Saturday, July 28, 2012

Writing Advice and Inspirations of All Sorts

There are Sundays where The New York Times book review section has nothing that appeals.   Then there are other Sundays where I want to savor everything, like this Sunday's (or, if my reading is on a Saturday, is it last week's Sunday section?  in this Internet age, it becomes increasingly harder to tell).  It included lots of essays that explore the art of writing, as well as a clever review of Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of Cheryl Strayed’s online advice columns for The Rumpus, where she writes the Dear Sugar column.  The review is written in the style of a Dear Sugar column!  Genius on the part of reviewer Anna Holmes.

Most of all, I loved the Colson Whitehead piece that gives rules for writing.  In some ways, it seems his tongue is firmly in cheek:  "Writer’s block is a tool — use it. When asked why you haven’t produced anything lately, just say, 'I’m blocked.' Since most people think that writing is some mystical process where characters 'talk to you' and you can hear their voices in your head, being blocked is the perfect cover for when you just don’t feel like working. The gods of creativity bless you, they forsake you, it’s out of your hands and whatnot. Writer’s block is like 'We couldn’t get a baby sitter' or 'I ate some bad shrimp,' an excuse that always gets you a pass. The electric company nagging you for money, your cell provider harassing you, whatever — just say, 'I’m blocked,' and you’re off the hook. But don’t overdo it. In the same way the baby-sitter bit loses credibility when your kids are in grad school, there’s an expiration date."

And yet, even with tongue in cheek, there are nuggets of good advice buried within each "rule":  "Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you. You can’t rush inspiration. How do you think Capote came to 'In Cold Blood'? It was just an ordinary day when he picked up the paper to read his horoscope, and there it was — fate. Whether it’s a harrowing account of a multiple homicide, a botched Everest expedition or a colorful family of singers trying to escape from Austria when the Nazis invade, you can’t force it."

And of course, he must end with this classic final rule:  "There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No. There are no rules except the ones you learned during your Show and Tell days. Have fun. If they don’t want to be friends with you, they’re not worth being friends with. Most of all, just be yourself."

If you're looking for a longer read to savor, I give Carol Anshaw's Carry the One my highest recommendations.   It's the kind of book that I found myself rationing, because I didn't want it to end.  It's the kind of book I'll read again for all sorts of reasons:  the characters are compelling, the writing gorgeous, and the trajectories of characters intertwine with each other and with larger historical forces in both predictable and surprising ways.

It's not apocalyptic, in the way that a lot of my summer reading has been apocalyptic:  there are no supernatural zombies, no radiation pollution, no global disaster.  But this book does remind us that the apocalypse can be personal.  It begins with a marriage where 5 guests who are a bit too stoned/drunk to drive leave in a car.  They hit a young girl who is out roaming the country road in the wee, small hours of the morning.  This event affects them all in a wide variety of ways, some expected and some unusual.  We follow the characters through several decades, and I never got tired of them.

Along the way, the writing was so beautiful that I started turning down pages and going back to savor sentences.  Here are some to give you a taste:

"Her presence at these actions was in part due to her social concerns, in part a way of letting off steam.  She was basically a hooligan with a conscience.  If she didn't have a cause, she'd be out robbing banks." (p. 73)

"'Here we are,' he said as they pulled into a parking spot, 'the aorta of the American heart of darkness.'" (p. 83)

"This was a guy she'd probably be lucky to get, and before he had even put himself forward she was already rejecting him.  The social road ahead looked like a bleak highway, post-apocalyptic, overblown with dust, gray and lifeless, except for mutants popping up here and there." (p. 97)

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