"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

12 May 2011

Goofy Notebooks and One Dollar Pens

If you haven't read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, you need to run out immediately and find a copy.  It shouldn't be too hard: if you have writing friends, chances are one or two of them will have it among their book stacks.  The question is whether they will be willing to part with it while your eyes are opened.

Most writing books are about strict rules that all writers should follow.  They are full of great advice, but I am often left dumbstruck at their tone.  They act as if it is easy for a writer to wrap her mind around characterization, grammar, plot structure, syntax, dialogue, point of view, back-story, sentence structure, and poetic discourse before she sits down to write.  It is easy enough to take writing books such as those in small doses, but does every writer truly master each and every topic underneath the heading of writing? 

Despite their sometimes overwhelming qualities, I've lately been strangely addicted to writing how-to books.  This is partly because I want to learn more about writing and its nuances, partly because they are interesting, quick reads, and (confession time!) partly because they are just one more excuse to put off doing the hard work of writing itself.  They give me an opportunity to think about the specifics of what I am writing in different terms, and, with the elements of my novel in mind, the authors can give me advice and pointers.  But, if I read them all in one go, their plethora of advice can make me tense, and, more often than not, a bit discouraged.  Maybe this is why I enjoyed Writing Down the Bones so intensely: the book is not about rules; it is about freeing yourself of them.

I went back home to visit my mom on Monday because I had to work all day on Sunday, and wasn't able to see her for Mother's Day.  It was a long day, and while I always enjoy seeing my mom and spending time with her, lately she has been going through a lot, and as I was staring out the window on the bus back to Boston, I realized just how much I had let it all affect me.  I felt sad for what she is going through and overwhelmed that there is little I can do to help, and I spent most of the bus ride extremely contemplative, sunk into myself in a way that is strangely gratifying in its selfishness, but also, I know, a dangerous path towards sadness and grief. 

There were only a few of us on the bus, and I always wonder about the many combined lives a bus can hold.  The rough-looking teenager next to me had a tattoo that said 7-31-09, also mirrored in sharpie on the strap of his backpack.  There were a husband and wife who had allowed their two sons to have their own seats spread out throughout the bus, and one of them fell asleep in the back row.  There was an older couple obviously on their way to the airport, traveling clothes chosen carefully.  How did I fit into the picture of that bus's passengers?  Did I fill the role of single, white, female? The role of artistic aspiring-novelist?  Jaded recent college-grad?

Buses put me into a very strange mind-set, different from taking the subway or riding in a car.  I think about the lives around me and the utter randomness of our being thrown together.  I wonder what would happen if we were in some catastrophe together.  Would we bond so much that we would forever feel a connection to each other? Would we all take care of ourselves, leaving the strangers to do the same?  It's a morbid thought (what do you expect? I work in a graveyard), but what if these were the people surrounding me in death?

It was most likely part of the mood I was in from both my day visiting my mom and the bus ride back to Boston that left me restless and thoughtful.  I did not want to hop onto the red line and go back to my apartment, so I decided to walk from South Station to downtown crossing, and spend some time at Borders.  I'm a bit paranoid when I go into a store without much of a purpose: I always assume I'll be targeted as a shop lifter if I wander around too aimlessly.  Just one of my strange neuroses, I guess.  I tried to shove these thoughts down and just let myself enjoy being in a bookstore.  I wandered around looking at a few different things, but lately I haven't been wanting to spend $15 on a book when I can most likely find a used copy online for a fraction of that price.  Nevertheless, I asked where I could find a book on writing, and a salesperson pointed me to the Reference section.

I scanned through the section, and eventually left with two: Writing Down the Bones and Roy Peter Clark's Writing Tools.  I chose them based on (I won't lie) their cover art, and the reviews on the back cover.  Despite graduating with a Writing degree, very few of my professors used writing books to aid their teaching, choosing instead to let us learn through experience, so I am on a mission to read the quintessential books on writing in order to round out my education.  I paid for the books and left with a mental note to find used copies of Into the Wild and anything written by Hermann Hesse (who I have wanted to read more of since High School).  I walked to the Common and got on the red line, pulling out Writing Down the Bones as I waited for the T.

The book was immediately refreshing, and the author's voice instantly clicked with me (perhaps it was the shared sentiment of: "It never occurred to me to write, though I secretly wanted to marry a poet").   I was laughing out loud within the first pages, and by the time I got off the T, I was on my way to Family Dollar to carry out some advice.  Goldberg, in talking about a writer's tools, mentions that buying an expensive, fancy journal puts too much pressure on you to write something great.  "...you should feel that you have permission to write the worst junk in the world and it would be okay," she says. "...Garfield, the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, Star Wars.  I use notebooks with funny covers...I can't take myself too seriously when I open up a Peanuts notebook."  It was wonderfully simple advice, but I suddenly wanted a goofy notebook of my own, realizing how many times I didn't want to write in my expensive, leather journals for the simple reason that I needed to save them for something truly inspired.

Family Dollar didn't have a huge selection, but I found what I needed: a colorful notebook obviously made for boys, with one of the characters from the Pixar movie Cars on the cover underneath orange block letters that say, "I Love Donuts."  I bought some $1 pens to go along with it, and started home, glad that my aimless wandering had ended in a mission, albeit a small one. 

I read Writing Down the Bones from the time I got home around 8pm into the early morning.  It is written simply and beautifully, with beautiful lines such as, "Own anything you want in your writing, and then let it go."  The book is about finding your true voice through writing practice (based on zen techniques), not worrying so much about structure that you are left drowning in your own pieces of fiction.  True, it is sentimental and full of feel-good encouragement that some may find out of place for a book on writing (one reviewer on Amazon called it "akin to watching Oprah pull at an audience's heartstrings), but in the midst of how-to books filled to the brim with rule after rule, the touching memories and advice in Writing Down the Bones inspired me to trust myself just a bit more in my writing, and encouraged me to keep filling up the pages.  It doesn't matter if it's the next Pulitzer Prize winning piece or, "the worst junk in the world."

05 May 2011

What's the Story, Wishbone?

It's been a long time since I've written on this blog, which, depending on whether you have been following along, you may or may not have noticed (I promise that is not meant to be as passive aggressive as it sounds).  This is partly due to the fact that my computer has become as fragmentarily concerned with its own death as the characters of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (my computer is a fish), and partly due to a job I began in April that left minimal time and energy for writing anything other than the novel (which, incidentally, is finally starting to come together).

I'll try to update you all on the process and the shape of the novel sometime soon, but, in the mean time, let's talk about possibly my favorite topic of all time: books.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the way books shape us as a society as well as individuals.  It fascinates me to learn which books my family and friends will never forget; the books they read as children or those they return to time and again.  Books were always a large part of my childhood, my mom being an avid reader her entire life.  Amanda and I received new volumes of Nancy Drew mysteries for almost all of our birthdays as children, we were just as excited to read the novels which accompanied our American Girl Dolls as we were to give them haircuts and color their nails with markers (I blame my Molly doll for my strange obsession with liberty gardens and WWII rationing), and I remember my father once having us take turns reading aloud from a Harry Potter book during a five hour drive to New York City.

Luckily, reading at school was just as enjoyable as at home.  As fourth graders, my friends and I bonded over our mutual love of Laura Ingalls Wilder as well as the Dear America book series.  Our fifth grade teacher used to read Avi books to us every Friday afternoon (Perloo the Bold was my favorite book for years), and in sixth grade we were assigned Great Expectations (I played Miss Havisham in our end-of-the-unit skit), a book I wouldn't see again until my Honors English class in the public High School I transferred to.  Books were tools for education as well as enjoyment, and my path towards becoming an Undergrad English major, whether I realized it or not, began as far back as elementary school, watching episodes of Wishbone after school.


As much as I enjoyed reading as a child, it was not until I really began studying books in High School and College that I became truly affected by them.  I used to be furious with teachers who attempted to explain an author's motivation.  I always wanted to ask them how they knew, how they could presume to be inside a writer's head.  And while, to some extent, I still believe there is an extremely fine line between interpretation and personal opinion that teachers sometimes cannot help but cross, I eventually came to revere books not only as entertainment value, but as carefully constructed pieces of art.  Literary analysis opens a piece of fiction up for critique, exposing its flesh and blood until its interior motives are exposed.  It took me some time, but I came to understand that it is only in analysis that a book's true beauty can be revealed.  I began to see authors and their frameworks instead of characters alone.

It is maybe for this reason that I can never give a straight answer when asked which book is my favorite.  I have a string of favorites, all of which I like for various reasons, but there is not one single book I would give up the others for.  When forced, I admit to a fascination with The Sound and the Fury, but only because there are many aspects I have yet to understand about it.  I would never want to give up my copy of Beloved or The Hours, but that's not to say I would not get sick of them were they the only books I had to read on a desert island.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn will always entertain me with its picture of immigrant life and The Awakening will always amaze me in its truthful relevance, but neither outshines the other.  Novels are beautiful for both their beauty and their ugliness, for their carefully crafted structure and well as their ability to make you forget the conceit of it all, but I have trouble finding one more beautiful than others.  I cannot place one above the others because they have all shaped a small piece of me and my writing career.

What I find so fascinating is that, although reading is extremely personal, there are many books that seem to affect our generation on a general level.  Books such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Alice and Wonderland have become a part of our everyday vernacular, their plots well-known even if we haven't actually sat down and read them.  Everyone understands the world of Jane Austen novels, the bleakness of Dickens, but for how long?  Of course, classic pieces of literature affect us because they retain elements of truth no matter their milieu or time period, but will there come a time when references to Peter Pan or Sherlock Holmes will be meaningless, when Moby Dick will not carry with it connotations of a desperation for grandeur?

While watching bits and pieces of a very interesting yet strange movie called My Dinner with Andre today, I was struck for probably the hundredth time by the realization that I have never read The Little Prince.  I understand that it is the type of book which has a profound impact on many people who read it, and it comes up in popular culture and particularly in literary circles as a book worth reading, but, for some reason, I never came across it in my own education.  I have also never read Pride and Prejudice, although I have seen many movie versions.  The movie My Dinner with Andre calls to question the purpose of art and its ability to enrich life, and it had me realizing that, although I have not read some very key pieces of literature, I have not needed to; they have been utilized in many ways, to the point that reading them has become almost unnecessary.

While it is comforting to know that literature has a place within the popular conscience of Americans, I believe that, eventually, this may become a detriment.  More and more, our generation is beginning to rely on the stereotypical pop culture version of novels rather than on the novels themselves.  We settle for the movie version, for the zombie-fied post-modern re-telling of a book we've never even read.  In this way, Classic novels have become commodities; we need the cliff notes to differentiate between them.  

Of course teaching methods are going to change as new educational philosophies become popular and are considered innovative.  Of course not every piece of classic literature can be included in an educational curricula.  But what does it mean that I am just now reading To Kill a Mockingbird? Why was it only in college (when cast in a play roughly based on its structure) that I read my first line of Hamlet?  If I, as an English major and generally avid reader have missed out on many of these classic pieces of literature, what does it mean for those who are in majors outside of fictionalized literature, those who prefer not to pick up books for fun?  Will this common knowledge of classic plot lines disintegrate?  Will there come a generation that does not share a mutual understanding of Twain's American ideals or Gertrude Stein's political undertones?  And, if so, what does that mean for society?

The problem lies not in the fact that these books may be left behind, but in the fact that their replacements will be stories of sex scandal and Charlie Sheen-esque meltdowns.  Even the first and second-graders I work with are familiar with Justin Beiber and his status as sex-symbol.  At their book fair, they bought books chronicling his tour across the country that came with a pull-out poster and coordinating glitter stickers.  They will be reading chapter books not about girls living in World War II or during the Great Depression, but those who are forced to balance homework with their pop concert schedules and Friday night dates.  Now, the fact that seven and eight year olds are exposed to such a sexualized culture is an entirely other issue.  What I am concerned with is the substance of what we are giving them to read.  How can we expect their understanding of human emotions to be developed if we are giving them only stories of a fantasized, hollywood lifestyle?

Maybe I'm being over-dramatic.  I did see my fair share of students reading books by Beverly Cleary or Roald Dahl, all books I believe wonderful.  But it was my experience that these students had found them somewhat by accident, or were led to them by a great librarian or teacher.  I have seen wonderful educators bringing novels to life within their classrooms for their students, but with the sex-driven pop-culture overload their students are getting all around them, the books are making less of an impact.  We as an American society are setting a precedent of glorified triviality.  We laud teenage pregnancies and revere whatever makes a good magazine story, to the detriment, I believe, of our students.

I realize this has turned into something rather political, and it is very long.  If you're still reading (I forgive you if you aren't!), let me know what you think.  Am I completely off track here?  My love of literature and its ability to transcend every boundary began in childhood; I just hope we are not denying the new generation a literary life of substance.

Peanuts, June 22, 1952
P.S. Yes, I changed the name of this blog.  It was all beginning to annoy me with its schmaltzy-ness.  Not sure this is any better, but it annoys me less...