but her bare feet are tough and capable. Her thighs are capable too as she marches through deep sand as other children might march through snow drifts. Over on the gulf side of the island, the wind always blows. It whips her hair into her face, slapping sand and salt about. She watches the waves and she can see them all the way to the horizon, so much bigger on this side. It’s wilder over here and exciting. On this side, it is much easier to believe that she is alone, a lone remnant of humanity. This is her origin story.

Gautier & Byrd-Bait Shop, Boat Dealership