I read Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke (inspired by Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Sister Act II: Back in the Habit ) when I was sixteen and wanted to be a writer. Then I read it again a few years later when I still wanted to be a writer, but was faced with the reality of paying bills and making career decisions. It always amazes me how much a book can transform you, but also how much your perception of a book can evolve as you change. I’ve never stopped wanting to write, but I have become much more aware of the things that I’ll probably never say.
“Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.” – Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke
So, since it is National Novel Writing Month, I thought I’d make some reading suggestions for my fellow writers-in-waiting out there. There are plenty of style books and how-tos saturating the market, but some of the best manuals for writing come from writers themselves. They’re filled with humor and pragmatism, and may help you learn to find your voice, rather than your marketing plan.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction edited by Will Blythe
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin
Why I Write by George Orwell
Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Lacuna: 1)an empty space or a misssing part 2) a cavity, space or depression.
This new novel by Barbara Kingsolver was worth the wait — it’s been nine years since her last novel, the very popular and acclaimed Poisonwood Bible.
The Lacuna takes place in both Mexico and the U.S. with most of it written in journal format. Kingsolver also throws in some actual newspaper articles and other documents which add credibility to the time period (the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s). The main character, Harrison William Shepherd, is the son of a dull Washington bureaucrat and a flamboyant Mexican mother, who has left her husband to live with a current lover on a Mexican island. Without school or friends to occupy his time, Harrison spends many hours swimming, where he discovers a lacuna in a sea cliff which leads to a secret, hidden pool. As Harrison matures, his particular set of skills gains him employment with the famous artists, Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. Since they later harbor the exiled communist Leo Trotsky, Harrison ends up working as a secretary for him as well. This part was especially interesting — perhaps because of the real personages in the book, it was easy at times to forget that this was a work of fiction!
After Trotsky’s murder, Harrison comes back to the United States (accompanying some of Frida’s paintings) and settles in North Carolina, where he finally realizes his dream of writing romantic adventure novels. He becomes a hugely popular author, but his luck turns sour when he is later cited as a Communist sympathizer.
It’s not until the ending that we discover the significance of the title. As both Kahlo and Shepherd are fond of saying, “The most important part of the story is the piece you don’t know.” Read it and enjoy finding out for yourself.
Fresh on the heels of Elizabeth Berg’s visit to the Quad-Cities, comes Robert Hellenga, author of many best selling novels. He is the keynote speaker Thursday, June 25th at Midwest Writing Center’s annual conference. This year, events are held at St. Ambrose University.
My favorite novel by Robert Hellenga is The Fall of the Sparrow, which is partially set at a liberal arts college in Galesburg (the author is a Knox College literature professor), and partly in Italy. Though there’s a insider feeling of intimacy when you’re familiar with the local references; the novel resonates with many themes. The main character is a classics professor and the reader learns about Latin, Greek, Persian rugs, as well as the blues, and shares Woody’s deep appreciation of Italian culture.
The Armchair Traveler is starting a travel writing series; Part I focuses on writers who excel in describing both the place and the process of travel.
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
de Botton excels in capturing the alternate reality and mindset that occurs when you leave home, especially when you are a solitary traveler. He describes the sensation of pleasant isolation and anonymity you experience on a train; or the phenomenon of marveling at the smallest differences in a foreign city.
As the Romans Do by Alan Epstein
This is Rome from the American point of view; the author moves his family to the city to experience the daily life of a Roman (getting an apartment, enrolling his kids in school, grocery shopping, etc.) as well as absorbing the cafe culture, soccer obsession, the Italian sense of fashion, and the passion for evenings spent in the piazza.
Best American Travel Writing
These pieces from newspapers, magazines and websites are edited by a Who’s Who of travel writing (Bill Bryson, Frances Mayes, Anthony Bourdain, Ian Frazier) and range from the lighthearted (David Sedaris on an ariport layover and Bill Buford sleeping in Central Park) to New York post 9-11, and extreme adventures in Uganda and the Australian Outback.
Italian Journey by Jean Giono
This small book is both an appreciation of post-war Venice and philosophical reflections of why we travel. A Frenchman, Giono finds an oasis of beauty and quiet after experiencing the more obvious attractions of Naples and Capri.