Category Archives: writing

Read Your Way Through

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing collecting all these quotes. I find them in articles and books. My friends say them or I overhear them in the grocery line. But what are they for? Why am I such a writer-downer? I have boxes full of scraps of paper scribbled with words I once found magical. You’d think maybe I wouldn’t ever look at them, but quite often I go looking for a particular quote and end up lost in wordy bliss.

But do these boxes of words have more of a purpose? I found an answer in Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books, a collection of essays on the role of books in our lives:

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England. … It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. … Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

It makes so much sense when you think of it that way – recording things not just to remember and enjoy but to understand.

Whenever I’m looking for inspiration about writing, I spend some time with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. She’s another fan of writing it all down:

When I reread my notebooks it never fails to remind me that I have a life, that I felt and thought and saw. It is very reaffirming, because sometimes writing seems useless and a waste of time. Suddenly you are sitting in your chair fascinated by your own mundane life. That’s the great value of art – making the ordinary extraordinary. We awaken ourselves to the life we are living.

Inspiration about writing can also come from movies, though a good bookish movie is rare. I just watched Stuck in Love, written by Josh Boone. Greg Kinnear’s character, an author struggling to write something new, is speaking to a group of writing students:

My favourite book is a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and in the closing lines of the title book, Carver says ‘I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.’ And I think that that’s what writing is. It’s listening for that beating heart. And when we hear it, it’s our job to decipher it to the best of our abilities.

So, with all of these lovely words in mind (and in the box), maybe my resolution this year should be to write it all down. Capture my life. Take what others have said and find deeper meaning by adding my own words.

That, and to read 30 books. If I can get to 25, I can get to 30. Two down, 28 to go.

Resolution Recap

So, it’s almost December. Who remembers their New Year’s Resolutions? Anyone, anyone?

I know a lot of people who don’t like to make them. They have various reasons, like:
a)    they never keep them anyway,
b)    if there’s something they want to do, they just do it (not sure I believe this one), or
c)    they’re tired of people like me asking about their resolutions.

Me, I love resolutions. I found a list from a couple of years ago that ambitiously outlined a dozen goals for the year, on a sweeping range of topics. Clearly I’d been feeling very motivated. I think I even did half of them.

This past January, I scaled back and made only two resolutions. Make a website (check) and read 24 books. That’s two a month, which seemed doable, but considering that the scores for the last four years were 14, 11, 16, and 9 (yes, I keep track), 24 was going to be a stretch.

I am happy to report that, with five weeks to go, I am halfway through two books that are vying to be lucky #24!  The first is the very serious A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, author of the enthralling You Deserve Nothing, which I wrote about earlier this year. It’s a read-a-bit-at-a-time book for me, maybe because it’s an unhappy story, at least so far. I’m not very good at unhappy – usually, if Oprah’s raving about how gut-wrenching a book is, you can count me out. But Maksik’s writing is beautiful, and You Deserve Nothing still won’t let me go, so I persevere.

The second book on my current pile is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. I’m a bit late to the party on Cheryl Strayed. It seems everywhere I look someone is reading or talking about her hit memoir Wild, but this is the first time I’ve read her. It’s definitely not going to be the last.

Strayed is the formerly-anonymous advice columnist Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of her best work. It’s a perfect purse book – you know, something to carry around in case you have to take a bus or wait in line and have time to read a few pages.

The letters are heartfelt and complex, and you’ll marvel at Strayed’s responses. She writes pages and pages to these strangers, often sharing very personal stories from her own past to help them find answers. She’s funny and smart and she’s a delight. Many of the letters are from writers, and she finds beautiful ways to motivate them:

Writing is hard for every last one of us . . . Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

Most of Strayed’s lovely advice boils down to plain old trying:

What’s important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart.
. . . It’s up to you to make your life.

I couldn’t have picked a better #24.

Writer’s Dread

Does this sound familiar? You’re about to sit down to write, and you’re nervous, feeling a soul-deep dread. Doubts fly through your head.

Maybe I don’t know how to do this. Maybe I won’t be able to think of any words. Maybe that perfect sentence I thought of when I was brushing my teeth is gone from my mind forever, and I’ll never think of anything as good. Maybe I won’t be able to keep writing during the whole 5 minute freewriting exercise, even though the writing teacher said we could just write “blah blah blahbeddy blah” if we run out of words.

In Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland speak of every creator’s ultimate fear – “the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak.” Why do we doubt ourselves so much? How bad could it be if we just tried?

Bayles and Orland also reassure: “Art is made by ordinary people.” Of course you’ll be able to think of words. Of course you can write another beautiful sentence if you forget the tooth-brushing one. Writing is endless. It’s new and different every day. The power is in the trying.

To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process: the experience of shaping that artwork… Your job is to learn to work on your work.
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland

Scribbled Words

Sometimes you read a sentence and it just storms through your mind. What happens in writers’ brains, what kind of magic do they add to ordinary words, to create a sentence that thrills and resonates?

When I find words that are impossible to forget, I grab the nearest scrap of paper and write them down. Of course, the next best thing to saving perfect words is sharing them. So, whenever you need a dose of inspiration, stop by and check out the books I’m quoting. Think of it as taking a quick swim in a fresh lake of language. Here are my favourite passages from the beautiful book of the day, Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Jump in.

“… and she laughed, a sound like violins gone wild.”

“I have no idea of this man’s tastes. He is a complete blank to me, a man-shaped darkness cut into air.”
Chocolat, Joanne Harris