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?

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?

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.”

Books for Writers: Writer with a Day Job

As writers, many of us dream of the day we’ll be able to give up our day jobs to write full time. We struggle to find time to write between, work and/or school, family, and the other obligations that fill our time. We often find (or make) excuses. How do we find the time to write when writing isn’t our full-time job?

I first read Writer with a Day Job by Aine Greaney in preparation for NaNoWriMo. I was grabbed by the title and subtitle: “Inspiration & Exercises to Help You Craft a Writing Life Alongside Your Career.”

This book lists challenges (read: excuses) writers with day jobs face and ways to overcome them. It offers suggestions to find time to write during your day. For some writers, that might mean waking an up an hour early to write before the workday starts, during your lunch hour, or at the end of the day.

Aine believes the two attributes which distinguish real writers from the wannabe are desire and discipline. It’s not enough to want to write, we must have the discipline to sit down and write day after day. That means we must find the time in our daily lives to grab that writing time whenever we can. Write something, anything in the time you have. Jot notes about your characters, map our your next scene. Make observations about the people/places/things around you.

I love her suggestion to “visit your writing.” On the days we can’t write, she suggests mentally logging out of other tasks to simply think about our writing. The best time for me to do this is on my drive home from my day job. I can think about my next scene, about my characters or work out  a plot problem in those few moments of solitude.

The greatest takeaway from this book for me is that having the discipline to write regularly, doesn’t mean writing dozens of pages every day. It means making the most of our day to find time for creative expression, and to have a productive writing life no matter how busy we may be.

Many of us will never be able to quit our jobs and write full time. Let’s face it, with exception of a very luck few, publishing a book will not allow you to quit your day job. But changing your attitude and the way you approach those extra few minutes of your day can make all the difference to finding balance between work and writing.

Are you a writer with a day job? How do you make the time in your day to write?

Check out my For Writers page to find other great books for writers and resources I have found helpful .

11/22/63, Stephen King

At 850 pages, Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is a commitment. It was more than three weeks before I finished it, but once I was finished, I was glad I had invested the time.

I’ll preface this review by saying, I’m not a huge Stephen King fan. Aside from this book, the only books of King’s that I’ve read are Misery and his memoir, On Writing.  But the premise of traveling through time to prevent the Kennedy assassination intrigued me more than most other King story lines.

Jake Epping, an English teacher living in 2011, learns about a portal to 1958 and takes on the challenge to prevent the Kennedy assassination on November 22nd, 1963.

11-22-63The book takes its time getting to 1963. And though I was hooked from the beginning, there is the underlying sense throughout, that much of the book has very little to do with the actual Kennedy assassination. If you’re looking for a book to learn more about Kennedy, this isn’t it.

For a while, I was okay reading along while King establishes life in 1958 and shows us the impact of Jake time traveling and changing events of the past. He spends the first section of the book laying the ground work – though it seems to me there might have been simpler ways to do this. Regardless, I was entertained and continued to read.

And I continued to read as the years ticked by and Jake finds a love interest and establishes a new life in Jodie, Texas teaching and directing the high school play. Again, entire sections that  have nothing to do with the main premise about the Kennedy assassination – but I didn’t mind. With Sadie as Jake’s love interest, Jake became much more human and likeable to me. What I was pleasantly surprised to discover is that underneath it all, Stephen King has really written a love story.

My biggest complaint about the book was the time spent focusing on the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. I was patient with the many divergences from the main premise of the story, but it was Jake’s lengthy observations  Oswald that I became impatient with.

In the end, I can see King’s reasons for divulging into such tangents, although I felt the book most definitely could have been a tighter and, ultimately, (perhaps several hundred pages) shorter.

While the novel was much longer than necessary and a bit self-indulgent on King’s part, overall I found it to be an enjoyable and interesting read.

Stephen King is not a literary writer, but he is a good storyteller.

What I’m Listening to in Audio Books: Tell the Wolves I’m Home and Heaven is for Real

A few months back, I wrote about my new found appreciation for audio books. I love that audio books allow me to find extra reading time in my day. I rarely listen to the radio in my car any more, and instead spend my driving time “reading.”

Tell the WolvesI recently finished the audio book version of Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. This is a book I’m not sure how to review, but I can certainly recommend. It is the type of book that a plot summary won’t do the story justice. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is moving, emotional and a beautifully written debut novel.

It is a book about love, about loss and grief and finding yourself through the loss. The relationships are complex, the characters are flawed and real. The main character, June, is caught in the transition from childhood to becoming a young adult. She is a romantic, happier in her imagination pretending to live in a simpler time than she is in the real world. I loved seeing and learning about the world through her eyes. But the death of her uncle Finn leads June to discover, like most teenagers eventually do, that her family is not perfect.

The story is not only about June’s relationship with Finn, it is a story about siblings: June and her sister Greta; the girls’ mother Danni and Uncle Finn.

I’m glad I listened to the audio book version because I was able to hear aloud the beautiful prose in which it was written. But I would love to read the book again just to highlight and underline those mesmerizing passages.

I also just finished listening to Heaven is for Real,  a story about a little boy who undergoes surgery for appendicitis and afterward claims he has been to heaven. Over the weeks, months and years following his surgery, Colton tells his parents about his trip to heaven in the simple words and nonchalant tone of a young boy. Heaven_Is_for_Real_(Burpo_book)_cover

I’ll admit I was skeptical going into this book and I was still a bit skeptical coming out. Colton describes heaven, and talks about meeting Jesus and John the Baptist. His parents are astounded at the stories he recalls from his trip to heaven and how closely they match scripture.

What dilutes the story for me, is that Colton’s father is a pastor. Colton’s parents claim he describes things he couldn’t have possibly known, like the color of Jesus’ sash – but growing up within the church with a pastor for a father and attending Sunday School each week, I imagine a perceptive young child could pick up on certain things without his parents even knowing. But then there are things Colton couldn’t have known, like what his parents were doing while he was in surgery.

Diluting it further is the fact that Colton’s father, Todd Burpo, is the author and narrator of the story, not Colton. By the time this book comes out, Colton is eleven years old, old enough in my opinion to tell the story himself perhaps with the help of a few adults.

All of that aside, it was a quick and interesting read.

After reading this, I have added Proof of Heaven to my To Read list. While the premise is the same, Proof of Heaven is written by a neurosurgeon who comes from a scientific, not a religious, background.

An Evening with Cheryl Strayed

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend the evening with Cheryl Strayed – along with about 450 others.

Cherly StrayedStrayed, author of New York Times Bestselling memoir, Wild, was the recipient of the prestigious Art of Fact Award from my alma mater, The College at Brockport, State University of New York, in recognition of her excellence in literary nonfiction.

I read Wild last year when it was all I seemed to keep hearing about. Strayed tells the story of her solo 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail with no training or hiking experience. Her impulsive decision to hike the trail came after her own failed marriage and the sudden death of her mother which left her family shattered.

It becomes remarkably clear how ill-prepared she is for her hike before she even gets to the trail, when she finds herself unable to even lift her backpack. As I was reading, I found myself wondering what she was thinking, hiking alone? As she hikes through mountain, desert and snow, I was shaking my head in disbelief that she kept going. In her filthy Bob Marley t-shirt, despite the blisters and the loss of several of her toe nails she kept hiking with her destination in mind. I continued reading, knowing I could never have endured the challenges of the Pacific Crest Trail, and certainly I could not have done it alone.

My favorite parts of Wild are the sections in which she talks of her mother. I was devastated, sobbing as I read the passage where she describes losing her mom. It was some of the most heart-wrenching writing I have ever read.

What I realized, listening to Strayed speak about her book, was that she never had one, life-changing “Aha moment” on her hike. I think, as a reader, I expected this single moment of realization that is so often found in these sorts of stories. She explained that it was a journey, both inside and outside, of coming to terms with her life. I had my own Aha moment in hearing her describe her journey this way.

Strayed is often asked why she waited so long to write about her hike and she said she had to learn to be the writer who could write this book. On her website she writes, “It took me years of apprenticing myself to the craft before I could write a book.” She also says time gave her the perspective she needed in order to write about the experience. As a writer, it’s encouraging to realize that our experiences, while they may be initially difficult to write about, can make great material down the road.

Have you read Wild? What did you think?

If you haven’t yet read Wild I highly recommend it.

For more about Cheryl Strayed and her books, visit her website www.CherylStrayed.com