A Book for Writers

CaptureOnly occasionally do I post a piece on writing. And writers. When I do, it is something I feel can be useful to my fellow writers. I try to avoid repeating insights you can find on other blogs. With this in mind, today I’d like to recommend What We See When We Read by Peter Mdndelsund, art director and book designer at Alfred A. Knopf.

It answers so many questions I have had about description over the years. What to leave out and what to put in. Insights into how a writer should describe a character. How much of that description a reader will remember.

He interviewed readers of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, asking them to describe Anna. You will find the responses very interesting. Throughout the book, he refers to a number of great writers besides Tolstoy and how they have used description. Writers such as Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Kafka, Herman Melville and Gustave Flaubert.

Here are some of the writerly insights I found in the book:

1.Build the opening sentence solely from verbs. Make the verbs matter in the opening paragraph.

2.Focus on what the character does and how they do it, not how they look.

3.Different actors can inhibit a role in a play. and we accept those performances as true to the role. See how many actors have performed Hamlet. That’s because Shakespeare didn’t spend a lot of time describing Hamlet.

4.We hear more than we see when we are reading. So use appropriate sounding words to create a rhythm to a paragraph.

5.If the reader has to keep going back and re-reading a section because they are confused, the writer has lost the reader.

6.Describe a character or setting the way a character experiences them through their senses.

7.Show the world through the character’s eyes, not through the author’s.

8.When using a detail to describe a setting or a character, make it memorable and important. Then repeat it. Tolstoy mentions Anna Karenina’s “slender hands.” We remember Cyrano as big nosed. “Which aspect of a character is chosen to represent the character is crucial.” (p.394)

9.Don’t tell the reader everything. Give the reader a chance to use their imagination.

10.When using detailed description, make sure this matters. Such as showing what’s in a character’s closet or in their refrigeration. This probably isn’t needed unless the writer wants to reveal the character’s obsession with clothes or food. For instance, a writer might want to describe a character’s bathtub because the character obsesses over cleanliness.

11.When the writer creates a character, they are creating a world.

Note: I am in no way associated with this writer or his publisher. I have not received a book to review.

Read a Good Story Lately?

I am a sucker for short stories. Short stories by such amazing writers as Anton Chekhov, Ray Bradbury, Alice Munro, Kurt Vonnegut, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Lorrie Moore, Tim O’Brien and Kevin Brockmeier often blow me away. For my money though, the Irish writer William Trevor is one of the best, a real master of the craft. If you love short stories the way I do, you’ll enjoy his Selected Stories.

There’s nothing like a good start to a story. Here’s the opening sentence from Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”: Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man, Belle married him when he was old. When a story gets off to a good start like that, I know I am in for a treat.

The story, “A Friendship”, opens with a practical joke two brothers play on their father. But soon the tale turns into the story of a slowly dissipating marriage. As is true for many of Trevor’s stories, it doesn’t take you where you thought you were going. When I finished the story, I could see the influence Trevor may have had on another writer, Alice Munro, and her “Runaway”. In his “Child’s Play”, there is the story of two children. They use their imagination to create dramas to help them overcome the pain of separation from their divorced parents.

If you think Trevor only creates tragic stories, think again. For instance, there’s “A Bit of Business”. Two thieves see an ideal opportunity for burglary on the day the Pope visits Dublin. They’ve done their business for the day. It’s been a successful business. Then, on a whim, they decide to do one more house. One more house. That will always get you into trouble.

Trevor’s endings can be just as stunning as his beginnings. Such is the masterpiece of a story called “After Rain”. A woman entering her thirties finds herself ditched by her boyfriend. She returns to the Italian hotel where her parents took her when she was a girl.

It concludes with this: She sees again the brown-and-green striped tie of the old man who talked about being on your own, and the freckles that are blotches on the forehead. She sees herself walking in the morning heat past the graveyard and the rusted petrol pumps. She sees herself seeking the shade of the chestnut trees in the park, and crossing the piazza to the trattoria when the first raindrops fell. She hears the swish of the cleaner’s mop in the church of Santa Fabiola, she hears the tourists’ whisper. The fingers of the praying woman flutter on her beads, the candles flare. The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death. Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also. These closing lines remind me of another Irish master of the short story, James Joyce, and the end of his most famous story, “The Dead”.

Trevor’s stories often have echoes of other great predecessors of the short story, most of all Anton Chekhov. Trevor does for Ireland what Chekhov did for Russia. He explores the landscape of a country and its people, giving each character her dignity. With a rich, lush language, he is as likely to offer the life of a woman as he is a man, of a Catholic or a Protestant, and to burrow in deep to find out what that character carries in his or her heart.

In his stories, there are priests, wives, businessmen, tramps, blind piano tuners, farmers, children, burglars, auto mechanics and dressmakers, people from many of the nooks and crannies of Irish society. And there is love, or the desire for love no matter the consequences. Trevor shows us that it’s the little things, the quiet moments that matter in a life, and that a life can mean so much.

His particular way of saying things often makes me stop in awe and question how I might write like that. Lines that soar. Lines that are more than lines. There never is fairness when vengeance is evoked or Their own way of life was so much debris all around them or This no-man’s land was where Gerard and Rebecca played their game of marriage and divorce or All the love there had been, all the love there still was–love that might have nourished Ellie’s child, that might have warmed her–was the deprivation the child suffered or gratitude was always expressed around this table. It’s a great writer working his magic and I am never disappointed with that magic. He always leaves me wanting more.

J. D. Salinger and Me

So there I am half asleep, sprawled out in my bed with the covers pulled over me. I duck my head under the covers because I am not sure I am seeing what I am seeing. After all it is early morning and I am still in a fog. I am always this way before I’ve had my first five cups of coffee in the morning.

I stick my head back out from under my covers, and yep, he’s there. It’s none other than Jerome David. I am talking the world-famous J. D., author of “Catcher in the Rye”. I recognize him from the jacket pictures. He’s as young as he once was. Somehow he’s dropped all those years since he died and he’s back to his youthful genius of a self. He’s standing at the end of my bed and he’s puffing on a cigar. I’m thinking it’s a Cuban cause they’re not banned from importing them in the hereafter. He’s halfway through the stogie and he is frowning at me.

“So you didn’t care for Catcher in the Rye?” he asks, his foot propped up on the end of my bed.

“What? Who?” I ask from my prone position.

He sits his foot back down on the floor. “I asked you if you didn’t like my book. You responded with a what and a who. Who the hell do you think it is? It sure isn’t that son-of-a-bitch Hemingway. What an asshole. Papa indeed. I never much cared for him. Now Scott Fitzgerald, there was a writer who could write.”

“Go away.” I rub my eyes and turn over on my side, hoping that this is a nightmare and I will wake up soon.

“I will not go away. You’ve got a lot of gall not liking my book. I did some damned good writing with that book. Not as good as later but still it’s a great book, even if I say so myself, and you don’t like it. Who the hell are you?”

I turn over and face Salinger. “I am the fellow who is telling you to get out of here. That’s who.”

“It’s all about alienation, you know?”

“I. Know. That.”

“Oh, you do. Well, I guess you were never a teenager, suffering from all that teenage angst, were you?”

Now I am mad. How dare this s.o.b. come into my bedroom and tell me I was never a teenager suffering from teenage angst. I had more teenage angst in my little toe than his spoiled prep school kid had in his whole body. Holden Caulfield’s biggest problem was that he had one hell of a chip on his shoulder.

“That book is all bullshit. Pure All American bullshit.”

“Bullshit. What do you mean bullshit? I worked my butt off on that book for over ten years. Put my whole life into it and you say it is bullshit.”

“That’s what I say. I read it in high school and I just didn’t get it. I understand Hemingway’s Old Man. He was fighting for survival. I understand the Joads. They were fighting for survival. I understand Gatsby. He was fighting for romance. And, as far as angst, existential angst, goes, I understand Camus’ Stranger. He didn’t mourn his mother the way he was expected to. And he was condemned for it. But Holden Caulfield, all he was fighting for was to be an asshole. I kept wanting to say, ‘Get a life.'”

I can see Salinger clearly now. I’m awake and I can see the fake Buddhist with his hands in a fist. He crushes that cigar against the bottom of my foot.

“Oh. That hurt. Thought you were a Buddhist. You’re going to screw up your karma, you know.”

He ignores my Buddhist comment. Somehow I knew he would. “Critics. That’s why I gave up on a public life. Became a hermit. You’re all full of shit. A big bag of shit. Here I am, the world-famous J. D. Salinger, standing at the foot of your bed, trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. Trying to give you some insight into my brilliance. And all you can do is insult me. Why do I even care? But that’s my problem. I care too damned much. If you only knew how much blood I sweated into that book. Trying to make every word perfect.”

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” I say. “I didn’t say the writing wasn’t good. It was. Damned good. Some of your best. But it was so wasted over that Holden Caulfield. Thing is that I’ve known people who complained about their good fortune their whole lives. In my book that’s Holden Caulfield. I just don’t care one iota about those kind of people. Never did. Never will.”

“But that’s not the point,” Salinger goes on. “He brought out the best in me. I guess you just don’t get it. But a lot of other teenagers did. And still do. That’s why it’s so popular. Not that I wrote it to be popular. I didn’t. I wanted to call attention to what it felt like to be a teenager in fifties America. I hit the nail on the head. That’s why I went into seclusion. I got tired of all that hero worship. Like I had the answers to all of life’s questions. I was good, but I wasn’t that good. I had more questions than answers. Anyway I tired of it.”

Suddenly he had a martini in his hand. Where the martini came from I did not know.

He noticing me noticing his martini. “Shaken, not stirred. The way I like it. You know, Ian Fleming got that from me. We were at a party once. I had been invited down to Jamaica by some friends. I was thinking that the Glasses would be Jamaican. Who do you think shows up at this party? Ian Fleming. We were talking when I asked for a martini. When I said shaken not stirred, he said, ‘Oh, I can use that.'” He took a sip from his martini. “Mmmm. That’s good.”

“So you think,” I say, “Holden Caulfield was like every teenager in America at that time?”

“I don’t know about every teenager but it sure was the way I felt. I must say that all those people coming to me and telling me that I had saved them, that was a little too much. Like I am a Messiah or something. If you want stories about messiahs, read ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.'”

I am wide awake now. “Well, I am sorry I offended you with my comment. It’s just my opinion. You can take it for what it’s worth. Every writer has the write to create whatever character he wants. And every reader has the right to not like that character. Personally I liked your stories much more. Thought you had great insight into how children saw the adult world and how they communicated that. ”

Then I realize I am talking to myself. The mirage, or was it a mirage, a hallucination, well, it’s gone. Since I am awake already, I throw off the covers and jump out of bed. Oh, I cry out. My right foot hurts. I sit on the side of the bed and take a look at the bottom of my foot. There’s a burn mark there all right. It can’t be. It just can’t be.

Banned in a small town

September 22 – 28 is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. In honor of the week, I am spotlighting the Movie, “Storm Center” (1956):

In cities and towns everywhere, there are those people who are checking the shelves of libraries and bookstores to find out if there is one of those books. Those books that have radical ideas. Ideas they don’t want others to discover. Because the ideas might pollute the minds of their fellow citizens or maybe their fellow citizens will discover the foolishness of these ideas.

Or maybe there’s some words in a book that might be bad. Books like the “n-word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After all, George Orwell in his 1984 warned us that language can be manipulated.

Or maybe there’s a scene where the characters are doing something that’s “bad”, scenes like the ones in Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

In the movie, “Storm Center,” the Town Council of Small Town USA wants the local library director to get rid of one book, The Communist Dream. They are receiving letters from people that don’t like that one book. It’s the 1950s, and the communists are out to destroy us and our way of life. Just one book.

Alicia Hull, the library director, agrees that she’ll take the book off the shelves. in her office, she asks herself, and her employee, “How do you get rid of a book?”

She could burn it. But then she remembers that they burned books in Germany that the Nazis didn’t like. Then she remembers her principles. Even though it may cost her the children’s wing of the library, she won’t be bought off.

Back at the City Council, she stands by her principles. She will not remove the book. Then one of the Council brings up organizations she belonged to. He insinuates that she must be guilty by association. After all, this is the 1950s. Tailgunner Joe is running wild in Washington, pointing fingers at this one and that one, bringing down the high and the mighty with accusations of communism.

If her association with these organizations gets out, there’s no telling what will happen to her. They might even have to fire her. They can’t have their children associating with a librarian who is a communist.

Just remove that book. And any others the town council doesn’t approve of and everything will be a-okay.

First it was just one book. Now it’s two or three or ten or a hundred.

Alicia Hull refuses to remove the book. And so she suffers the consequences. What the town council doesn’t realize is that their decision will have ramifications for the whole community.

As Alicia Hull, Betty Davis delivers one of her best performances. The film may be dated. After all, people wear bibs as they eat their lunch in the movie. Still it has a powerful impact on the viewer when the viewer asks, “What if?”

Since the 1980s, the American Library Association has celebrated the freedom to read by honoring those books which are challenged or banned. So be a rebel and visit your local bookstore or library and check out a copy of one of those books. You’ll find a list on this page.

In Praise of the eReader

The eBook has taken a bad rap over the years. Like so many readers, I like the feel of a physical book myself. Especially if it’s a graphic novel or an art book or a book of photographs or a book that’s well designed. There’s nothing quite like cozying up to a good physical book. In fact, I have several book shelves stacked with “me beauties”. And I still enjoy browsing bookstores and libraries.

When the kindle and the nook first came on the market, I was resistant. I thought it was just a fad. There wasn’t going to be a large supply of eBooks. The eReader was going to be like that pet rock I adopted in the seventies. Boy, was I wrong.

After a bit, I downloaded the kindle app on my computer and gave it a try. I was surprised how much I enjoyed my experience. So I bought my first kindle and the experience didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it was downright pleasurable. This was back in Ought-twelve. These days I carry my kindle everywhere the way I used to lug around books.

So here are ten reasons why I fell in love with the kindle and keep the affair going on.

1.Out-of-print books available.

2.Very portable.

3. Lightweight.

4. I don’t have to struggle to read at lunch at work. There’s no universal bookholder for paperbacks, large books and epic war-and-peacers.

5. My reading speed improved.

6.It’s an ecological thing to do. Think of all the trees saved.

7. Libraries have gotten on the bandwagon, offering eBooks through apps like Overdrive.

9. Price. Through programs like bookbub, very inexpensive books. Many of the classics are free.

10.Unpublished writers now have a chance to become successful authors.

So, as you can see, it’s not an either/or. I have the best of both worlds. The physical book for my sitting alone reading at home and the eBook for my carrying around reading and for research projects. Whoopee!! I am a happy camper. And may I wish all of you Happy Reading!