Books for Writers: Writing Down the Bones

Whenever I face a writing roadblock, I turn to my bookshelf for help. Most recently, in an attempt to overcome my self-doubt, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. There are a lot of things I can share about this book, but I will focus on the things that were most helpful for me.

Goldberg emphasizes writing as a practice, one that we should live out daily. She attunes daily writing to a runner who warms up before a race: just as a runner must stretch and warm the muscles, the writer must stretch and warm up the voice. It’s part of what Goldberg calls “composting.”

“Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.”

Writing down our observations, thoughts and memories is what leads us to our poems, our short stories, our settings, our characters. Not all of what we write will be good or usable but that’s why it is practice. Write about everything, write whatever moves you to put pen to paper. This is one bit of inspiration I am trying to incorporate into my writing life.

Another great takeaway from Writing Down the Bones is the importance of detail. Details breathe life into our stories. Goldberg says to be specific: “Give things the dignity of their names.” Details bring us into the present, into the moment. Plus, she adds, “Tossing in the color of the sky at the right moment lets the piece breathe a little more.” She goes on to say, “It is important to say the names of who we are, the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. …We have lived; our moments are important. This is what it is to be a writer: to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.”
The short chapters in Writing Down the Bones can be read sequentially or not, as they all stand alone so that you can open to any chapter and read it if you wish.

If you are feeling stuck, unsure of yourself or uninspired, open to any chapter that is of interest to you. You are sure to find inspiration within this book’s pages.

 

My all-time favorite book on writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. You can read my post about it here.

Writers, what books have been most helpful to you?

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Author Visit: Sonja Livingston

In my home city of Rochester, New York, we are fortunate to have an amazing literary non-profit called Writers and Books. Just the name of it sounds magical to a fiction writer and bookworm like me!

In addition to offering writing classes and workshops to kids and adults, the center hosts readings and talks by visiting and regional authors. Amazing, right? One of the programs they offer is called, If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book. Each year, Writers and Books selects a book for the Rochester Reads program, then hosts a series of events around that book. I’m in favor of any program that gets an entire community excited about reading!

This year’s pick for Rochester Reads was Sonja Livingston’s collection of personal essays, Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses. I became a fan of Sonja Livingston after reading her first book, Ghostbread in which she shares stories of living in poverty as one of seven children with nearly as many fathers. She writes in honest but not overly flowery language in a way that doesn’t seek pity, it merely asks to be heard and understood.

When I learned that the Rochester native was going to be in town, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity to meet her.

There were several events held around town leading up to her visit and multiple readings during her stay in Rochester. I attended a reading at the local library and found myself in awe of how down-to-earth this talented writer was as she stood at a podium in front of a room full of people talking about her life and her work.

Sonja Livingston

One of my favorite moments came during the Q&A portion of the evening when Sonja was asked about her writing process. The part of the question that interested me most was, “How do you know when you’re done?”

As a writer, this is something I often struggle with – at what point do the revisions end? I was eager to hear Sonja’s answer. She responded that, even as she read to us from her published collection of essays, she still found spots that she would like to edit.

She went on to say that she gets each piece to a point that she feels good about it. It was reassuring to hear that even a published writer doesn’t always get to the point where they feel their work is perfect. Later in the evening, she talked about how she might do as many as fifteen complete revisions on one single essay – but that she loves it.

I was fortunate enough to have my book signed and to talk briefly with Sonja. It is such a privilege to meet a writer whose work I so admire.  I’m excited to add Ghostbread to my collection of signed books on my shelf.

Livingston just released another collection, Ladies Night at the Dreamland. I look forward to reading this collection as well.

Have you attended an author talk? What was your experience like?

How to Beat the Book Blahs

Every once in a while I come down with a case of the Book Blahs.  As much as I try, I just can’t get into any book that I try to read.

I find myself avoiding books. Instead of reading I tune in to a mindless sitcom for thirty minutes or get lost in the black hole of social media. I fall behind on my reading goal. I feel guilty for not reading and disappointed that I’m not enjoying the books that sit neglected on my nightstand.

In a particularly bad bout with the Book Blahs recently, I spent nearly an hour browsing the shelves of my local library, picking up book after book and reading the blurbs only to put each one back with an underwhelmed sigh. My heart just wasn’t in it. Finally, I had to leave at closing time – empty handed This has never happened to me before or since. It’s not a time I like to talk about.

Blah Book

Little is known about this mysterious affliction or how to prevent it. It affects even the most voracious readers and can last anywhere from a few days to weeks or even months at a time.

The Book Blahs can come as a result of reader fatigue, which can occur after binge-reading a series or simply reading too many books in a row.  The Book Blahs can also emerge in the aftermath of a book hangover, coming off the high of reading a book so absorbing, the reader doesn’t want it to end.

Symptoms of the Book Blahs may include apathy toward literature, irritability, loss of interest in hobbies like reading, feelings of guilt and helplessness and inability to finish a book.

If you have been stricken with the Book Blahs, I am here to offer some possible remedies:

Try a New Genre

A healthy dose of reading in a different genre can help in the road to recovery. Read a lot of fiction? Try non-fiction. Just finish with a long novel? How about a book of short stories? I have turned to Young Adult and New Adult books which helped me to discover wonderful new authors like John Green and Rainbow Rowell. Biography, memoir or even historical fiction are genres which I don’t often read that might be enough to provide some relief.

Consult other Readers

It is important to maintain social interaction during the Book Blahs. Ask a friend, “What’s the best book you have read recently?” You may get a suggestion of something you wouldn’t have considered or hear positive reviews of a book you’ve been on the fence about.

Reread an Old Favorite

The cure may be sitting on your bookshelf. Surely there is at least one book that can transport you each and every time you read it. Perhaps it is a story from your childhood. Sometimes we simply need to remember why we fell in love with reading in the first place. Find that book with the worn spine and dog eared pages and let yourself get lost in that world so you can fall in love all over again.

Change your Routine

If traditional remedies don’t work, more drastic measures may be required. I frequent the library, but isn’t always the best place for me to find something new to read if I don’t already have a book in mind. Recently, I took a quick stroll through a book store I hadn’t been to in a while and the various displays of “Books everyone should read,” and “Staff picks” were enough to inspire me. I think I added five books to my To Read list from that one visit alone.

Seek Professional Help

If symptoms persist, ask your librarian or someone on the staff of your local bookstore for help. These are professionals who are equipped to handle these situations. They are often avid readers and can be great resources with a wealth of literary knowledge. Tell them what you like or what you’re in the mood for and chances are, they’ll be able to make some interesting suggestions.

Readers, have you ever experienced the Book Blahs? What do you do when you get into a reading rut?

Why I love Libraries and You should too

I love going to the library. You can find me wandering the shelves in one of the libraries in my area on almost a weekly basis. I browse the audio books, new fiction, non-fiction, and even the teen section.

Taking advantage of the free resources the library offers enables me to maintain my reading habit. The retail value of the audio book I just finished? $60.00! From my local library? Free. And that is priceless.

There is more to libraries than the books that line their shelves. In this information age, we can go to Google for facts. But what Google doesn’t have is a helpful librarian to offer suggestions or advice.

I cannot say it better than Neil Gaiman who spoke about libraries in his lecture on Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming:

“…But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.”

You can Click here for Neil Gaiman‘s lecture for the Reading Agency.

The full lecture is long but I agree wholeheartedly.

February is library lovers month! Here are ways you can get involved with your local library:

photo (1)Get a library card
Small enough to fit in your pocket, big enough to change your life! Getting a library card is the first step to enjoying your local library. As you can see, mine is well worn.

Participate
Check out what’s happening at your library.  From writing workshops and book sales to Downton Abbey tea clubs, you might be surprised at the options.

Bring the Kids
Libraries are for families! Encourage a love of learning in your kids by letting them wander the shelves and find books that speak to them. Let them imagine and create.

Donate
Whether you donate your time or your money, you are supporting a great cause. You can help organize a book sale or host a discussion group.

“We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.” – Neil Gaiman

This infographic says it all:

Support your local library
Are you a library lover? When was the last time you visited the library? Do you take advantage of all that libraries have to offer?

Confessions of a Book Polygamist

Book Polygamy: “Reading several books at one time without being able to commit to just one of them.” – NYC writer Michael B.

I discovered this phrase in an article by Rita Meade (@ScrewyDecimal) on Book Riot: Made up words for literary experiences

I used to believe that reading multiple books at once was some sort of literary sin. It felt wrong to read more than one book at a time. I refused to pick up a new book before I had finished the one I was currently reading, believing that it was a form of book adultery, that I would be “cheating.”

That all changed when I realized that as a self-proclaimed book worm, I needed to make more time for reading in my life. Enter, the audio book.

I began my foray into book polygamy when I discovered the joy of listening to audio books and realized it added nearly an hour of reading time to each day. But I only read audio books while I’m in the car, which left me craving a book to read before bed or while curled up on the couch in the evening. And so, I began listening to an audio book on my commute and reading another book, at the same time.

As it turned out, reading two books at once wasn’t so bad after all.

I started juggling three books at a time when I was reading a book that was too big to fit in my purse. I began leaving it behind because it was too heavy to drag back and forth to work everyday. Instead of reading on my lunch break, I passed the time playing games on my phone.

What kind of “avid reader” would I be without a book to take with me everywhere I went? Moments spent waiting at the doctor’s office which could have been spent reading, I wasted by checking Facebook.

I needed a book that was portable, one that I could easily fit in my purse for lunchtime reading. The solution: my Kindle. It is lightweight, and perfect for taking advantage of those found reading moments.

Now, I am never without a book in my purse, another on my nightstand and an audio book loaded up in my car’s CD changer.

I am almost constantly reading two to three books at once. When I’m not, I seem to fall behind on my reading. I don’t know how I would meet my reading goals without reading several books at the same time.  I’m not sure why I resisted the temptation for so many years.

So there you have it. I am a book polygamist and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

What is your take on reading multiple books at the same time, is it a literary sin? Are you a monogamous reader or  a book adulterer like me?

 

If you liked this post, you might also like: Re-reading books, do you do it?  Subscribe to my blog for more posts like this!

My Year in Books: 2013

My reading list in 2013 saw my usual range of contemporary novels mixed in with a few classics, a couple of memoirs, with a dabble in “chick lit.” I read more Young Adult fiction than I have ever before and they were some of the best books I read this past year (more on that later.)

I also made an effort to read more non-fiction, with books like Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly both of which I loved.

Here are some of my favorite books I read in 2013 (in no particular order)

Eleanor and Park – Rainbow Rowell
So much more than a teenage love story, this book will take you back to  high school, to the horrors of surviving the bus and gym class, to your first love. I listened to audio book version which just made the reading experience even better.

The Fault in our Stars – John Green
Another great YA novel, The Fault in our Stars is heartbreaking in the best way. Green’s writing is exquisite, and though his young characters seemed wise beyond their years, I loved their chemistry and their dialogue.

The House Girl – Tara Conklin
Part historical fiction, part legal drama this is a book that was on my to-read list for a while before I was able to pick it up. I loved Conklin’s description, the detail with which she wrote about both a slave in 1850’s Virginia and a first-year associate at a law firm in 2004.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home – Carol Rifka Brunt
A beautifully written debut novel about love, about loss and grief. I loved that the characters were flawed and real. It is moving and emotional – a great read.

Here is a look at all the books I read in 2013:

2014 Book part 1 (1280x561)

2013 Books part 2

 

What were your favorite reads in 2013?

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

I came upon Life of Pi at a used bookstore a while back. It is one of those books I had heard about and knew I had to read. After I bought it, it sat on my bookshelf for months, untouched. I even loaned it out before I had read it for myself. It wasn’t until I saw the audiobook at my local library that I finally went on the wild ride of Pi’s life. Life of Pi

The book opens with the unusual story of Pi’s name and delves into his exploration of religion, and life as a zookeeper’s son, waking up to the sound of a pride of lions rather than an alarm clock. Though I learned a lot about zoology and theology, the first third of the book read almost like a textbook at times. Still, I loved the descriptions of the zoo and the animals. He describes the zoo as a “hot and humid place, bathed in sunshine and bright colours…” with a “riot of flowers…” He says, “To me, it was paradise on earth.” It felt that way to me, too.

Part Two begins with the tragic sinking of the Tsimtsum and the start of Pi’s fantastical story as a castaway for 227 days. Yann Martel paints the world of life at sea so realistically I could nearly feel the sun and salt on my skin.

Martel tells the story in such a way that, no matter how unbelievable the events of the story may be, you believe every word.

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? … Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

Life of Pi is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It is at times, bleak and at others, uplifting. I found myself on the verge of tears and depressed the entire morning after reading about the last pages written in Pi’s diary on the lifeboat: “Do you see these invisible spirals on the margins of the page? I thought I would run out of paper. It was the pens that ran out.”  This was the moment my heart broke for Pi. As a writer, I found this moment among the most tragic of events in Pi’s adventure.

The language is simple, but beautiful, colorful and imaginative. It is a book that makes me believe in the art storytelling.

If you are like me and left this book to collect dust, I implore you to go pull it from your shelf now. When you have finished, go watch the movie. The movie will make you fall in love with the story all over again.

 

I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”