For Such A TIME As This

I think I keep forgetting that writing a novel takes time, especially when typing with acrylic nails–but some sacrifices must be made for upcoming weddings; friends are worth it.

So I type–click, click, clack, and I think about the stories I have started. This year? Probably ten of them. Yeah. I am on the first page, or the first chapter, and that is it–yet I call myself a writer. Perhaps I am like people in Africa, “I am a teacher. I have the certification, the degree, and whether I do teach or not is entirely beside the point” (a friend today told me that roles/titles/positions are very important to the people of Africa, whether they do what the position requires or not). Maybe I am a pseudo-writer : with acrylic nails.

It’s like a dairy farmer who wears high heels, pencil skirts, and blow-dried hair. Right.

But I guess for such a time as this in my life, I’ll read my books when I get the chance, peck out a few words when they flash into my head, and take little chicken steps: maybe someday out of all these words, books, and chicken scratches a novel will emerge. It may take years. And who knows, I may still be wearing acrylic nails.


Tool 43 ~ Read both for form and content.

“Examine the machinery beneath the text.”

Remember I took a class called Feature Writing this spring? Having never seen, heard of, read, or thought about writing a feature before, guess how I did it? I read features. Yup. That’s what I did.

“That’s how smart writers continue to learn, by reading work they admire again and again ‘to see how it works’ ” (211).

So . . .

  • Read to listen to the voice of the writers.
  • Read the newspaper in search of underdeveloped story ideas.
  • Read online to experience a variety of new storytelling forms.
  • Read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
  • In choosing what to read, be directed less by the advice of others and more by your writing compass.
  • Sample — for free — a wide selection of current magazines and journals in bookstores that serve coffee.
  • Read on topics outside your discipline, such as architecture, astronomy, economics, and photography.
  • Read with a pen nearby. Write in the margins. Talk back to the author. Mark interesting passages. Ask questions of the text (all from 212).

Be a part of the triangle “menage a trois — among the author, text, and reader.” Have fun! 🙂

Tool 39 ~ Write toward an ending.

“Help readers close the circle of meaning.”

I had no idea there were so many ways to end a story:

Closing the circle — come back around to what happened in the beginning

The tieback — tie the story into a random element in the narrative

The time frame — “The writer creates a tick-tock structure, with time advancing relentlessly. To end the story, the writer decides what should happen last” (191).

The space frame — this story is focused on space. What is happening in the place, the area? The story ends at a destination.

The payoff — it’s the reward for the reader. You made it to the end!

The epilogue — and life goes on even after the book closes.

Problem and solution — this is what is wrong . . . and this is how it is solved.

The apt quote — sometimes a character says the perfect words for an ending.

Look to the future — “Most writing relates things that have happened in the past. But what do people say will happen next? What is the likely consequence of this decision or those events?”

Mobilize the reader — this ending reminds me of self-help books. Go do this. “Donate blood . . . ” Read that book, etc.

Clark ends this section by saying, “You will write better endings if you remember that other parts of your story need endings too” (191), which is so true! I learned this technique in my feature writing class.

Each sentence, thought, or paragraph needs to find closure, for in journalism, the sentences are rearranged frequently, shifting them up or down the column, or chopping them off abruptly. There is no half-hearted attempts at organization or endings. They need to happen in staccato fashion, bringing energy to the story until the very last page–the end.

Tool 12 ~ Give key words their space.

Clark throws out a new vocabulary word with this tool: word territory. Give words their own space.

“Do not repeat a distinctive word unless you intend a specific effect.”

I think of a dorm room with see this concept–words crammed into hallways, bickering over who gets to sleep in which garage-sized cubby hole. “Mad” would have a room to himself, I suppose, while “said,” “and,” and “the,” would cram in together somewhere. Of course.

Also, Ernest Hemingway is a great example of intended repetition, someone who doesn’t “strain the writer’s eyes and the reader’s ears” (65).


Tool 9 ~ Let punctuation control pace and space.

“Learn the rules, but realize you have more options than you think.”

Something I already appreciate about Clark is his preference for tools, not rules.

Clark says, “My preference shows no disrespect for the rules of punctuation. They help the writer and the reader as long as everyone remembers that such rules are arbitrary, determined by consensus, convention, and culture” (45).

Clark claims punctuation has two purposes (46):

1. To set the pace of reading

2. To divide words, phrases, and ideas into convenient groupings (the space)

Punctuation gives writing musical rhythm. It denotes the author’s voice (some authors use commas in the middle of everything), and it can be taken out or added back in at new places to change the movement of the piece.

In an ending exercise, Clark encourages repunctuating a piece (and yes, he uses the word repunctuate although wordpress spell check is not fond of it!). Have fun. Learn the rules and then be creative.

One of my favorite parts about this tool is seeing Clark’s usage of punctuation. As he looks at each common punctuation piece (the comma, semicolon, dash, etc.), he incorporates the piece he is talking about into his explanation. Humorous.



Bits & Pieces Continued

I put Zinsser’s book down, and I didn’t plan on writing anymore about the Bits and Pieces chapter, but as I continued reading, I started laughing. I wanted to remember some of this for later. So here it is, short and sweet!

Concept Nouns — “Don’t get caught holding a bag that doesn’t have anything in it but abstract nouns. You’ll sink to the bottom of the lake and never be seen again” (120).

Creeping Nounism — “It no longer rains; we have precipitation activity or a thunderstorm probability situation. Please, let it rain” (120).

Writing is not a Contest — “I’ve often found that the hares who write for the paper are overtaken by the tortoises who move studiously toward the goal of mastering the craft. The same fear cripples freelance writers, who see the work of other writers appearing in magazines while their own keeps returning in the mail. Forget the competition and go at your own pace. Your own contest is with yourself” (125).

Breeziness — This line does not capture this section’s point, but it personally stood out to me. “[The writer] is not trying to ingratiate himself with the reader. He knows that if he pleases himself, his readers will also enjoy what he has to say” (129).

Eloquence — “Remember the uses of the past when you tell your story” (140).

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.

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.

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. 🙂