The Writer’s Desk (Jill Krementz)

Perhaps because it’s summertime, I’m drawn to the books on my writing shelves that are not proper resources, but still distinctly writer-ish: The Writer’s Desk is lovely, completely browseable, enduring and endearing.

Although I do think the prose that accompanies Jill Krementz’s photographs offers useful bits, the purpose of the book is clearly to house her images. She’s snapped more than 1,500 writers and 55 of their photographs appear here with commentary (mostly snipped from “The Paris Review” interviews).

When I first leafed through these pages, I thought it was interesting how many of the authors therein were pictured with old-school tools. Many of the subjects sit with paper and pencil; sometimes you can tell they are working with a print-out, other times, as with Georges Simenon’s image, the sharpened pencils are outnumbered only by the pipes, so that you can’t help but recognize a tangible, long-hand world.

The typewriters clearly outnumber the computers. This fact stood out to me at the time because I was still at the stage where I desperately wanted to know if I was “doing it right”. Could I be a real writer if I sometimes wrote long-hand, sometimes pounded on my mother’s old Royale, and other times tapped away at a desktop and other times on a laptop? These photographs say “yes”.

My laptop at the time was an older-model IBM and seemed much larger and bulkier than the laptops that Krementz captured in these writers’ workspaces. But now leafing through this collection, I’m fascinated by how dated the computers in these photographs are.

Next to Ray Blount Jr.’s image is this: “Why write, when you can watch a movie on your typewriter?” It must have seemed astonishing at the time. Now, you can download films while an app writes your novel for you. Mona Simpson’s laptop was likely cutting-edge, as was Amy Tan’s. I probably lusted after Cathleen Schine’s sweet little white number pre-dating the customizable skins now available and only Veronica Chambers’ looks snazzier. Now, you can revise your working draft on your mobile when you’re waiting to cross at a traffic light.

Flipping the pages, you can see Edwidge Danticat’s fax machine, its many buttons seeming to taunt Jean Piaget’s ancient radios. And Stephen King’s touchtone phone and scanner seem to shove all the rotary telephones into another century. But the images in The Writer’s Desk still feel timeless to me. I love this book as much as I did when I first got my own copy and I think my affection will hold fast through the next decade as well.

Good fun for writers.

Jill Krementz’s The Writer’s Desk (Random House, 1996)

You Know You’re a Writer When… (Adair Lara)

This is one of those delightful little books that shops keep near their counter: literary impulse buys. My husband found it in Type Books, in their literary impulse buy department, and I’m lucky that he spoiled me with it because it’s the sort of little book that I’d love to have, but I’d never have bought it for myself.

Not because it’s not delightful: it definitely is. But because there’s always a more [useful, serious, note-worthy, prize-winner-ish, world-widening] book to choose instead.

Although there are some statements that aren’t a perfect fit for me, at least some of those are a perfect fit for friends of mine, so I’m willing to adopt the premise that those few which don’t fit either category must perfectly describe a friend of Adair Lara’s.

Here’s a sample:

You are shipwrecked on a deserted island but can’t send the rescue note off in the bottle because you have no access to spell-check.

You have an opinion on the serial comma.

You’d write anything they’d let you write: horoscopes, greeting cards, catalog copy. You’ve even wondered how much fortune cookie writers make.

You think of eavesdropping as researching.

Good fun for writers.

Adair Lara’s You Know You’re a Writer When… (Chronicle Books, 2007)

The Wave in the Mind (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Re-visiting Le Guin’s Steering the Craft inspired me to re-read some of her essays in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination .

The collection, as the subtitle suggests, draws together a wide variety of essays; I enjoy them thoroughly whether they consider islands, high heels or libraries or whether they consider the rhythm of Tolkien’s prose, the disparity between the number of Nobel Prizes offered to male recipients and female recipients, or the calculated adoption of a pseudonym. Even if you think you wouldn’t enjoy an essay collection, but if you have enjoyed Le Guin’s fiction, this collection is well worth the time. But here I will focus on the essays therein which have been filed under Writing.

Because many of these essays have been published and/or presented elsewhere and because I’ve made the mistake myself of purchasing other collections of hers only to discover overlap in their contents, I’ll list the contents of this segment of the book; this list will help you determine, if you’re a Le Guin fan, just how quickly you need to find yourself a copy of this collection. It contains:

“A Matter of Trust”,
“The Writer and the Character”,
“Unquestioned Assumptions”,
“Prides: An Essay on Writing Workshops”,
“The Question I Get Asked Most Often”,
“Old Body Not Writing”, and
“The Writer on, and at, Her Work”.

Here are some snippets from “A Matter of Trust” which is based on the following premise: “In order to write a story, you have to trust yourself, you have to trust the story, and you have to trust the reader.”

On the former, she advises that “the only way you can come to trust yourself as a writer is to write”. But then she adds a thought to this, in a footnote: “And, of course, by reading stories. Reading — reading stories other writers wrote, reading voraciously but judgmentally, reading the best there is and learning from it how well, and how differently, stories can be told — this is so essential to being a writer that I tend to forget to mention it; so here it is in a footnote.”

[Honestly, if someone writing about writing doesn’t hold this opinion, I find it hard to take their advice seriously. When a writer says s/he doesn’t read? I immediately want to go and grab a book – and not one of theirs – and start reading.]

On trusting the story, Le Guin observes that a writer’s idea of a story is always more than what’s finally written, but “it may also do more than you knew you were doing, say more than you realised you were saying. That’s the best reason of all to trust it, to let it find itself.”

And, on trusting the reader, she discusses the relationship between reader and writer and she states: “Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion.”

In conclusion, she offers one of my favourite snippets from this collection:

“The whole thing, writing a story, is a high-wire act — there you are out in midair walking on a spiderweb line of words, and down in the darkness people are watching. What can you trust but your sense of balance?”

Good stuff for writers.

Ursula K. Le Guin The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Shambhala, 2004)

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Unlike last month’s resource, The Writer’s Notebook from Tin House, a relatively new acquisition, Le Guin’s book has been on my shelves for several years. It comes from Eighth Mountain Press (in Oregon, U.S.A.), so it had to be special ordered through my favourite local (at the time) indie bookshop, but it was definitely worth extra expense and a long wait. 

I decided that I wanted a copy of my own immediately upon reading a segment in a writing magazine. It so struck me that, even now, I remember exactly where I was sitting (in “The Daily Grind”, a coffee shop on Dundas Street, in a table-for-two adjacent to the pretty Venetian-styled mural) when I came upon her description of Point of View and Voice.

This was maybe ten years ago and I was still freshly collecting books on writing; I had read a lot of the classics on the subject and many grammar handbooks and style manuals, but part of the appeal of Le Guin’s approach likely lay in her willingness to set aside some of those rules when the situation called for it. 

Even now, I still warm to her tone, although I have since read plenty of writers who adhere to the “know the rules so you can break them” philosophy of writing. I like the anecdote with which she actually concludes this volume, citing a first sentence of one of her works: “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.” That’s the kind of sentence that would make many editors squirm, and obviously, knowing the rules, she would have considered altering it but, ultimately, she kept it in and she’s still satisfied with her choice.

Le Guin kept this some-would-say-cumbersome sentence as the opening to Always Coming Home because it fit with her storyteller’s intentions: “It was the shortest way to say exactly what I meant.” It seems to fit with a philosophy in which each writer needs to consider the options available and then determine the “shortest way to get exactly where they and their work need to go”. 

And, so, although Steering the Craft grew out of a writing workshop, it could easily be adapted for the use of a writer who worked more independently, that she actually intended the book be used by groups and by individuals working in solitude. I was living in a city in which I hadn’t met any other writers and I was just beginning to use the internet to connect with other writers, so it was a welcome reassurance in many ways.

As a younger writer, there was an immediate and strong appeal for me in Le Guin’s approach, but even now, returning to Steering the Craft, I find it a valuable resource. 

Good stuff for writers.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Ursula K. Le Guin)

Beyond the reverent-but-not-too-reverent tone of Le Guin’s Steering the Craft, something else that sets this volume apart is the combination of specific advice and the suggestions offered for wider reflection on the issues she considers. The segment which most impressed me and which urged me to procure a copy for myself, was the section on POV and Voice, and it cleared up some confusion for me at the time and serves as a succinct refresher even now.

Le Guin’s text is clean and tidy; the book is relatively short (under 200 pages) but the topics she considers are presented in a most useful manner; this section is one of the longer ones because she claims it is the issue that most frequently challenges her students and other young writers.

In the 22 pages that comprise this chapter, she describes five principal points of view, gives very short creative examples, provides longer literary examples, suggests specific exercises which involve writing short pieces (from 250 to a maximum of 1,000 words), and offers recommendations for longer readings in each POV. Certainly entire books could be devoted to consideration of even one of these points of view, but this chapter covers the bases and offers a terrific balance of content and encouragement to pursue additional resources.

And now I must say something about Le Guin’s reading recommendations. Because I read obsessively, such lists and suggestions are often my favourite part of books for writers, and those in Steering the Craft stand out.

Yes, they include the classic writers whose work you’d expect to see referenced; if you read a lot in this area you become accustomed to the mentions of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Woolf, and Proust. You’re not surprised by discussion of works by García Márquez, Twain, Hardy and Dickens.

But what you don’t see as often are references to Margaret Atwood, Leslie Marmon Silko, Linda Hogan, Esmeralda Santiago, Vonda McIntyre and J.R.R. Tolkien. Le Guin looks at the work of writers whose work is often overlooked and encourages her readers to look at it themselves. 

Good stuff for writers (and readers).

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

“Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit” (Anna Keesey)

Keesey credits Seymour Chatman, Mieke Bal and H. Porter Abbot as the narrative theorists who have contributed the concepts on which her essay is based, in terms of providing the terms and distinctions between the terms ‘story’ and ‘discourse’. 

No, wait: this is actually really interesting! 

Herein ‘story’ is defined as “what happens to your unfortunate characters; discourse is the way you, the writer, present it to your reader” (136). 

Haven’t you always struggled to distinguish between these two elements and felt that you lacked the language to do so properly? 

We need to know this so that we can understand st > dt, which means that story time is greater than discourse time, which is what happens when things are summarized, so that a lot of what happens — maybe even years’ worth of events — to your unfortunate characters is squeezed into a single paragraph. 

Summary can be very involving, Keesey reminds us, but it does create an extra layer of distance between the reader and the action because the reader doesn’t observe the action directly, only hears it summarized, filtered, reduced. 

And we need to know this to appreciate its contrast with dt > st, wherein discourse time is greater than story time, which Keesey illustrates using Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

According to Keesey, writers like Woolf (and Proust) emphasize “infolding”, a “tremendous deepening / and reflection and rhetorical flight in which she is characterizing the people, recalling their pasts, capturing their fleeting physical experiences, illuminating their mental processes and emotions, following the glittering floss of consciousness as it weaves through the action”.

And then there are writers like Hemingway who emphasize unfolding. Keesey uses “Hills Like White Elephants”, which “consists essentially of one long scene” in which everything we read “constitutes a beat of story time”.

What I love most about Keesey’s essay is that there is no judgement attached to either, simply the suggestion that you identify and use the skills you have because most writers have a combination of these predispositions.

“Most of us are just groping toward something that feels right and doesn’t feel wrong.”

Good stuff for writers.

Tin House. The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2009)

“Place” (Dorothy Allison)

I discovered Dorothy Allison’s fiction through browsing in a women’s bookstore in London, Ontario: my introduction was her book of essays Two or Three Things I Know For Sure (1995).

Reading “Place” reminded me that I should return to that collection and to Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature (1994), which I picked up shortly afterwards.

Allison’s style is straightforward and passionate and, for me, it has the perfect mix of subjective experience and instruction; she tells me enough about herself that I feel I have a context for what she’s saying, and she leaves enough space for me to move into the text alongside her, with all the bulk and heft of my own experiences.

She begins this piece by mentioning that there are certain places we North American readers all recognize as being easy to capture on the printed page: the American South (with porches, pick-up trucks and Southern grandmothers), Boston (city of blizzards), Chicago (the Projects), and boroughs of New York City (with Jews eating pickles and having their own grandmothers). Of course her tongue is wedged solidly in her cheek because she is pointing out the exceptions to these “rules”, even as she is saying that “Their place is a given”. (6) 

And immediately I think of writers like Linda Hogan and Rebecca Wells, novels like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski mysteries, and Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: stories rooted in the South, Boston, Chicago and NYC.  And, indeed, some grandmothers come to mind!

But before I can settle into that, Allison is speaking about how she could not find the places she knew in the pages of American fiction, that she had to create the world of truck stops and grocery stores and diners, to invent it on the page. “Place is often something you don’t see because you’re so familiar with it that you devalue it or dismiss it or ignore it. But in fact it is the information your reader most wants to know.” (7)

There are a lot of great observations in this essay (and I’ll mention another one of them in a minute) but what I loved most was her admission that she used to sneak into other people’s dorm rooms, not to pilfer, but to see what they had (and didn’t have). I’ve never done anything like that (but only because I never stayed in residence in school, not out of moral compunction) but I know that, at open houses, I spend far more time inspecting the current residents’ belongings than I spend examining floorplans and room dimensions (and that it’s more fun than it “should” be).

I appreciate that kind of honesty. Even though I understand that it might make for squirmy moments had I been her dorm mate.

It’s not as though what Allison is saying here is breaking news. We all know that place is important. But Allison’s essay is a worthwhile variation on that theme. “What I have is the landscape in which I grew up and the landscapes that I have adapted from every damned book I’ve ever read, and every damned book I’ve ever read is in the back of my head while I’m reading yours. Every place every other writer has taken me is in me. Can you take me somewhere no one else has?”

Good stuff for writers.

Tin House The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2009)

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House)

I grabbed this up at Type Books, one of my favourite local bookshops, partly because I think “Tin House” is terrific, and partly because my writing shelves have been hankering for someone new in town, someone to start the flow of gossip afresh.

The collection has had the desired affect all around: intensifying my appreciation of “Tin House” and giving the writing shelves a jolt of new energy while bringing to mind the strengths of the stalwart texts therein. You can expect to see some attention paid to the classics and old favourites in coming months. But, for May’s Writing Resource Snippet, here’s a taste of the newcomer. 

The first essay that I read was Susan Bell’s “Revisioning The Great Gatsby”, which is an odd choice to be sure, not only because it’s a few essays into the collection (and usually I am methodical about these things, doncha know) but because I’ve not only never read The Great Gatsby, but have miraculously avoided all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels, despite his popularity on school curricula (although I think this is more characteristic of American than Canadian syllabi. [Note: I corrected this oversight years later.]

In fact that was part of the reason behind my choice (I always eat the food that I least enjoy first from my plate as well) but I also appreciated the tone of Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit and was interested in her approach here, even on a novel I’ve never read, an author I’ve never read.

:: Insert tremendous writerly guilt at public admission of never having read any of Fitzgerald, except perhaps a short story in an anthology at some point which, let’s face it, doesn’t count if it cannot be recalled and, in fact, the latter admission is likely only heaping embarrassment upon shame. ::

:: Insert admittedly weak defense predicated on the fact that he lifted passages from Zelda’s diaries and letters and never admitted it, cheeky boy ::

So I read this essay sitting on a bench in the foyer of the Reference Library, a bench I was sharing with a man who clearly had had too many cigarettes that morning or not enough, a man who was one big jitter on legs, fidgeting more than a toddler in line at an amusement park. So even though I haven’t read any Fitzgerald novels, the passages I’ve read from The Great Gatsby in Susan Bell’s essay, I’ve read aloud multiple times, with my lips moving through each pass: surely that counts for something.

(Did you know that people line up for the TRL? I thought they opened at 9, so I had a little more than a half hour to wait that morning, but I couldn’t believe how many other people were waiting there too: standing room only. Which is why I stayed with my seatmate and pulled out my iPod to distract myself further, but just because I couldn’t hear the tapping and patting and squeaking and knocking didn’t mean that I couldn’t feel it through the bench, the vibrations even moving through the floor.)

I felt out of place at first: “We all know The Great Gatsby.” But then as the essay moved along I was in familiar territory: basically Bell is looking at the transformation of passages as this novel moved through the editing process.

It is, she says, “a tour de force of revision”. She goes into detail with some passages (like Madison Smartt Bell does in Narrative Design: another favourite writerly book) and speaks, in more general terms, about the overall process and the wider context of the novel’s construction.

I think it would have been even more effective if I had read the novel myself, and even more so if I had the sort of admiration for it that I do have for the classics I studied in high school (when so many other students are reading Fitzgerald’s novels), so that I, too, could have read this essay and felt more keenly the reminder that even “the greats” had to edit their work. Still, it was an interesting essay and I was pleased to have picked up the collection.

More about this collection soon. Look for chat about Dorothy Allison’s “Place” and Anna Keesey’s “Making a Scene: Fiction’s Fundamental Unit”

Good stuff for writers.

Tin House. The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House (Tin House Books, 2009)