Thursday, January 12, 2017

Connections and disconnections

I just finished Delia Ephron's book of personal essays, Sister Mother Husband Dog. A quote that stood out to me:

"All I want is for someone not to change something I love. All I want is for someone to keep it simple."

She's talking about the relentless march of technological upgrades, about which I agree--I don't see the point of arbitrarily moving buttons from the left side of the screen to the right, or vice versa. Or adding dozens of new features that I didn't want and never use. Or hiding the menu so you can't find what you need. But those sentences, pulled from their context, also can stand on their own in a more general sense. We've all lost what we loved, or seen it change for the worse, at some point in our lives. We've all had a perfect thing or place or situation that deteriorated, or closed down, or moved away. It was going along so well ... and then it wasn't anymore.

But then--if I want to go down that rabbit hole, I can also reread Joan Didion's Blue Nights, an entire book that meditates on loss, and change, and how swiftly it all occurs.

I'm also reading Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby. It's coincidental that I've been reading this at the same time as Ephron's book, but both books deal with losing mothers to chronic, personality-changing illnesses--Alzheimer's in one case, alcoholism in the other. In both books, the mother-daughter relationships were complicated and not warm-and-fuzzy even before the onset of illness.

I like finding multiple books that deal with the same subject. It enables me to consider it from even more angles. It's as if the authors are bouncing ideas off each other through me.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Browsing

With the advent of the internet and book blogs, I've changed the way I find and choose books to read. I found myself making so many notes of books I saw mentioned online that I eventually made a consolidated list. I try to get the books from the library when I can; I'll order them or get them at a bookstore otherwise.

The list is long, about 200 books. I've read scores of them, but of course I keep adding to the list. Even when I tell myself firmly that's enough for a while; I won't add more until I get through some of what's already there. But then an irresistible new title comes to my attention--a favorite author's brand-new release, a friend's book, a sequel to something I loved, a memoir that speaks to my current situation--and on the list it goes.

It's fun to have a list of anticipated reads all ready, to never be at loose ends wondering what to read next. I like the process of choosing the next armload from the library, checking them off on the hold list, and picking them up when they're ready. I like having books delivered to my doorstep.

But I do miss the days of wandering through bookstores or libraries, choosing books at random, finding something in front of me that I might not have found otherwise. And in the past month, I treated myself to browsing sessions, one at the library and two at local bookstores. I came home with books that weren't on my list.

I'm not going to live solely by the list. Sometimes it's fun to wander, to say to the bookshelves, "Surprise me."

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Rhythm

I haven't talked about prose rhythm in a while, but it's something I'm very aware of. Poetry isn't the only kind of writing that has a rhythm.

I've noticed that when I scroll up my blog feed page, I can tell who wrote which post even before I read the actual words or see the name at the top of the post. It has to do with the patterns people use when they write. Some write in long, dense blocks of text. Others write long posts built from short paragraphs. Some use short sentences with frequent line breaks. Others use mostly pictures.

I've noticed that many writers who write for Harper's magazine favor very long sentences, and I began to wonder whether that was just the editorial preference, and how much the editors shape the prose that way.

I first noticed prose rhythm in the writing of Jack Kerouac, where it's knock-you-over-the-head obvious, especially in works such as Desolation Angels and Visions of Cody. Similarly, his friend and colleague Allen Ginsberg wrote poetry with long breathless lines, Howl being the prime example (though Ginsberg's work does not sound exactly like Kerouac's). Hemingway is another writer whose rhythm stands out, in his case for shorter, plainer, sentences. Every writer has a distinctive pace and tone and meter, a distinctive way of shaping language as if to a tune that only he or she can hear. Often we start our careers so beguiled by another writer's rhythm and style that we ape it, whether consciously or not, in our early efforts. But we learn to tune in to the inner musician and turn up the volume, to find our own rhythm.

Monday, January 2, 2017

New Year's ideas

I won't call these resolutions. Maybe they're aspirations, or reminders, or ideas. Whatever.

1. Pay attention.
2. Speak up.
3. Know what to take seriously and what not to take seriously.
4. Goof off.
5. Ask why and what if.
6. Say the nice thing you're thinking.
7. Keep in touch with nature.

Friday, December 30, 2016

The hazards of biography

After reading a few biographies of well-known writers that left me liking the subjects less than I did beforehand, I began to ask myself whether it's possible for this not to happen. Generally we come to know writers through their work; we see the polished product. In a sense, we're seeing the best the writer has to offer. But any biography will acquaint us with the writer's flaws, sins, and worst moments as well. This is even true of writers who write memoir. After all, memoir is not autobiography, and what's included in a memoir is carefully chosen--not so much to make the writer look good, but to show us the world through that writer's perspective. Seeing the writer through a different perspective may be jarring.

But then, I don't need to like a writer to enjoy his or her work. There are several writers who sound, quite frankly, like pains in the neck IRL, but whose books still move me and entertain me. And who's perfect, anyway?

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Surprise

At YA Outside the Lines, we've been blogging all month about endings. My contribution is about surprise twist endings. Which I love in fiction, if not so much in life.

It can be difficult to bring off a surprise twist without its feeling gimmicky; another danger is the reader feeling betrayed by the misdirection. But it can be satisfying if we think we are plodding toward a predictable resolution, only to find ourselves transported somewhere else. Every now and then, a surprise is a delight.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Talent, persistence, and luck

"The other day I had a letter that asked me to what I attribute my success. Of course, I do not have 'success' in the ordinary definition of that word, but I answered, 'A talent, persistence, and luck.'"
--May Sarton, At Seventy

Sarton was able to support herself with her writing, in a lifestyle that included a beautiful house on the Maine coast. She gave poetry readings to packed houses, and people waited in long lines at her book signings. Even though she often wrote of feeling short-changed by critics, she actually achieved a measure of success that few writers attain.

I don't have her level of success, but from what I've seen of others' careers, I would agree with her choice of the three ingredients. I've heard a few established writers say that persistence was the number one factor they saw in writers who "made it," that simple perseverence was more important than talent in the long run. And in recent years, I've come to appreciate the significant role that luck plays in writing success, as well as in life generally. Talent alone doesn't go far enough; it needs healthy doses of the other two.

Of the three, persistence is the only one over which we have any control. So we keep on typing, and thinking, and reading, and revising.