Sunday, October 25, 2015

Best of

Looking over the list of books I've read this year, I amused myself by thinking about which ones I would consider the "best" (a possible blog post). Some books were easy to pick. Others gave me pause. There were some that I admired, that were well written and/or important, that I'm glad I read, that I would advise others to read, but--I wouldn't say I enjoyed them. I don't long to reenter them, to savor their pages again. Then there are the ones I do want to reread, even though part of me knows they're a bit corny or predictable or flashy, or else they're so "quiet" or esoteric that I suspect their audience is small.

It's easy to call a book "good" if it's beautifully put together and I enjoy reading it. But what of the books that only meet one of those criteria? Not every book has to be everything at once--in fact, that's impossible. And I can't reduce book ratings to a number. On a scale of one to five, where do I put the book that was rollicking fun, but fluffy and insubstantial? The sober tome that made me think deeply, but was hard to get through? The elegant, thrilling, engrossing novel that delivered on all its promises until the last chapter, where its ending disappointed me? The quirky book that broke new stylistic ground but whose characters never really grabbed me? The wonderful book with the one problematic subplot? It doesn't help that my appreciation of a book can also vary according to when I read it.

This is why I rarely do "best-of" lists.

Monday, October 19, 2015

False starts

So many of my stories have false starts, brief attempts at beginnings. I think I know the way in to the story, and then I find out I'm wrong.

I tried to write Try Not to Breathe for years before I succeeded. I kept abandoning it and returning to it in between other projects. When I finally got the right characters and setting, I wrote in a subplot about neighbors that I eventually cut. I had gobs of plot that ended up as just brief hints of backstory.

When I think back on writing that book, I think of the time I got it right, and I tend to think of it as a fairly smooth drafting process. But the files of my drafts tell a different story. "Oh, yeah," I say to myself, remembering. "That's right, I had all these scenes in the center of town, the ones I cut."

Most of my other books are like that, too. They started at the wrong place or with the wrong character or at the wrong time. I hit a wall and went back and started over.

It's easy to forget the trickiness of this stage: circling a story, looking for the way in.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Always a student

I've led writing workshops, and I enjoy it very much. But my student days are not over, either--will never be over.

I'm attending a writing workshop next month in a genre where I haven't had much experience and would like more. It's been a while since I did something like this. Often, I take poetry classes when I want to stretch. It's time to stretch a little again.

I never want to get stuck in a rut, or think that I know all there is to learn.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Getting poetic

I was already thinking about this when Beth Kephart blogged about it: how much I've come to appreciate beautifully written prose. Plot reigns in the world of novels, and probably it should. More than anything, readers long for something to happen. Many writers have been forgiven less-than-stellar turns of phrase for the sake of a juicy story.

But I'm finding that I want more than a good story. I also want the words to cast a spell. When the writer has carefully chosen every word, the world-building becomes seamless. I'm enchanted, immersed. I trust the author to lead me anywhere.

I recently read a book that boiled over with drama and conflict. It should have been more fun than it was. But poor word choices kept jolting me out of the story: cliches, repetition, telling what should have been shown. Characters did and said things that made no sense. I could see the cracks in the scenery.

In The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, Phyllis Rose criticized writing that was too poetic. Writing that was overdone, at time obscure, trying too hard to impress. She praised clear, concise writing. And I know what she's talking about. I don't want poetic gymnastics that go nowhere. I don't want a writer to show off, leaving in all her "darlings" at the expense of the story.

But more and more, I appreciate the writer who presents me with a dream-world so tightly woven that I can inhabit it fully, with all five senses. I search for the skilled, the exacting, the vivid, the original, the lush.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


I spent the weekend in the region in which I grew up: New England. We didn't bring a camera, but if you want a taste of what it was like, I recommend the pictures on Lizziebelle's blog.

I go back to my old home state from time to time, but rarely in October. This weekend was perfect timing for the turning leaves. I'm normally not a fan of fall, but the bright foliage is one of its compensations.

The leaves turn where I live now, but not quite as brilliantly as they do in New England. Flame-colored foliage is part of my mental image for how fall is "supposed" to look, bound up in my earliest memories.

It's a reminder that in writing, setting and characterization may overlap. The setting is not just backdrop: it sets up characters' expectations as well as their environmental expectations and limitations. Do your characters have to conserve water as a matter of course? Or are they always at risk of flood? Have they experienced snow? Do they have to watch out for bears, lions, scorpions, cobras? What animals, if any, do they encounter? Can they swim, ski, snowmobile, climb mountains? Do they spend more time indoors or outdoors? Do they ever see the stars; could they identify constellations? Do they encounter wildfires, tornadoes, monsoons? What threats and pleasures do their surroundings bring? What other regions have they visited, if any? Do they know how other people live, too?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Love: A Philadelphia Affair

Last night, I had the privilege of attending a reading, interview (conducted by Marciarose Shestack), and Q&A for Beth Kephart's new nonfiction collection, Love: A Philadelphia Affair.

Paging through the book before the event started, I noticed that one of the essays was about Hawk Mountain, which I just blogged about myself the other day. (The book covers the Philadelphia region--the Delaware Valley--rather than being limited by the city limits.) During the event, Beth talked about walking through Philadelphia--and walking and walking. Walking from University City to the Delaware River when a college student, which I used to do myself. (We attended different, but nearby, schools: she the University of Pennsylvania and I the University of the Sciences. I used to walk over to Penn sometimes and read in the grass, because their campus had bigger and more beautiful grounds. Also, for some reason, it had a large sculpture of a broken button, but that was just a bonus.) Yes, Philadelphia is a great walking city--I am with Beth on this. In fact, it came out during the discussion that Beth was even walking through Philadelphia during last Friday's nasty, wind-whipped rain. Which made me laugh, because I was also walking through Philadelphia during last Friday's nasty, wind-whipped rain.

A man in the audience noted that Beth is a keen observer, and loves much of what she observes. She loves the Philadelphia area, which is and has always been "home" to her. Wouldn't she love any other city if it had been her home, he asked? Couldn't this tendency to love fasten itself around another place?

Probably, she said. But the Philadelphia region is her home. And so we have this book. Which is full of places I have been, and places I have heard of, and places I want to go.

Philadelphia is my adopted home. I came here at the age of seventeen and, except for six months in Atlanta, I never really left. New England, where I spent the earlier years of my life, is home in a different way. But I've lived in the Philadelphia area far longer now--more than a decade within the city limits, more than a decade in the suburban fringes. I know the routes of trains and buses and trolleys. I know the Delaware River and the Schuylkill River and the wetlands in the wildlife refuge near the airport. I know the refineries in the south, and the art museum steps that Sylvester Stallone so famously mounted in 1976. I know the big parks with their nature trails, and the tiny little parks tucked in between historic buildings. I know cobblestones and trolley tracks and brick sidewalks. I know the old jury-duty room in City Hall, and the view from the top of the City Hall tower. I remember visiting the Liberty Bell at night, in its old glass box. I know the thrift stores and the bookstores, and I remember the ones that aren't here anymore. I was in West Philadelphia the night the MOVE house was bombed, and I remember hearing the sirens. And there is more, still more, much more, always more.

Sometimes a place just grabs you. Beth Kephart loves Philadelphia the way other writers have loved New York City, and Maine, and Chicago, and the Mississippi Delta, and San Francisco, and Paris, and Provence, and Alaska, and New Orleans, and Virginia, and Boston. Beth invites the reader to love Philadelphia, too. Or at least, get to know it.

Monday, October 5, 2015


"... I began to understand that for me 'waste' had not come from idleness, but perhaps from pushing myself too hard, from not being idle enough, from listening to the demon who says 'make haste.' I had allowed the wrong kind of pressure to build up, that kind which brings frustration in its wake. I was helped by Louise Bogan's phrase 'Let life do it.'"

"What had looked for a while like a full stop was proving to be just the opposite, a chance for renewal, not so much through new life as through having the time and the chance to absorb what I already had in my pouch, so to speak."

These quotations from May Sarton's Plant Dreaming Deep speak to the value of sometimes stepping back instead of pushing forward, listening instead of talking, tuning in to a greater flow of energy. Ripening, refilling the well. Allowing the winter that precedes the spring.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Back to basics

In an introduction to salsa and bachata dance that I happened to catch this week, dancer and instructor Darlin Garcia emphasized the importance of basics. He said that as he advanced through the levels of studying dance, he always went back to the basics before each new level. It's important to build on a solid foundation, he said.

The same thing applies to writing. Most of what I have done in the past year, and especially the past few months, is going back to basics. The long twisting path of writing and publishing can lead us all over the map. That's good in some ways--adventures, new views--but it's also possible to get lost. I like to return to home base every so often.

Some of my back-to-basics questions are: What do I need to write? How do I tell a story? What's important to me? Where is this character's voice? Where do I want to go next? Much of it is about getting quiet and listening, and waiting for the well to refill.