Writing Down The Bones

I promised you must-read writing books. Let’s start with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It has been a beacon to scribes and wannabes for over 30 years. I discovered it late and have compensated by reading it two or three times a year since.

Goldberg’s fundamental principle is just write. If you want to be a writer, write. That’s been sound advice since Epictetus dished it a couple of thousand years ago. Goldberg picks up the Stoic philosopher’s thread with brief, punchy chapters that are so elegantly written as to make writing seem infinitely appealing, even when she’s telling you how hard it is.

My feeble descriptive capacity does Natalie no justice so, with respect, I’ll let a few snippets speak for themselves.

Writing Down The Bones

“It is important to have a way worked out to begin your writing; otherwise, washing the dishes becomes the most important thing on earth — anything that will divert you from writing. Finally, one just has to shut up, sit down, and write. That is painful.” p26

“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die, age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all sorrow and all winters we are alive on the earth.” p47

“Be specific. Don’t say “fruit.” Tell what kind of fruit — “It is a pomegranate.” Give things the dignity of their names.” p77

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Sunrise, Ibiza

“Another friend told me about her father who left the family suddenly when she was twelve and became a born-again Christian and embezzled money from the churches of three states. It was her personal tragedy. I told her it was a great story. Her face lit up. She realized she could transform her life in a new way — as material for writing.” p85

“Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you  have to say. Go a little further. Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of beginning. Probably that’s why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down onto something real.” p112

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Penn campus, West Philadelphia

“Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be rigid, though. If one day you have to take your kids to the dentist when it is your time to write, write in the dentist’s office or don’t write. Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly toward it. It’s easier to come back to a good friend than an enemy.” p145

“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 reaffirm, 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.” p172

Visit Natalie’s website. She has a new book out soon in paperback!

Really, you have to read it for yourself. Get it!

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Above the clouds

 

 

 

 

Writing like a pilot

Glorious clear days mean flying.

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Cessna 172 Skyhawk

Chris is building pilot-in-command hours. There is a ridiculous number of categories and designations of flying privileges, starting with private pilot. The common denominator is each level requires more time in the air, so he gravitates towards Cessna 172s whenever winds are calm and visibility good.

He bought me a Bose noise-cancelling aviation headset to match his. It’s the sweetest and least-likely gift I’ve ever received, and the most useful. Without it, I’d be as deaf as a newel.

The first time we flew together was in Ann Arbor. Bouncing around in the choppy air, I kept reminding myself that at least we’d die together.

I’m braver now, though it still takes real effort to not grip his arm in panic when we hit a bump. Don’t mess with the hand that controls the trim wheel.

The last two days we logged five hours and I’m starting to get a teensy bit hooked on it. Chris is patient with my incessant (in-Cessnant?) questions: What’s that gauge? What does it mean when the controller says that? What happens if you push that button?

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Ready for take-off

Piloting is intensive, but not in the ways I thought. Most of the Cessna 172s at the rural Mississippi airport Chris flies out of date from the 70s. They remind me of VW Bugs. The instruments are basic. Some of them run off gyroscopes which whir away after the engine is off, like bees running out of buzz. Flying a single-engine plane is mechanics and talking. Before we even get in he does a full circuit, checking the fuel, oil, tyres, struts, air intake, and assorted bits of which I have yet to learn the names.

Once we’re buckled in and have our headsets on he reviews the controls, oil pressure, engine heat, fuel mix, lights and so forth. Laminated checklists guide every step from pre-flight to taxi to take-off to flying to landing. Chris also carries a little clipboard with notepaper to scribble down weather information and radio frequencies. These are the single most important thing once the engine kicks over. Radio navigation is the fundamental tool for getting from point to point; it’s what keeps planes from colliding in midair; it’s how lost pilots get found, and planes come safely through clouds.

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Flight charts

Flying seems like magic but all it requires is the pilot understand and abide by simple standard practices. Check the equipment, know the frequencies, listen, trust the instruments: you’ll get where you’re going. Writing is the same.

Good writing may look like sorcery but it has patterns, structures and guidelines. Different types of writing have different “checklists” but even wild free verse or stiff academic prose follow basic rules of logic and language.

If you write beautifully by ear you can still learn
a huge amount (and gain courage) by understanding the principles of good writing. Before you know it, you’ll be flying.

Stay tuned for some of my favourite guidebooks… and share yours in the comments!

 

 

Write as if you were dying

“Write as if you were dying”. Annie Dillard’s advice (The Writing Life, p 68) has echoed in my head since I scribbled it in my notebook yesterday.

writing-life

“What would you begin writing,” she asks. “If you knew you would die soon?”

Yesterday’s answer was: I don’t know.

Today’s answer is shaded by the news of he-wh0-shall-not-be-named’s immigration ban. My mind keeps casting for a flicker of hope or relief. The hook comes up emptyemptyempty.

What would you write if sanity and morality were dying in your world, leaving good people gasping, upside down, like fish in a poisoned lake?

What the fuck can I say in the face of that?

Tweet. RT.

#resist #notmypresident #imanimmigrant

Someone, Natalie Goldberg maybe, said if you can ask a question you can answer it. Fine.

If I were dying, I’d write about not knowing where I belong. I’d write about the rain and the pine trees. I’d write about riding the old red Routemaster bus from Finchley Road to the Strand. I’d write about the nights drinking on Old Compton Street, and the Weatherspoons on Charing Cross Road. I’d write about making boots out of pink acrylic fur and wearing them to hard house raves beneath the arches at London Bridge. I’d write about buying Andy a Kinder Egg for Easter and watching him repair his trainers with superglue. I’d write about waiting for hours for a minute of conversation with Will; about the night he bought me a bottle of champagne in a drafty club in Elephant & Castle. I’d write about how extraordinary the stars are in southern Idaho, miles from the nearest town; and how the Nevada desert doesn’t look real beneath the pearly light of the full moon. I’d write about how the air smells at night in Ibiza and the whorled trucks of ancient olive trees. I’d write about the ribbon-like roads of the Amalfi Coast and the way the wind topples turquoise waves into streamers of white foam on the Mayan Riviera. I’d write about learning to taste wine and chargrill aubergines. I’d write about the dead men who make me grind my teeth. I’d write about feeling lost. I’d write about the books that shaped me, the ones I turn to for comfort. I’d write about being a god-fearing child and agnostic adult. I’d write that the most important thing in the world is being able to walk away. Then I’d contradict myself and say the most important thing is to know when to say.

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Amalfi Coast, Italy

What I’d be trying to say, through all of it, is I don’t know. Maybe you do. Maybe someone does. But me? Nope. Not a clue. I don’t know what it means to be here, to be me. I don’t know what picture the pieces make. All the memories and experiences, all the fun and all the disasters, all the friendships and the distance.

This is where I should trot out a pithy homily and – zi-zang!- all will be clear. But it’s not that kind of day; arguably, as of today, we don’t live in that kind of world. There are no pat explanations or obvious answers. All I know is that we have a fundamental human obligation to treat each other with care and respect. Everything else — our histories, preferences, quirks, interests, opinions — are inconsequential compared to this single, immense obligation. The only question any more is What can I do to help?

Support: Amnesty International Support: Human Rights Watch Support: ACLU

 

 

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

franny

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

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.”

lighthouse

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