In These Precious Days, Ann Patchett has gathered reflections, meditations and biographical sketches written over the course of many years. The title essay is by far the longest and most most somber. Patchett’s friend Sooki Raphael (Tom Hank’s assistant) appears several times, and it is her complex story that ends the book and gives the collection a sense of weight and substance.
In between, there are many and delightful meditations – such as how Snoopy’s vocation as a writer was an early literary influence of Patchett’s. Perhaps my favorite is how she uses The Joy of Cooking as her guide when cooking Thanksgiving dinner as a college freshman. She cites this as the beginning of a reliance on books to face life’s challenges. Her “feral” experience at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop is fascinating. The glimpse we get into the 80’s grad school experience is fascinating.
Always, always – books and authors and writing are woven in and out of each selection. Here is a person who has found her true calling and has created a life that would seem improbable if you were to read about it in a novel. She runs a successful bookstore (Parnassus Books in Nashville), she’s married to a kind and smart man (a doctor and a pilot), her roster of friends and acquaintances have included John Updike, Renee Fleming, Tom Hanks, and Kate DiCamillo.
In essays like “There Are No Children Here,” just as she seems to approach a Martha Stewart-esque entitlement, she’ll turn the screw enough to bring the essay out of a faint whiff of perfectionism (she’d be the first to own this tendency). It is this unpredictability and skillful turn of phrase that lifts the writing into another level.
I want to talk about The Plot, because it has so many interesting threads and tangents. However, it’s a somewhat difficult review to write. Any description of the characters (or plot) could, potentially, be a spoiler. The book was lauded for its creative storyline involving one writer appropriating the work of another. Periodically, a chapter from the stolen or borrowed book (depending on your point of view) is inserted into the narrative about Jake. This device is actually surprisingly effective in ratcheting up the tension.
So I’ll concentrate on the aspect I found most interesting. Since childhood, Jake Bonner’s only ambition has been to be a writer. He’s a graduate of an MFA program that sounds suspiciously like the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One of the great pleasures of the book is the insider’s view of such programs, the literary lifestyle and the publishing world. The book is sprinkled with the nuts and bolts of book tours, and the role of agents and editors.
The end of the book is, to a librarian, fascinating, as well. Jake becomes a more interesting character, as he becomes less passive. He becomes quite a skilled researcher, investigator and interviewer. His life may have been less stressful had he developed these talents and become a librarian.
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
While I have always been a fan of Stephen King, I had no idea he had written a memoir about the craft of writing itself until very recently. Published in 2000, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craftdelves into King’s thoughts and philosophies on writing and how his life experiences have contributed to his own craft.
King aptly titles the first half of this memoir “CV,” which details significant moments and experiences in his life that have shaped him into the writer he is today. While I was surprised at some of the traumatic experiences he recounted as both a child and young man, I was admittedly more surprised to read about how many rejection letters King received when he first started writing science fiction stories. It is mind-boggling to think that Stephen King, a staple name in the horror genre, experienced so much rejection when he first started out. Consequently, I was extremely inspired by his perseverance to continue writing, despite countless setbacks. For him, writing wasn’t (and isn’t) a job – he is truly passionate about the craft and it is a part of who he is.
In the second half of the memoir, titled “On Writing,” King reflects upon the craft of writing itself. He definitely isn’t afraid to say what he thinks (NOT a fan of adverbs or passive voice!), but gives much encouragement to the aspiring writers who read this book. I found it absolutely fascinating to see inside the mind of one of the most brilliant and prolific authors of our time – not only through the lens of an autobiography, but also through the lens of how and why he writes the way he does. One of the most engrossing sections of this book for me was when he described how he plans and details his plots… he doesn’t! He describes his process as starting with a “what if” question and, if the situation arising from that question is strong enough, he lets his characters lead him through the actual writing of the story. How amazing is that? Some examples he gives in the text include the following:
What if vampires invaded a small New England village? (‘Salem’s Lot)
What if a policeman in a remote Nevada town went berserk and started killing everyone in sight? (Desperation)
What if a young mother and her son became trapped in their stalled car by a rabid dog? (Cujo)
Overall, I found this memoir to be a captivating read and would highly recommend it for both aspiring writers and fans of King alike!
I’m a sucker for literary movies, movies that give me a glimpse into the lives of my favorite authors, the time period that they were writing, and their motivations for writing. Genius fell right into my lap one day and I knew I needed to watch it.
Genius tells the story of the relationship between Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins was a book editor at Scribner, one who discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, among others. Thomas Wolfe’s manuscript was put into Perkins’ hands by an associate who said that is was unique and that he should take a look at it. What follows is a deep dive into the psyche of Wolfe and Perkins’ relationship.
Wolfe is portrayed as a lovable American South writer who does not believe his novel will ever get published after he worked on it for four years. Perkins drops into his life right when he is at a crossroads. The two work together to carve down Wolfe’s massive manuscript into something the public will actually read. The scenes where Wolfe and Perkins are actively working on his manuscript are some of my favorite as both of their personalities shine as they rally for their favorite parts to be saved or for certain sections to be cut. Perkins’ relationship with his family as well as Wolfe’s relationship with his lady benefactor also play key roles in this movie.
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald make frequent appearances in the movie, letting viewers see into their own personal lives and the struggles they were facing as writers. Seeing the characters’ relationships grow and change throughout the course of this movie really allows viewers to see how complex Wolfe and Perkins’ relationship was with each other and with the outside world.
This movie is based on the 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. It’s important to remember that this is a dramatized version of a biography, so the director and writers strayed from the book a little bit. If you’re curious about what was left out or need a little more background, check out this New Yorker article entitled “The Odd Factual Gaps in Michael Grandage’s ‘Genius’ “and judge the movie’s authenticity and factuality for yourself.
Are you trying to write the next great American novel? Do you find yourself needing motivation to write?
If so then you will be happy to learn that November is National Novel Writing Month. Authors from all around the world are members of the National Novel Writing Month website. On this website, you can track your writing progress, get pep talks, talk to fellow authors on the forums, and meet other authors in your area. According to the website,
“National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.
On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.
Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.”
If you want to challenge yourself to write 50,000 words during the month of November, then check out the National Novel Writing Month website:
I read Letters to a Young Poetby 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.
With its corn by the acre, beef on the hoof, Quaker Oats, and Kraft Mac n’ Cheese, the Midwest eats pretty well and feeds the nation on the side. But there’s more to the Midwestern kitchen and palate than the farm food and sizable portions the region is best known for beyond its borders. It is to these heartland specialties, from the heartwarming to the downright weird, that Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie invites the reader.
The volume brings to the table an illustrious gathering of thirty Midwestern writers with something to say about the gustatory pleasures and peculiarities of the region. In a meditation on comfort food, Elizabeth Berg recalls her aunt’s meatloaf. Stuart Dybek takes us on a school field trip to a slaughtering house, while Peter Sagal grapples with the ethics of paté. Parsing Cincinnati five-way chili, Robert Olmstead digresses into questions of Aztec culture. Harry Mark Petrakis reflects on owning a South Side Chicago lunchroom, while Bonnie Jo Campbell nurses a sweet tooth through a fudge recipe in the Joy of Cooking and Lorna Landvik nibbles her way through the Minnesota State Fair.
These are just a sampling of what makes Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie – with its generous helpings of laughter, culinary confession, and information – an irresistible literary feast. (description from publisher)
When you think “travel writer,” you usually think of someone like Paul Theroux or Bruce Chatwin. Not exactly laugh riots. In fact, they can be pretty grim. The more painful the journey and annoying their companions, the more they like it. The Great Railway Bazaar was Theroux’s first travel book and became a classic of the genre. He celebrates the hardship and minimizes the joy of travel – increasingly so, the further he goes along the Orient Express.
Theroux does excel in describing the people he meets in Europe and Asia – London to Afghanistan to India to Japan to Siberia. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star was a sequel of sorts, in which Theroux travels by train again to China, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and sees the incredible changes 30 years have wrought.
Other masters of the travelogue as endurance test are Bruce Chatwin (In Patagonia) and Jonathan Raban. A British writer, Raban writes about the Mississippi River in Old Glory. (He irritated many locally with his depiction of Davenport).
So, if you find yourself in the midst of a very bad vacation, start writing – you may as well get something constructive out of it!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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