The L’Amour I Never Knew

This blog’s title isn’t really fair. I am reading a book called, “Education of a Wandering Man,” by Louis L’Amour–one of his memoirs apparently.

I’d like to say I’ve read every one of his books, enjoyed them immensely, and I am a big fan of his works, but I can’t say that I am. In fact, I haven’t read any of them. So I can’t really say I have ever known him . . .

But I am loving his thoughts on education, and I would highly recommend his book. 🙂 It’s a great look at his journey to becoming a writer.

“We do not at present educate people to think but, rather, to have opinions, and that is something altogether different.” (L’Amour wrote this book in the late eighties. I wonder what he would think of American education now?)

“A writer’s brain is like a magician’s hat. If you’re going to get anything out of it, you have to put something in first.”

“As I have said elsewhere, and more than once, I believe adventure is nothing but a romantic name for trouble.”

“What people think of as adventure is something nobody in his right mind would seek out, and it becomes romantic only when one is safely at home.”

“Only one who has learned much can fully appreciate his ignorance.”

“If a person does not ideas, he had better not even think of becoming a writer.”

“It’s important to remember that we are writing about people. Ideas are important only as they affect people. And we are writing about emotion. A few people reason, but all people feel.”

” . . . anyone who attempts to write for western readers had better know, because they do. Having a variety of cactus growing where it is never found will disgust a reader and he will toss your book aside.”

“To write a story of the West, one must have more accurate knowledge than for any other writing I can think of, aside from some kinds of science fiction.”

“One does not, as some imagine, simply ‘dash off a western.’ ”

That is all the further I have gotten so far, but I think if L’Amour was still alive, we could have been good friends.

Many of his good friends–the books and books and books he read–are mine as well.


Writing About Yourself: The Memoir

Ever felt like drowning after reading a book?

Zinsser left me with little choice after this chapter about memory-writing. It’s not that I don’t agree with him or that I could learn from what he says. I certainly can, and I do. It has more to do with struggling to reign in the ideas ping-ponging around in my head.

Zinsser wrote about permission. “We have to write what the teacher wants,” students frequently complain. They don’t think they have permission to write what they want to in the way that they want. “Why not? Wasn’t America the land of the ‘rugged individualist?’ Let’s get that lost land and those lost individualists back,” Zinsser insists (97).

Secrets of memoir writing involve detail. Look at that little crack in the brick wall into your life, like a pictorial snapshot, and write what you see. Find a hidden sense and pull it out. Zinsser points out Alfred Kazin’s use of smell in A Walk in the City. What about sight? Sound? Taste? Touch?

Beyond senses, though, focus on people. They are the “crucial ingredient” to a memoir. “Sounds and smells and songs and sleeping porches will take you just so far” (107). The strange neighbor in your childhood life, the way your mother always brushed her teeth before bed, the garbage collector every Wednesday always whistling the same old tune, “Love and marriage goes together like a horse and carriage.” The people make the memoir a memoir.

And the most hero or heroine of the story? You. “The best gift you have to offer when you write personal history is the gift of yourself” (110). So “give yourself permission to write about yourself and have a good time doing it” (110).

Do you understand now why I am drowning?


On Writing Well

Did I mention I am plowing through a new book?

Called, “On Writing Well: An Informal Guid to Writing Nonfiction” by William Zinsser, it is actually quite intriguing. I saw the old-fashioned binding and yellowed pages on the inside–the copyright is 1976–and I almost turned it down. It sat on my “To Read” pile for over two weeks, was renewed once, and finally reached my priority list. Eleven chapters later, I can’t put it down. Who would have thought a nonfiction book, a writing guide no less, would be so fascinating?

The first six sections covered basic writing topics: the transaction, simplicity, clutter, style, the audience, words, usage and unity, and I would argue these chapters are useful for any writer: fiction or non-fiction. Perhaps that’s why this book is on the “Twenty-Five Books To Read” list.

Part II, however, focuses on specific non-fiction forms and methods, such as writing traveling pieces or memoirs (a section I haven’t read yet). I decided beforehand complete dullness would slither from these pages, but again I was wrong. Writing About Places: The Travel Article was my favorite chapter yet! Zinsser (what a great last name!) says, “Never be afraid to write about a place that  you think has had every last word written about it; no place has. It’s not your place until you write about it.” I like that. It makes me want to write about my places, so you can see them too.

Hereafter, I abdicate my title, “Book Critic,” and merely call myself “Student.” I have much to learn.

What does Story Doctor mean?

Rapunzel in “Tangled” a Walt Disney Animation had a dream. She was young, fair, innocent, and rather naive, but she saw the lanterns and dreamed big.

For the rest of us, we live in reality–a world of pre-packaged food, hurried schedules, too many demands, not enough expectations . . . the list goes on and on, but needless to say, our dreams stop.

For me, at age twenty-two, my dreams, hooked to chains, float closer to dead Jacob Marley than leap and run with Tiny Tim. Though this is leap day in leap year, there is very little leap in my dreams. Not only are they not happening, they are also not surviving. Houseplants potted in leached soil brown around the edges and almost disappear. So do dreams when stuck in a pot. Sickly little things.

Sometimes we may have something worth dying for, but what about something worth living for?

My dream is to earn a doctorate degree in stories. Writing? Reading? Teaching? Being a part of? Yes.

As far as how to get there, I stumbled across a creative blog today (see link below) where the author, Lindsay,  stuck with one topic per month for an entire year, ending today. Somehow, in her place, her situation in life, she was able to use twelve different topics, every day, to reach her dream. And she did. It reminded me of Julie and Julia.

So first parameter for me for reaching my lanterns in the sky is:

#1. It must be feasible for the place I am in right now–my season of life.

To be continued . . .

And do check out this blog. Great ideas!!

Reflection on The Writing Life

It was the first book on my list. It’s done. Checked off. And I could not have asked for a better first book.

Was I happy with the scenes? The ones about starring endlessly at a computer screen? About being a cabin out in the middle of no where with a few neighbors to watch you split wood by yourself, alone, and un-trained? Yes. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t.

I have this picture in my mind that a writer must be a writer or not at all. They must be consumed with words, books, images, paintings, and the art of the story, or they are not really a writer. This book sort of confirmed that image. The writing was rich, impressionistic almost, and perfect for understanding writing.

It also challenged me. Partly because it asked the question, “Do you really want this?”

And also because it demanded an answer, “Yes, but I think I can do it my style.”

Highly recommend? Yes.

Conclusion of The Writing Life

The ending was anti-climatic. Perhaps because its been late when I’ve been reading. Perhaps because there was a tornado warning last night and we students ended up in the basement, kneecap to kneecap, hunched over on the cold cement floor, some laughing, some sluggish, and some not really caring at all. Maybe the little, brown book with its painted words wasn’t enough to keep my attention.

While Dillard’s imagery was great, and her ending pictures of stunt flying breathed music into my head, they did not awaken the writer in me. My eyelids closed against the sentences before they were finished.

Such is a writer’s life.

“It was as if Mozart could move his body through his notes . . . “

But the music will stick with me, and I like that.

“When Rahm flew, he sat down in the middle of art, and strapped himself in. He spun it all around him. He could not see it himself. If he never saw it on film, he never saw it at all–as if Beethoven could not hear his final symphonies not because he was deaf, but because he was inside the paper on which he wrote.”

“‘Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe,’ Teilhard de Chardin wrote.”

“It is hard to imagine a deeper penetration into the universe than Rahm’s last dive in his plane, or than his inexpressible wordless selfless line’s inscribing the air and dissolving. Any other art may be permanent.”

“He may have acknowledged that what he did would be called art, but it would have been, I think, only in the common misusage, which holds art to be the last extreme of skill.”

And usually I would finish off a post with the finished sentence of the book, but being a concrete, cynical realist, the last words didn’t suit. So I’ll end with extreme skill.

The back cover of The Writing Life falls shut. Thank you, Ms. Annie Dillard.

The Writer’s Life by Annie Dillard (4)

Excerpt from the last chapter:

“The human pilot, Dave Rahm, worked in the cockpit right at the plane’s nose; his very body tore into the future for us and reeled it down upon us like a curling peel.

“Like a fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing. You desired, unwittingly, a certain kind of roll or climb, or a return to a certain portion of the air, and he fulfilled your hope slantingly, like a poet, or evaded it until you thought you would burst, and then fulfilled it surprisingly, so you gasped and cried out.

“The oddest, most exhilarating and exhausting thing was this: he never quit. The music had no periods, no rests or endings; the poetry’s beautiful sentence never ended; the line had no finish; the sculptured forms piled overhead, one into another without surcease. Who could breathe, in a world where rhythm itself had no periods?”

To write like the wings of an airplane . . . some day. 🙂


The Writing Life by Dillard has been good, eventful even, but this chapter, Five, finally spit out what I was looking for. I think I almost have the entire chapter bookmarked–the thoughts, comments, quotations. I really appreciated how Dillard painted with words the life of a writer, that constant battle with written images. Argh. Such a life.

“People love pretty much the same things best. A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all(67).

“Thoreau said it another way: know your own bone. ‘Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life . . . Know your own bone: gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.’ Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? (68).

“Do you like sentences? (69).

“Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Ganguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The work’s possibilities excited them; the field’s complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks (71).

“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it? (72).

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then–and only then–it is handed to you (75).

“Evelyn Underhill describes another life, and a better one, in words that recall to me that day, and many another day, at this queer task: ‘He goes because he must, as Galahad went towards the Grail: knowing that for those who can live it, this alone is life (78).

“Who but an artist fierce to know–not fierce to seem to know–would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? (78).

“After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: ‘Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time’ (79).”

I apologize for the length. Only, it all needed said.

The Writing Life By Annie Dillard (3)

Excerpt from chapter three:

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading–that is a good life.”

“It should surprise no one that the life of the writer–such as it is–is colorless to the point of sensory deprivation. Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world. This explains why so many books describe the author’s childhood. A writer’s childhood may well have been the occasion of his only firsthand experience.”

“Remarkably material also is the writer’s attempt to control his own energies so he can work. He must be sufficiently excited to rouse himself to the task at hand, and not so excited he cannot sit down to it. He must have faith sufficient to impel and renew the work, yet not so much faith he fancies he is writing well when he is not.”

Top Twenty-Five Books For Writers

I thought I would post the top twenty-five books, just to have them on record. Some I have heard of before, some entice me to read them, some look like I would rather read the encyclopedia than crack their pages, and others have never existed in my mind until this past weekend. All in all, I hope they will each play their part, proving beneficial. If looking for brief descriptions on the books, turn to Ms. Meryl K. Evans’ blog:

  1. The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B.White
  2. On Writing by Stephen King
  3. On Writing Well by William Zinsser
  4. Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott
  5. Chicago Manual of Style
  6. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  7. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
  8. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose
  9. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit by Brenda Ueland
  10. Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark
  11. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  12. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
  13. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande
  14. The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  15. The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters that Rock by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  16. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (Mentor) by Gary Provost
  17. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace by Joseph M. Williams
  18. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
  19. Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
  20. Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing by David Morrell
  21. Between the Lines: The Subtle Elements of Fiction Writing by Jessica Page Morrell
  22. The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman
  23. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  24. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law by Norm Goldstein
  25. The Art and Craft of Feature Writing: Based on The Wall Street JournalGuide by William E. Blundell