What To Do Right Now

Sitting at home on a Saturday afternoon, eyeing the implacable to-do list. I’ve always believed a freelance writer’s work is never done. There is always another magazine to pitch, another blog to write, another idea to flesh out, another email to send, another newsletter to read. The opportunities are as limitless as grains of sand and each one missed feels like a small but meaningful moral failure.

That is my archaic Protestant blood; the part of me descended from Huguenots and who knows what else: Methodists, Calvinists, Puritans? They’re mixed up in my family tree. The clear line is work, duty and the precariousness of salvation. All I did was replace the fear of damnation with the fear of failure.

It is a poor exchange. The reward is as evanescent as the demands are arbitrary. What heaven? Whose definition of success?

Meanwhile, Trump threatens nuclear war. White supremacists roam free across the US. Britain is committing slow motion suicide in the name of Brexit.

We live in the proverbial interesting times.

I would like to have something wise to say about this and don’t.

What I can recommend to everyone, starting with myself, is to take the to-do list lightly. After the mushroom cloud, no one will remember or care if you ticked that last item off the list. Instead, spend serious time on things that have meaning right now. Like cooking a good meal, drinking a glass of wine, talking (not texting) to a friend. And reading books. Lots of books.

Media adds to the chaos and noise. There’s too much information, too much bullshit, too much chatter, too many memes, too much clickbait, too many ads disguised as editorial.

Books don’t have hyperlinks. Books create space for your mind to breathe. Books tell us how things worked out the last time around Off the top of my head, here are seven books you should read because they’ll help you make sense of right now.

  1. EM Forster – Two Cheers for Democracy
  2. Martha Gellhorn – The Face of War
  3. Earnest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
  4. Joseph Heller – Catch-22
  5. George Orwell – Homage to Catalonia
  6. Emma Goldman – Essays on Anarchism
  7. Eric Ambler – Uncommon Danger
  8. Wilfred Own – The Collected Poems

Add your suggestions please!

Reread: Best Books of 2016

If, like me, you have a voice in your head that tells you off for paying attention to your own life, for saving boarding passes and scribbled-upon napkins, for stopping to write love letters in the sand, ignore it.

img_20161113_151120Happiness and creativity depend on valuing our lives. They depend on listening, watching, recording, remembering. It is easy to envy other people’s lives — so exciting! Such superior children/holidays/houses/jobs/wardrobes/sex lives! Such a torrent of fabulous Instagram photos and witty Facebook status updates. We get so caught up peering through the virtual window of our neighbours’ lives we forget to look at our own. We don’t see the pathos, adventure, and pleasure of our own existence because we’re not looking.

Two years ago I started a keeping a list of all the books I read. It seemed like a self-indulgent tic indicative of an unhealthy level of ego. Or, worse, a pointless exercise (who cares?) My delight in list-making narrowly trumped these niggles. Now a blue virtual post-it on my home screen contains a list of all the books I read in 2016.

The list reminds me not only what I’ve read, but how I read. It is a snapshot of the ebb and flow of time and energy. January 2016 was a book-heavy month, gobbling up a glut of Christmas goodies and biding a lot of time until my second date with the soon-to-be boyfriend. February was a respectable showing. March, the month I spent between London, Dominican Republic and Brussels, I read almost nothing. The next two months were spent in a miserable, unsuccessful attempt to assimilate into a receptionist job at an overrated luxury agrotourismo in Ibiza — it was bad enough I only read a book and a half. Finishing Anna Karenina took me through June. The rest of the year I read in fits and starts. What jumped out, reviewing the list, was how many books I reread. And, with the exception of High Tide in Tucson and Jane Eyre, not just for the second time.

Looking over my top ten rereads reminds me what I value and crave. The books on this list all offer, directly or through illustration, wisdom and encouragement to those trying hard to live by their own lights. From the esoteric musings of the Glass siblings to the tough-love advice of Cheryl Strayed, each book is, in its own way, a tonic. They were rocks in the fast-moving stream of a year where everything changed, stepping stones to a new life.

Franny & Zooey, JD Salinger

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The summer I was 15 I lived with my older sister and worked at Wendy’s. Every day on my break I hunkered down in store cupboard and read Franny & Zooey. To this day I’m not sure where I got the book, or why it grabbed me. What I do know is I’ve read it somewhere between 30-50 times, can quote entire sections of it verbatim, and reread it at least twice a year. In part it’s the reflection of myself I see in Zooey who says “I’m sick to death of waking up furious every morning and going to bed furious at night”, an echo of my relationship with my siblings in the narrator’s aside that the Glass siblings share a “semantic geometry where the shortest distance between two points is a fullish circle”, or descriptions like, “the Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table in Monte Carlo.” In part, because the wildly verbose, witty, strangely timeless sentences still reveal new flashes of character. The narrator says it is a “compound or multiple love story, pure and complicated” which is a fine description of the writing, too.

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

Ostensibly a book about writing, Bird by Bird is a wise, funny, heart-rending guide to living life when you don’t fit in a box. The combination of Lamott’s acerbic yet self-deprecating turns of phrase coupled with her palpable compassion is almost unbearable. I cry every time I read it, even though I’ve read it so many times I well up in anticipation. It makes me want to walk around hugging everyone and at the same time makes me want to be a blazing good writer. Every chapter is a gem, but “Jealousy” and “KFKD” are maybe the best things you’ll ever read on, respectively, the eponymous emotion and self-doubt. And her advice about avoiding libel charges is hilarious, priceless, and involves the memorable comparison of a penis to a baby bird in its nest.

Letters to a Young Poet, Rilkeletters

This I plucked off a library shelf in Tigard, OR on the strength of the fact that Lady Gaga has a Rilke quote tattooed on her upper arm — it reads in part, “confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write”. The line, it transpires, is from Letters To A Young Poet which is so rich in exquisitely worded wisdom it flays me. Rilke’s advice on sex, solitude, and seeking ones calling is so incisive it takes my breath away. And, as a poet, he makes every word count, crafting artful sentences that blow my mind on both a philosophical and aesthetic basis. I love it so much, I read it aloud and sent the recording as a gift to a friend.

 

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s trenchent analysis of what women writers need is as relevant today as when she delivered the lectures from which it was drawn in 1928. We may have “come a long way, baby” but women are still underpaid, overworked, and too often cut off from the privileges that enrich men’s prospects. Sexism may not be as crude as the beadle who ordered her out of the Oxford library, but it thrives in a thousand insidious ways that women internalise or ignore at their own risk. I also love Woolf’s dazzling prose, which gave us, “one can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed

This collection of Strayed’s advice columns written for The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar column breaks my heart wide open. I’m sobbing by the time I get through the second or third letter, whichever it is that is from the women who suffered a late-term miscarriage. It is hard to put my finger exactly on what it is about Tiny Beautiful Things that makes me gasp. Mostly, it’s Strayed’s unflinching willingness to examine the hardest things in her own life. She doesn’t rush through awfulness, or glide past suffering, she stays, unafraid to study it and claim who and what she is in the wake of it. This solipsism is unexpectedly comforting. By inhabiting and sharing her experience she makes it okay to inhabit and unpick my experience. Line by line, she demonstrates the potential for growth and change in every life. If one is willing to embrace an almost Stoic determination to live well by doing what’s right.

Endurance, Melissa Madenski

enduranceIn 2015 I committed to memorising a poem per month, and did. Not all of them have remained word-perfect in my head, but it was an incredible experience with language. When you learn something by heart, you discover things. Cadence, repetition, punctuation, imagery all become vivid in an unpredictable way. I didn’t set out to memorise poetry in 2016 but I read a lot of it — including fantastic collections by Jack Gilbert and CP Cavafy. My favourite reread, though, was this slender chapbook by an Oregon writer. She lost her husband to an unexpected heart attack when she was in her 30s with two young children and the grief of that loss reverberates through Endurance. These are poems about learning to live with the worst case, not with resignation but with courage and, ultimately, joy. It’s another one I can’t make it through without tears, but they’re cathartic.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

Of all the my rereads, this was the most fun because it was so different from my memory of it. I must have been 12 or 13 when I read Jane Eyre and I was bored witless. Years later, I read Wuthering Heights and hated it, confirming my prejudice against their weird, masochistic and wildly overrated Brontë sisters. Then on a whim I read Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and liked it. And somewhere I heard that Jane Eyre was feminist. So I gave it another shot and fell in love. Bold feminism plus a terrific yarn? Brilliant.

Free Kindle edition

Long Quiet Highway, Natalie Goldberg

I reread at least one or two of Goldberg’s books each year. Most often Writing Down the Bones or Wild Mind, but this time I went for The Long Quiet Highway which is mostly about her study of Zen Buddhism over the years. Which of course means it is about writing, being, meaning, truth, acceptance, and everything else that matters. Writing is Zen; Zen is writing. Whatever we do is meditation if we allow it to be. The subtitle is Waking Up in America which is  nearly what I named this blog because that’s what I’m trying to do: wake up in a country I left 16 years ago; figure out what it means to be me in America in 2017, and how to do something good here.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island has been a staple of my literary diet since I was 15 or so. I was a precocious reader, but not above devouring whatever I could get my hands on, and this yarn of seafaring and daring-do always hit the spot. Years later, when I moved to Ibiza, I started to think of it as treasure island — a supposed paradise guarded by dead men’s bones and half-crazed exiles. Overly dramatic personal parallels aside, it is a fantastically fun book and an excellent template for writers looking to craft a fast-paced, unforgettable story.

Free Kindle edition

High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver is the most recent addition to my personal pantheon of southern American writers (Carson McCullers, Hunter S Thompson, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, etc etc) and possibly the one I’d Most Like To Meet. Writing implacably reveals character and every word I’ve read of Kingsolver makes me think she is a Good Person, smart as hell, and cracking company on a night out. Her fiction boggles me and this book of essays is one of the finest, sharpest, most humane collections I’ve had the pleasure of reading. The title essay alone is worth the price of admission; Buster the stranded hermit crab may change your life.

What were your favourite rereads of 2016? Share in the comments or tweet @CilaWarncke

Home to America, 2000

In the spring of 2000 I was an exchange student from Penn to King’s College London. During my hiatus from I wrote a bi-weekly column for The Daily Pennsylvanian. The following was published at the end of April, as my second and final term ended. franny

Nearly 17 years later, I am experiencing the same mix of nostalgia, love, and uncertainty. As Salinger wrote in Franny & Zooey “There are no real changes between eight and 80.” Here’s to the never and ever-changing self.

As James Joyce no less said, “It is dangerous to leave one’s country, but still more dangerous to go back,” words that resonate more to me with every day that creeps toward my dreaded farewell to England. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was staring from the window of a 747 down on a grey-green smudge of island and thinking — half in panic — I live there now; I’m going home. Then, in September, thinking of London as home was an exercise in abstraction, like visualizing myself as a plant.

In a way it was terrifying, surrounded by 18-year-old first-year students, all as adrift as me. Mercifully, the common-sense British attitude toward alcohol meant we spent the first fortnight getting rolling drunk together, which greatly accelerated the bonding process. There were still moments of sober anxiety, though, sitting looking at the dirty cream walls of my room wishing they enclosed a more hospitable space.

From being surrounded by love and friendship in Philadelphia to being utterly alone and unattached in London was a shock. Sometimes I despaired of ever finding another circle of friends. Not having had to make friends for the better part of two years, I was sure I had forgotten how to, at least I couldn’t remember what had worked back when I was a freshman.

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To be honest, I still don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I’m as inundated with companionship here as I ever was at Penn. Which has a lot to do with my burgeoning dread of the day I get on another transatlantic flight.

How do you leave people you’ve loved, fought with, partied with, worked with, stayed up all night smoking and talking-with? I’ve done it once before, so I ought to be able to answer that, but I can’t. It makes my heart almost burst to imagine saying goodbye, so I try to pretend it won’t happen.

Instead, I concentrate on living, and every day find myself more in love with a life that I’m going to have to leave in a matter of months. The smallest daily routines are rife with flashes of magic, like taking a double-decker bus into central London and rumbling past the postcard-perfect scene of Piccadilly Circus. Or taking a break from lectures and wandering to Victoria Place to munch on sandwiches as you gaze across the Southbank skyline from the Tower Bridge to Big Ben.

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And there are the bits that don’t make the guide books: standing in Trafalgar Square in the freezing cold at 4 a.m. with a nascent hangover, waiting for a night bus; stumbling into kebab shops at 2 a.m. for a lethal dose of Turkish cuisine; arguing with minicab drivers; going to the gym and seeing Rupert Everett doing crunches; or sitting around on a Friday night trying to work out whether or not you can afford a pub or if you’ll have to go out for some cheap wine instead.

What is also rarely mentioned in the Rough Guide is how lovely British people really are. Five months working at a pub has given me an unparalleled opportunity to observe the Brits in their natural habitat, and I can safely say that their reputation for being snooty, superior and generally “up their own arses” is almost without exception undeserved. Sure, some are obnoxious jerks — Chelsea Football Club fans for example — but the vast majority are laid back, friendly and unfailingly courteous.

Another facet of England’s considerable charm is the refreshing safety of even its largest city. I will never forget walking down the street one day and spotting a poster advertising that day’s Evening Standard, “Man killed in ‘drive-by’ shooting” was the headline — complete with apostrophes. Awe-struck, I just stood there, gaping at the words, trying to wrap my head around the idea that in Britain drive-bys are so unheard of they still deserve quotes.

Sadly, though, the clock is ticking, and unlike Joyce I don’t have the option of staying happily exiled. So, for now, I’ll brace myself to return to grubby, lovely Philadelphia, and the wonderful friends I’ve made there. Hoping only that I won’t find the return too dangerous and that someday, when I’m home again, I’ll look back on my final year at Penn with as much gratitude and delight as I remember my first year in London.

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Your turn: Dig out an old notebook and share a story from your younger self.
Don’t have one? Start one!

How to read like a writer

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor boatat the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of Thenovel Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

 “You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Tbitteraught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slow reading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadlyfarewell-arms

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

 5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    stein

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”ulysses

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savoring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

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Writers’ Recommended Reading:

Ulysses – James Joyce
To The Lighthouse –Virginia Woolf
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
New York Review of Books