Notes in June 2021

In reading about writing, I’ve been dabbling Philip Pullman’s essays in Daemon Voices and slowly moving through the volume of correspondence shared by François Lévesque and Virginia Pesemapeo Bordeleau, La Bienveillance des Ours.

In writing about writing, I’ve just shared my thoughts about the recent publishing industry biography by Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple.

In reading about reading, I just finished Wendy Lesser’s Scandinavian Noir. Her book on rereading is a longtime favourite.

And, in writing about reading, I’ve dusted off my write-by-hand reading journal (it’s been neglected during this past year).

There were never enough hours in a summer day to extract the full joy of being alive. Dorothy West The Living is Easy

Every Day I Write the Book (Amitava Kumar)

It’s simple, this volume’s cover, and I love it—the horizontal and vertical rulers of a typical word processing page visible on two sides, the title highlighted in yellow, followed by a subtitle with underlining and a strike-through (Notes A Report on Style). This is a process, it says. And Amitava Kumar invites reader into that process.

The publisher’s copy suggests that this book is, for academics, what Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is for creative writers. Mentioning Dillard (and Stephen King) is sure to catch my interest, but Kumar’s book is neither as ruminative as Dillard’s nor as instructive as King’s: Kumar’s book is curious and provocative, serious in one moment and silly in the next.

One reason that I appreciate Kumar’s approach is his fondness for books about writing. Not all writers like to read about writing; even among that group, however, are writers who have been compelled to write about writing (perhaps nudged in that direction by an agent, publisher, employer, or a dwindling bank account). Some of the books I’ve written about here could have been written reluctantly too. Kumar’s not in that club.

Within a few pages, in a short piece titled “Running”, he writes: “There is a book of interviews with nonfiction writers—most of them would be described as journalists with a literary calling—that I consult often for what it has to offer in terms of advice about how to write a first paragraph, tips on organizing materials or interviewing, and advice on how to conduct research.” [He’s talking about The New Journalism, edited by Robert S. Boynton, and it pops up later in the volume on other occasions, too.]

I often revisit writing books when I am feeling stuck or unmotivated too, when I need assistance unravelling a snag in my routine. Amitava Kumar’s book, though, is one that I would pick up again to browse, or to reread. It’s not a reference book for me, although the two pages titled “Strunk and White” could refresh my thoughts on clarity. It’s more companionship for me, the kind of book I’d pick up to remind myself that some other people’s minds work in these strange, spirally patterns too.

Kumar is open to new ideas. (“A colleague of mine said that I should try the Pomodoro Technique,” he writes in “Kitchen Timer”.) He also returns to tried-and-true techniques: “I am in favor of naps,” he writes in “Sleep”. And in “Rules of Writing” he considers the kind of writing book he’d like to write:

“This book is about what works in writing and what doesn’t. It belongs to the genre of books by writers on writing. I love reading interviews with writers, particularly when they describe their work routines. I don’t want a lecture about the long lonely slog that resulted in a book; a small, useful tip will do just fine, thank you.”

There are many excerpts from the kinds of interviews he describes enjoying, scattered throughout these essays. In “Creative Writing”, he quotes Colson Whitehead: “Well, just because you are a good critic, it doesn’t mean you’re a god writer. They are two different skills—and it is great when a good critic is also a good critic [sic] but your average person might not be gifted in both areas.”

In the same essay, he describes having read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers recently, and he observes that “Porter’s book is marketed as a novel—and it is that, but is also a poem, a dream or hallucination, and an act of creative criticism”. It’s as though Kumar is in a constant, ongoing conversation with all the stories: I can relate to that.

He also writes from the perspective of a teacher, however; he first notes that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (a multimedia volume of poetry) lists the names of Black men and women who have been killed in acts of police violence. He has incorporated this work in his teaching over the years, so that now he can also add that later editions of Citizen have different, longer lists—“In Memory of”. Experience adds another layer to these observations.

One of my favourite quotations, which Kumar cites in “Revising”, is from an interview with Jon Krakauer: “Writers often fail to appreciate that removing 5 percent of a book can make that book twice as good.” It’s something that he aims to keep in mind when he’s revising. It’s something that anyone revising would welcome hearing. It comes from a volume that Kumar refers to often, that New Journalism collection mentioned above. For some writer out there, Kumar’s book could be that kind of reliable source, constant companion.

Fine stuff for writers.

Amitava Kumar. Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.

A Bite of the Apple (Lennie Goodings)

Reading publishers’ memoirs is perhaps most relevant to writers who are approaching or navigating the publishing industry, but understanding more about the industry’s inner workings is useful at every stage of a writer’s career. Reading about Lennie Goodings’ experience with Virago will be of particular interest to women writers and to writers who admire and seek representation with small, independent publishers.

Though Virago is neither small, nor independent anymore; a view of that transformation, from an insider, is of real interest to those writers who are also Virago readers. Their Modern Classics series was one of my first dedicated reading projects (short of obsessing over specific authors and their oeuvres).

It has remained a cornerstone of their publishing house. “The Classics have been a solid part of our backlist income for years but the series is so, so much more important than its mere monetary value.” If you are considering a relationship with a specific publishing house, check out their long-term projects and how they reflect your own interests (in reading, as well as writing).

In Goodings’ memoir, we learn that Virago’s launch title, in September 1975, was Mary Chamberlain’s Fenwomen. It’s a 100-year-long history, told through the voices of the women who have inhabited a remote village in the Cambridgeshire Fens; the book, like Virago, aims to present “women’s everyday lives”, to prioritize the kinds of “stories previously not thought worth telling and recording”.

When you’re preparing to sign a contract, consider how the publishing house’s values relate to your own. “I believe there are so many ways to make society change and there is no one right way: a better, fairer world for everyone will come with a multitude of forces, from grassroots to established institutions, sweep in the changes,” states Goodings. She discusses the difficulties faced, in terms of gaining publicity and access to top-tier authors, for example; she also discusses various criticisms from the feminist community, from members who disagreed with the choices Virago made in their efforts to make change. (For instance, many believe that they should have operated as a collective.)

A publishing house represents a variety of perspectives and it’s interesting and informative to learn how conflicts flared and were resolved (or, not) under the Virago roof. Goodings quotes Toni Morrison on the editorial relationship: “…if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen”. Morrison’s statement suggests she had some familiarity with how the relationship functioned when there was little or no trust, little or no willingness to listen.

Writers will encounter disagreement and conflict in their editorial relationship; learning how one publisher handles dissent and confrontation offers food for thought. Goodings writes: “What I feel strongly about is the way that radicals –and this applies to women as much as men—feel they can shout down a moderate view rather than accommodate it alongside their stance. Has anything changed?”

Having started with the press in 1978, shortly after it was founded, Goodings’ memoir also offers insight on how the landscape of feminist publishing changed over the decades. She talks about how, in the early days, Margaret Atwood’s novels appeared in paperback in the U.K. as Virago Modern Classics, becoming “one of the foundations and an enduring part of Virago’s success, financially and otherwise”.

She observes how many of the key writers at Virago were available to fit the bill as “celebrity feminists” which the media sought as representatives of social change, despite “all their contradictions”. And, how so many of them have extended their work well beyond their publisher’s roof—writers like Susie Orbach, Naomi Wolf, Margaret Atwood, Kate Mosse, Sandi Toksvig, J.K. Rowling, Asne Seierstad, Natasha Walter, Maya Angelou, Sarah Waters, Deborah Frances-White, and Jessica J. Lee—all active contributors to specific organizations promoting social change.  

And she describes the inimitable scene of the “marvellous opening-night party of authors, publishers, and book-sellers”, when Audre Lorde “broke through the talk and laughter with a long, angry speech about the outrageous lack of many women of colour on the committee”. As much as launching Virago was about striving to make change, there are always more injustices to right, more silenced and soft voices yet to amplify.

Goodings’ willingness to admit when she has misjudged and misstepped makes this a satisfying (if not always wholly engaging) read. It’s refreshing to see her acknowledge patterns that replay (and often frustrate) in this sector. For instance: “As publishers we do know that people hunger for ‘the next things’, but still we are more likely to be drawn to wanting to repeat a recent successful formula. I understand this and do it myself.”

When you are striving to land a publication deal, frustrated that queries are unanswered or unsuccessful, irritated by a sense of same-same when browsing the bestseller lists, remember that a publisher is only a person, a publishing house only a collection of people. If you’re lucky, you can work with one who still finds a kind of magic in this simple statement: “I see over and over again how books touch and change people’s lives.” If you can’t land a publication deal, consider reading some publishing memoirs. Look at things from another perspective. Think again.

Lennie Goodings. A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago. Windsor: Biblioasis, 2020.

The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer (Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon)

As Poets & Writers is my oldest-favouritest magazine about writing, my expectations for this volume were high. When I finally had a copy of it in my hands, the volume so thick and heavy, I was concerned that it would be a reprint of highlights from the periodical, but it’s super satisfying and current, exhaustive and substantive.

Because it’s intended for writers of all experience levels, you can dip in and out (i.e. experienced writers might want to focus on time management, or writers with a completed manuscript might turn directly to the section on agents and representation). But you can also read straight through, moving in a logical progression, from inspiration to craft, from education to publishing, from book deals to publicity and promotion.

There are essays interspersed, contributed by noteworthy and talented writers, on each key topic as well as additional pieces which recommend books for further reading. There is also a section of short chapters dedicated to some big-picture themes (money, time, happiness, family, respect, and the law), which are intended to be thought-provoking and clever. There’s one, for instance, by Charles Yu on the subject of the “Inner Writer”, which is presented as an interview and it’s hilarious.

The Poets & Writers Guide aspires to go the distance. Many books about writing consider the question of goals, for instance, but here the discussion is broken down into Educational Goals, Writing Goals, Publishing Goals, Financial Goals, Higher Goals. Each topic is considered in some detail, so that distinctions are clear, with enough information to invite personal reflection: concise and directed.

There are also textboxes with salient quotations (and throughout the chapters) that would make this a good volume for browsing too. Maybe you are seeking a temporary escape, rather than a dedicated project. This Annie Proulx quotation is one of my favourites: “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

Action Items, advice presented in circles apart from the text, are also browse-worthy and eye-catching. There are, for example, suggestions to visit for recommendations (about movies, music, books, plays, activities, and philosophies, including “The Time is Now” newsletter—one of my favourites—although their website services are also considered in detail in an appendix). And #49 suggests that you count your rejections. “Note how they represent just one person’s opinion or judgement.”

For many years, Poets & Writers has been an excellent source of ideas and information from diverse authors and industry professionals. The gritty details here are useful, like the Valuing Your Time worksheet (courtesy of Amy Smith with contributions from Andrew Simonet and Aaron Lansman), the Submission Tracker sheet, a Publication Checklist, and a list of Eighty-four Agents Active on Twitter.

But just as helpful is the undercurrent of respectful and hopeful discourse. For a solitary writer (and many of us are more isolated than usual, with COVID restrictions in place to protect vulnerable individuals), the dimensions of this volume (literal and figurative) work to create a small community between two pages. This quotation by Luis Alberto Urrea is so encouraging and powerful: “Writing is on your side. Writing, story, poem, words, they need you if they are to survive. You are part of the life support system of story.”

In a similar vein, I appreciate the note of generosity and optimism, on which the book ends. Some might think it’s mawkish or insincere, but in a sector characterized more by rejection than acceptance, I receive it at face value, with gratitude: “Thank you for being a writer. Your writing is important. It is creative, generative, and the world needs more of it. We wish you the very best of luck with your writing and publishing. And now that we’re at the end, it’s time to get started. The end is just the beginning.”

Top-notch stuff for writers.

Kevin Larimer and Mary Gannon. The Poets & Writers Complete Guide to Being a Writer. New York: Simon & Schuster—Avid Reader Press, 2020.

Storyville (John Dufresne)

Straight up, I’m a sucker for illustrated books like this. But I’ve also been disappointed on occasion, having found the accompanying narrative lacking. So when I picked up Storyville, I was cautiously enthusiastic: would the graphic content be forced to carry the bulk of the load? No need to worry: the balance is wholly satisfying.

The graphic style is somewhere between clip-arty and doodle-y, but not in the sense that anyone purchased a set of a thousand images and now has to fit them all into this book. Only at first glance do the images seem generic—they align neatly with the content. (There’s a beach umbrella with this Eugène Ionesco quotation, for instance: “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”)

Full-page quotations, white text on a black background (with the white beach umbrella!) salt and pepper the book. For avid readers of books about writing, some of these will be familiar, but many of them are fresh, and drawn from a variety of genres and decades. They’re also positioned within the relevant chapters, integrated into the text, which gradually establishes into an air of authority.

The text is divided into four parts: The Fiction Writer, The Fiction Writing, The Plot, and The Revision. (Illustrated in the TOC with a pair of scissors cutting along a dotted line, with four letters floating above the paper—an E and a W, a J and a D, the illustrator’s and author’s initials—as if to prove that these simple images are carefully curated.) I appreciate the effort to keep it simple. When you get to this chapter, another set of TOCs follows the title page, which suggests that the book is designed to pull readers straight through and discourage dabblers.

Within “The Fiction Writing”, for instance, one of the segments is illustrated by a magician’s hat upended, with a rabbit peering out (one ear up, one ear down): “Surprise the Reader”. I appreciate the approach of surprise being something that the writer experiences too—”what brings us to the desk every day”—as well as more concrete advice from a craft perspective: “A surprise might be a robust verb, an unpredictable behavior by a character, an abrupt shift in time or place, a plot point that spins the action of the story off in a new directions, or an unexpected turn of events.”

Speaking of a pleasant surprise, I really appreciate the renaming of “writer’s block” as a natural step in the creative process (renamed “gestation”). Dufresne is not the first to take this approach, but he states it so confidently that it seems he could have been. Another happy surprise? Finding a page of dialogue from The Golden Girls on the theme of “writer’s block”! (Dorothy gets the biggest laugh, of course.) He’s also not the first to granularly break down the revision process (into rewriting, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading) but his suggestions are spot-on. This advice will be most helpful to emerging writers, but I appreciate the reminder that editing (like procrastinating, like gestating) is an essential part of the process.

There are two graphics which stand out for me. First, the “Story as Iceberg” page, which illustrates “The What?” as the 10% which shows above the surface of the water, with “The Why” lurking in the larger chunk of ice beneath, with “Lies, Secret, Family, Values, Beliefs, Culture, Dreams, Phobias, Heritage, Thoughts, Emotions, Motivation, Experience, Aspriations, and Childhood Traumas” lurking. And, furthermore, the last graphic, which I won’t spoil, because it simultaneously seemed both a basic and brilliant ending.

Really Good Stuff for Writers.

John Dufresne. Storyville: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Fiction. Illus. Evan Wondolowski. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020.

The Writer’s Practice (John Warner)

On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about this writing book by a McSweeney’s-Editor-at-Large; it’s a slim volume with predictable subject headings (Getting Started; Introduction; Skills Drills; Analytical Writing; Research and Argument; Other Writing Experiences, and This is the End).

But what I particularly value about this book is one of the underlying tenets, which subtly but meaningfully impacts every aspect of John Warner’s instruction: that one should think more about the experience of writing than about the exercise of writing. This might sound obvious, but it reaffirms the need to build a connection between your writing self and your work.

It’s possible to complete a set of exercises without truly engaging with – experiencing – the work; prioritizing the experience subtly shifts every part of the process. Thinking about every draft as an experience even allows you to adjust your expectations (so you can temper your disappointment over what Anne Lamott calls those “shitty first drafts” before you even begin to write).

Another writer might have put something like this in a textbox, but Warner doesn’t even elaborate on it. Similarly, he doesn’t bold his reminders about the importance of establishing one’s audience, he simply includes notes about an exercise’s audience in every instance.

He’s like the parent who schools by example rather than nagging. Reminding writers of the relationship between writer and reader, at every step of the process, makes sense; consistently keeping your audience in mind reduces the need for rewriting and it lightens the editorial load as you move closer to publication.

Another thing that I appreciate about Warner’s approach is the balance he strikes in his tone: he’s instructive without being overly didactic, personable without being overly informal. Every book about writing includes some commentary on procrastination (go figure!) and Warner doesn’t fall back on snide parenthetical remarks; he does contribute some personal admissions, but the bulk of his time is spent on considering how and why many writers’ fears result in last-minute or late submissions. (In his experience, 80% of writers admit to struggling with procrastination, despite recognizing that it’s a destructive pattern.) He lands between finger-wagging and coddling, and it suits me perfectly.

And, finally, the importance of Prewriting in Warner’s process satisfies me immensely. (It’s the first step—followed by Drafting, Revision, Editing and Polishing.) Many writers acknowledge this part of the work, which can overlap with discussions of how to increase receptivity, nourish creativity and counter resistance. But there is a matter-of-factness to Warner’s instruction: “A deeply researched piece may call for weeks of work in the prewriting stage and require a detailed outline before even beginning.” And he combines this with a generosity of spirit: “Procrastination is prewriting. Provisioning (Coca-Cola and Peanut M&Ms) is prewriting. So is reading, research, planning, thinking.” And, also, with advice: “This doesn’t mean prewriting has to be haphazard, though. A planned, deliberate approach to the prewriting period helps make the drafting process go more smoothly.”

The Writer’s Practice is also highly adaptable; it could be used in a classroom setting and by a solitary soul in their garret room/back seat of the bus/employee lunchroom/home office. There are even multiple endings (which is to say, different ways of structuring the content to suit different students’ priorities)!

Great stuff for writers.

John Warner. The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing. New York: Penguin Books, 2019.

Sweat the Technique (Rakim with Bakari Kitwana)

The artist behind what MTV called “the greatest hip-hop album of all time” (1987’s Paid in Full, recorded with Eric B.), Rakim, traces his inspiration to pre-birth. “My mother heard—and, by extension, I believe I heard—the words of Dr. King while I was still in the womb, and that sparked a connection to the man that resonates with me still.”

When he was a boy, Rakim witnessed DJs taking “disco, soul, and funk records—anything that was high-energy and powerful and danceable—and isolating the breakdown” (which is “the part where it’s just rhythm, percussion, and drumming that makes people want to dance with some force”). And he wrote his first rhyme when he was seven years old—about Mickey Mouse!

After he recognized his talent for rapping and his passion for hip-hop, he began to focus on improving his craft. In “Purpose”, he writes: “Three keys guided me: originality; the vibrations in the music; and the challenge to always be better than myself.”

Of course, some of his commentary is immediately applicable for musicians: “Music is vibration, and when it hits a certain spot, it boosts your energy. And it gives you a photo-flash memory of that moment.”

But creatives of all sorts can embrace this kind of observation: “You’re competing with the last thing you did. That’s one way of sticking to your guns and letting who you are speak through your work.”

And, like Questlove, he does not limit his sources of inspiration:

“Inspiration is everywhere, and to gain the knowledge required to become your best self and create your best work, seek inspiration not only in the obvious but across all spectrums of culture. In the effort to expand my thinking, elevate my creativity, and always outdo myself, I observe and record, and I learn from teachers, from books, from art, from science, from spirituality, from strangers on the street, and, many times most of all, from my closest family.”

After “Purpose” and “Inspiration”, the other three segments of the book discuss Spirituality, Consciousness, and Energy. For Rakim, his “…spiritual beliefs, the scientific and mathematical concepts” studied and “ideas and philosophical questions” both inspired and shaped his journey. He recommends artists embrace conscious energy: “Performance days are an important part of being a hip-hop artist. Their value to the art shouldn’t be diminished.”

For musicians, performance is paramount in importance, but other writers can consider this advice when it comes to readings and interviews, social media engagement and video presentations. Certainly musicians and spoken word artists will find particular encouragement here. For instance, the five detailed explorations of Rakim’s creative process, breaking down his work on “How to Emcee”, “Mahogany”, “The Mystery”, “Musical Massacre”, and “Casualties of War”.

Broader discussions of creativity, however, have clear applicability to artists of all sorts:

“You want to reach that point of creativity where it’s just flowing. No distractions, with the room comfortable like you want it. You’re trying to get to that place where everything is ten times more exaggerated. You want to get to that level where you’re at your highest point for expressing your art. Tap into it.”

Good stuff for writers.

Rakim with Bakari Kitwana. Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius. NY: HarperCollins, 2019.

Creative Quest (Questlove with Ben Greenman)

Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known as Questlove, is an American drummer, DJ, music journalist and record producer. You might recognize him as the drummer and front man (with Black Thought) of The Roots, or maybe from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

In Creative Quest, he contemplates and draws inspiration from across the musical landscape but he also refers to other artforms along the way. Like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, in which Willy Wonka’s attempt to make three-course-dinner chewing gum unexpectedly transforms Violet, to illustrate how a creative exercise can take unexpected turns.

He also discusses his interest in chefs as creative professionals. (Like Barbara Ueland, his understanding of creativity is inclusive—a variety of endeavors suits his definition.) Regarding cooking as a creative act, he is intrigued as much by the differences between it and his own creative work as by the similarities: “The biggest difference, obviously, is in the relationship with their audience. Musicians have audiences making demands on them, but not in the pure sense.”

Although his literary references appear scant (he’s not referring to the Roald Dahl novel when he thinks about Violet’s unfortunate condition, but the 1997 film directed by Mel Stuart), he does consider French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (the inspiration being, again, the film directed by Julian Schnabel in 2007, rather than 1997’s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon). He chooses this story, about how Bauby adapted to life after a stroke in his early forties left him trapped in his body, to illustrate how a dramatic departure from your own life can have unexpected and creative consequences.

Questlove freely discusses how important other artists’ work has been to him creatively. He’s generous in acknowledging a debt to their work: “We take our ideas where we find them, and largely we find them in the works of other artists.” And he’s gracious towards his mentors. (Fans who are more interested in the biographical aspects of this work will find these chapters particularly valuable.)

His observations about mentorship do have a broad applicability. It’s refreshing to hear how his understanding of certain concepts has changed over time. Though he’d expected mentorship to be “more about teaching skills, refining them, identifying what’s there and what’s not there”, he discovered that it was more about the importance of making the process a “two-way street, like everyone was inspiring everyone”.

Creative Quest is primarily focused on positive experiences and encouraging suggestions, but there is a no-nonsense acknowledgement of the varied experiences that an artist will have. For instance: “Much of what you do creatively will not land in the middle of a receptive audience. It will just fall into the world, to be ignored by most people and found by a few who react strongly to it, either positively or negatively.”

There is also some discussion about the need for conviction and self-awareness when an artist engages with social media. An overarching concern for Questlove is authenticity. In engaging with a broader community, he has simple advice: “Learn how to present yourself to others, but not to present yourself at the expense of truth.”

This concern with authenticity is evident throughout the volume. For instance, in a discussion of his personal experiences with epiphany, he does discuss some creative breakthroughs and successes, but not in a bold-or-italicized-text kind of way. Instead, he acknowledges that adopting that kind of nomenclature is not always appropriate: “It’s hard to pinpoint an epiphany, and it always seems artificial from the outside”

The volume is text-heavy but his tone is accessible and inviting. Even without a familiarity with his creative work, I was consistently drawn to the next chapter, and the book’s conclusion is simple but remarkably satisfying:

“When you’re done here, don’t just close the cover and let the world return to the way it was before. Make things. Make your way to the things that others have made. Make theories of yourself. All the advice in the world won’t help if you don’t get out ther and start the perfectly imperfect process of creating.”

Good stuff for writers.

Questlove with Ben Greenman. Creative Quest. NY: HarperCollins-Ecco, 2018.

Broken Places & Outer Spaces (Nnedi Okorafor)

They’re striking when they gather in a pack, but the TED books usually leave me wanting more. This is also true for me when it comes to Nnedi Okorafor’s contribution, based on her November 2017 TED Talk, “Sci-Fi Stories that Imagine a Future Africa”.

For those readers who only know Nnedi Okorafor through her fiction, however, this story does bring an interesting dimension to how she conceives of agency and powerlessness in her stories. The process she undergoes, to regain her health, is a trial but—like many challenges—travelling through difficult territory can lead to another kind of homeland.

Her paralysis and recovery not only created the opportunity for her to read more, she also discovered writers whose works she hadn’t previously enjoyed. The potential to tell different kinds of stories led her to query the texts in a different way.

Like this: “Could it be that Mary wrote Frankenstein as a way of facing her pain and fears? That she produced something so great and beyond herself from the grief she suffered? If this is true, then not only did Mary Shelley have her own ‘clay lady’ (Frankenstein’s monster), but an entire genre of literature (science fiction) was launched by the Breaking.”

Later, a friend encouraged her to take a creative writing class. Which also turned out to be a formative experience: “That class aligned all the planets scattered about my shattered universe. As I sat there listening and learning and eventually writing, everything came into focus. It was my Big Bang. My singularity. I finally heard my calling.”

Being introduced to a quantity and variety of writing styles opened up unsuspected possibilities for her, but one other formative experience awaited: “My paralysis and recovery led me to writing, but it would take an additional journey, a journey through my ancestral home of Nigeria, for me to meet and bond with an African-rooted form of science fiction.”

From here, readers can immediately recognize the connection between her personal and creative experience and their impact on her writing. And readers can learn the distinction between ‘Africanfuturism’ and ‘Afrofuturism’:

“Most traditional science fiction depicts a white world where I was not able to freely exist. But in the science fiction of what I’ve come to call ‘Africanfuturism’ (which is somewhat similar to Afrofuturism, but is specifically and more directly rooted in African culture, history, mythology, and perspective, where the center is non-Western), my characters inhabit worlds in which I can fight, play, invent, run, leap, and fly.”

As a tale of personal exploration and discovery, Broken Places & Outer Spaces is a succinct and well-told story. The ways in which writing can emerge, through different aspects of our selves, is something with which many writers can relate. And the ways in which struggle can culminate in articulating truths not only relatable but admirable and inspiring:

“The struggle that I sublimate through all my writing has been in my actively, willingly facing, breaking, and fusing my American and Nigerian cultures into what many of us call ‘Naijamerican’ (‘Naija’ is Nigerian slang for ‘Nigerian’ or ‘Nigeria’). And it has been in my learning to live with and embrace my strange crippled body.”

It takes more than nine minutes to read the book (but it’s barely a hundred pages, so not THAT many more), so you might rather watch. And bank your extra minutes to read her fiction. Or write your own.

Good stuff for readers, alright stuff for writers.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Broken Places & Outer Spaces. NY: Simon&Schuster-TED Books, 2019.

If You Want to Write (Brenda Ueland)

Because my copy of this is a reprint from the 1980s, purchased around the same time as Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994), I expected something different. In truth, the first couple of times I started to read, I managed only a few pages and set Ueland aside.

Had I understood that it was first published in 1938, I would have adjusted my expectations. In spirit, it falls at the intersection of Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer (1934) and John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1983). Ueland’s style is removed and direct like Gardner’s but she shares specific and personal details like Brande does.

Her advice is startlingly relevant. That plain-speech which seemed over-simplified and off-putting on my first attempts was refreshing when I revisited it.

At first glance, one might mistake her as being too idealistic. She says, for instance:

“We have come to think that duty should come first. I disagree. Duty should be a by-product. Writing, the creative effort, the use of the imagination, should come first, — at least for some part of every day of your life.”

But she is not overlooking other basic needs. She is only asking that writers follow that principle for “some part of every day”. Every day in every way? That would be too much. But even for a few moments, anyone can strive for that.

Her directions are simple: “With every sentence you write, you have learned something. It has done you good.”

One element that I appreciated was her spirit of inclusiveness. This, from a footnote, broadens her audience substantially:

“Whenever I say ‘writing’ in this book I also mean anything that you love and want to do or to make, It may be a six-act tragedy in blank verse. It may be dressmaking or acrobatics, or inventing a new system of double entry book-keeping. But you must be sure that your imagination and love are behind it, that you are not working just from grim resolution, i.e. to make money or impress people.”

I mean, come on: acrobatics is great fun to include here, right? (Not only because many writers lead such sedentary lives that a daily walk can be construed as serious exercise.) But what an act of generosity to afford creativity even in areas which are often presented as the antithesis of creative fields, like accounting. Not everyone is willing to acknowledge that creativity can take many forms.

Ueland’s approach is grounded and humble. She writes: “I think there is something necessary and life-giving about ‘creative work’ (forgive the term).” In a footnote, she writes: “To say the word ‘creative’ has always embarrassed me. So many unctuous people have over-used it. But I have to use it. It is what I mean.”

If You Want to Write is also the source of one of my favourite quotes about writing: “So you see the imagination needs moodling, –long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”

When I first began to write, I had realized how essential this kind of moodling was to my work, but when I tried to describe it to other people it sounded too much like procrastination. Which it could be, if one never got around to writing writing.

Seeing the idea in print validated my experience and I still recall her words when I find myself forcing strings of words together, frustrated but unable to set aside the work, and eventually I get to moodling. “So never bother to grind. Just try to understand something for the time. If you don’t, go on to the next. For if you understand the second or third thing, you will suddenly understand the first.”

She is also a great reader. She loves and admires the Russian novelists for their truthfulness and lack of pretense, especially Chekhov, Tolstoi and Dostoevsky (also Ibsen, Blake, Goethe, Mann) but not Mencken, nor Lawrence, nor Lewis.

And she is something of a philosopher. Asking tough questions. Leaving us to answer them. “But how to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves? Yes. I know that is hard.” And, “…only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.”

As well as an egalitarian type of feminist: “In fact that is why the lives of most women are so vaguely unsatisfactory. They are always doing secondary and menial things (that do not require all their gifts and ability) for others and never anything for themselves. […] But if women once learn to be something themselves, that the only way to teach is to be fine and shining examples, we will have in one generation the most remarkable and glorious children.”

One could sit and read this entire volume easily in a single afternoon. But even if you do not want to take that time, there are twelve points at the end of the book which she makes to summarize its contents. I especially love number 5: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad stories.” Her suggestion? To discover what is wrong with a story write two new ones and then go back to it.”

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit. 1938. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1987.