Short Saturday: The Nonpursuit of Creativity

If you’re here, you are probably a creative person. Probably a writer, but I don’t want to make any assumptions or assign limitations; most of the creatives I know exhibit those tendencies in more than one way.

In my experience, creativity has hot moments … and it requires downtime too. (I’ve written about that in “The Case for Procrastination.”) And recently Jane Friedman noted that “procrastination and distraction … can be a positive influence in our work lives” and “the drive to be ever-more productive can be quite an affliction, making us a little too serious and impeding our best work.”

Then she leads us to three stories—from Ron Savage, Elizabeth Katdetsky, and Claire Luchette—on Glimmertrain, all loosely around the theme of patient procrastination. Not the fearful kind. The productive kind. :)

Read them.

Tweet: In my experience, creativity has hot moments … and it requires downtime too.
Tweet: If you’re here, you are probably a creative person. And you probably procrastinate.
Tweet: The Nonpursuit of Creativity—or, shall we say, patient procrastination.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: ,

Study This: The Children Act

You’ve heard me say, over and over, that reading will make you a better writer. It will. And I’m just talking about reading for pleasure and absorbing things by osmosis that will show up unbidden in your writing later.

Now let’s try something else. Let’s try reading—still for pleasure—but let’s be intentional. Let’s observe the artist at work. We can learn something.

A few weeks ago I finished Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and was struck by how intense and accomplished it is—and in such a small package. At just 221 pages, you won’t have to invest a lot of time, and there is a lot of punch packed into this relatively simple story.

Reviews were mixed. Neither New York Times reviewer liked it, while both from the Guardian loved it. Here’s the setup, from the dust jacket:

Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude, and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow … There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now her marriage of thirty years is in crisis. At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: a seventeen-year-old boy is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes.

I enjoyed it, as I have many of McEwan’s novels. But remember, we’re studying. In this one, I noticed how seamlessly McEwan handles the writing craft, things I’ve seen other authors struggle with:

• meaningful (but not overweighted) first chapters
• introduction/placing of the inciting incident
• layering in backstory without being obvious
• keeping the story moving (pacing)
• making every single scene and detail count
• interesting plots that don’t get bogged down in complication
• believable plot devices
• POV

There’s more, of course. We could discuss characterization, the lovely but unpretentious prose, the absence of dialogue tags, the symbolism and themes, the unexpected scenes that made me squirm. But I think structure is what you can learn from The Children Act.

After you’ve read it, think about it.

Go back and have a look at that first chapter, at the introduction to the protagonist. Do you have a sense of her? Of time and place? I loved how the room is observed as Fiona’s eyes move across it: “The fireplace not lit in a year. Blackened raindrops falling irregularly into the grate with a ticking sound against balled-up yellowing newsprint.” It’s “written in the third person, but it’s all narrated from inside Fiona’s awareness,” the Guardian tells us. We know the cases she is working on. All the backstory—precious little—you’ll need is artfully layered into the first pages, so when these details appear later, they’re completely organic, completely believable. And not a wasted word.

There’s a dramatic inciting incident—Fiona’s husband announces he is planning to have an affair—right near the beginning, where it should be. Now Fiona knows she has a problem (that’s the purpose of the inciting incident) but retreats to the comfort of work—other people’s problems—to avoid it.

The novel moves right along at a clip. Boom: husband’s threatening infidelity. Boom: an after-hours petition for an emergency hearing is filed, and Fiona’s the judge on call. McEwan keeps it simple: there are only these two incidents—a plot and a subplot—but tension builds and surprises come in spite of the fact that you think you know what’s happened. The story arc in this novel is as plain as the nose on your face.

And that’s why I think you should study this one. Let me know what you think.

Tweet: McEwan seamlessly handles the craft: pacing, backstory, making every scene & detail count.
Tweet: Read this book to study the meaningful (but not overweighted) 1st chapter. It’s all there.
Tweet: You’ll learn structure from The Children Act. The story arc is as plain as the nose on your face.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , , , , ,

If You Stop Learning, You Die

In a recent review of the movie about physicist Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), I read a line about his first wife, Jane Wilde, who “eventually earned a PhD in medieval Spanish poetry,” and I thought, Whoa. Medieval. Spanish. Poetry? And then I reminded myself that I, too, have studied obscure topics obsessively.

Because I have always believed that if you stop learning, you die.

I used to say that a lot when I was younger. I had friends who “settled down” and eventually just “settled” and quit being interested in much of anything beyond the confines of the kids and the house. They listened to the oldies station on the way to work, watched television after supper.

For me, that way lay madness. Or, actually, extreme boredom. Death, even (which is easy to say when you’re in your thirties and a bit of a smartass). I have this thing about learning new stuff. Or old stuff that’s new to me (history, say). Although I have yet to find my way to medieval Spanish poetry … but you never know.

Now that I’m older I’m a bit less obsessed about knowing everything (because, you know, the Internet exists) and a little more interested in what I can pass on. I learn something from every manuscript I work on, and those pearls sooner or later find their way into the blog. But posts on craft interest me the least because you guys can get that information anywhere. (Again, the Interest exists.) I’ll hasten to add, of course, you should use discernment: there are plenty of self-proclaimed experts out there. You can hear those self-hung shingles a-flappin’ in the breeze.

No, I find myself interested in inspiration … and the nature of creativity … and encouragement. I like that role. And I like showing, rather than telling. :) I like saying, Here’s an example, have a look, what can we learn from this? Or Read this, I think it’ll resonate with you.

You understand me when I say—and I’m not the first—to be a good writer you must be a good reader. But not everyone understands, I think, when I say I learned a lot of what I need to know about editing fiction by reading fiction. And that you can also learn this way. I’m moving toward that now: I’ve been working on a series of posts I’m calling Study This, recommendations for intentional reading, authors whose techniques you might study (and enjoy too). Because if you are looking for the secret to writing well, the secret is reading well. We’ll kick it off on Thursday.

Tweet: I’m interested in inspiration, the nature of creativity, encouragement. I like that role.
Tweet: I learned a lot of what I need to know about editing fiction by reading fiction.
Tweet: If you are looking for the secret to writing well, the secret is reading well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Writing Craft | Tagged as: , , ,

Short Saturday: The “Other” of the Psyche

Click on the word creativity in the cloud of tags to the right of this post and you’ll see it is a topic that interests me. I suspect it interests you, too, as a writer. Where do you get your ideas? It’s the age-old question.

Recently I read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, and oohed and ahhed my way through it. You might too.

The psychologist Daniel Goleman’s work on social intelligence shows that how we think and feel is a function of how we relate to others. The psychiatrist Daniel Siegel has shown that interacting with our own minds is a prerequisite for both mental health and empathy. Meanwhile, it turns out that the relationship one has to oneself is as complex as any society. “We used to think that the hard part of the question ‘How can I be happy?’ had to do with nailing down the definition of happy,” writes the psychologist Paul Bloom. “But it may have more to so with the definition of I. Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.”

To see how this relates to creativity, reflect for a moment on the quality of mind that is the least creative—when the mind buzzes like the white noise on a TV screen. This is “monkey mind,” a cacophony of voices and sensations. Everything seems possible and nothing gets done.

Contrast that to the clarity of a moment of insight, when suddenly an organic structure emerges from what had been before a mess of scenes or ideas, when the melody line or a sentence comes to mind. We may describe these as “thoughts” that “emerge.” But if we pay attention to our own experiences—and to the accounts of exceptionally creative people—what we discover is a kind of dialogue.

I’ll revisit this again in a future post, but I wanted to let you chew on it for a while. Shenk goes on to mention writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity (which ranks among the top twenty most popular TED talks of all time), so I’ve linked it with this excerpt. Watch it—it will be time well spent.

* Transcribed by me from page 109 of the hardcover edition of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

 

Tweet: How do you tap into creativity? Develop a dialogue with yourself.
Tweet: You have a creative partner: it’s the “other” of the psyche.
Tweet: I read Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two recently & oohed & ahhed my way through it.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged as: ,

The Generosity Theory

In every book there’s usually a note from the author—in publishing we call this the acknowledgments—and if you think editors don’t check to see if we’re mentioned there, you need to research a little more about human nature before you start that next novel. :) Sometimes I’m really touched by the messages left for me in the acknowledgments. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed to go unmentioned, but it’s happened enough times it doesn’t surprise me. When they get their I’d-like-to-thank-the-Academy moment, some folks are better prepared than others.

In this big world, it seems, everybody’s jostling for recognition for one thing or another. Some people manage to accomplish this without much effort (see: Justin Bieber) but the rest of us have to work a little harder to get noticed and appreciated.

My friends in academia—for whom publish or perish is a truism—hold their research close to the vest before they go public. The order in which one’s name appears in the list of authors usually indicates how much credit one actually deserves, in the way one can extrapolate how much fruit, say, is in that fruit juice by noting which ingredient is listed first … and last. But there’s bickering and personality conflict—no one’s immune from this, I guess—and some honest oversight too.

My friends in the music industry—particularly songwriters—call this process determining the splits (because they’re splitting the credit for each song into percentages). The film industry employs legions of lawyers to determine who gets credit for what and, you know, whose name will appear first onscreen.

It can get pretty tricky when you’re writing a (nonfiction) book too. Are you a ghostwriter? Will you be named on the cover or is the Famous Person going to pretend he or she wrote the book? If you’re named, will you be a with or an and (Famous Person with Unfamous Writer or Famous Person and Unfamous Writer)? (Hint: and is better.)

That’s all decided before the first word is written. At some point the manuscript will have to be reviewed by attorneys and by the FP and his or her associates. And you know what they say, right? There’s three sides to every story: his, hers, and the truth. (Or, in this case: Famous Person, FP’s Associates, and the writer.) A friend of mine who ghosts tells the story of FP’s spouse, who was determined to have, ahem, spousal stories included. (Again, that jostling for recognition. Behind every Famous Person stands … Someone Else.) In another instance, Famous Person’s assistant—who had been present during the events covered in the book and had a lot more time to talk to the ghostwriter—later insisted she should be credited as a coauthor. True story.

Everyone has an opinion, a perspective, a memory that may be different. The police call these folks unreliable witnesses and know how to recognize them, but when you’re writing a book, how can you be sure? If you remember it’s often less about who should actually get credit than it is about perception of who deserves credit, your decision might be easier.

A friend of mine sought my advice when she was entering her film in an important competition. Who should be mentioned on the entry form? She’d done all the work herself, she’d been paid, and the subject was happy with the end product. And yet … it’s really all about who gets credit. So the easiest thing to do, in my opinion, is to be generous. There’s no shame in shared glory. And win or lose, people remember that generosity.

When I was checking to be sure my memory was correct on songwriting splits, I came across this article in the Guardian that supports my generosity theory:

I sometimes get asked by songwriters what percentage they should ask for when they collaborate with other writers and artists. … I usually respond with the question: “Do you ever want to work with this person again?” If the answer is yes, I strongly advise equal splits all the way. Do you think Lennon and McCartney would have written half the classics they did if they’d spent their time arguing about who wrote what, and trying to get more songs than the other onto each album?

Yes, I understand, there’s often a lot of money at stake, not only in music but in movies, in science (who will get to patent, say, the cure for cancer, and how much will it be worth?), and in publishing. I’m not indifferent to money. It could be the difference between sending your kids to college and being comfortable in your old age … or not. But I still think—especially when we’re talking about a lot of money—there’s room for generosity.

And remember those acknowledgments? My friend the ghostwriter got a lot of grief from a minor player in a big story. Grandiose claims were made. But at the end of the day, all it took was a more generous mention in the acknowledgments to turn that frown upside down. The Generosity Theory.*

* I want credit for that now, y’all. :)

 

Tweet: There’s no shame in shared glory. And win or lose, people remember that generosity.
Tweet: In this big world, it seems, everybody’s jostling for recognition for one thing or another.
Tweet: Who gets credit for what? Sometimes it’s hard to tell without a lawyer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Miscellany, The Book Biz | Tagged as: , ,

No More Missus Nice Gal

Is this “the free market at work”? Mike Hyatt—whom I admire—has always been an early adopter of technology and a keen observer of the publishing marketplace. I look to him regularly for ideas and inspiration. However, in one of his blog posts he touted crowd-sourcing the design of book covers: designers submit comps (samples) on spec; the one whose design gets selected gets paid, but generally below market value.* He also noted that traditional (that is, old school) designers don’t like this system.**

And they shouldn’t. I find it very disturbing that creatives—who have a lot invested in equipment, software, training, creative and critical thinking, time—are so willing to give away their work. Often they’re young, trying to build a portfolio and a business. The argument is they don’t have to take the bait, but with the economy the way it’s been, one finds even established creatives running this race to the bottom of the financial barrel.

To me it feels like a wild-goose chase.*** Yes, it’s a voluntary goose chase. But I think it sends the wrong message.

So does Tim Kreider, a freelance columnist writing for the New York Times:

Not long ago, I received, in a single week, three (3) invitations to write an original piece for publication or give a prepared speech in exchange for no ($0.00) money. As with stinkbugs, it’s not any one instance of this request but their sheer number and relentlessness that make them so tiresome. It also makes composing a polite response a heroic exercise in restraint.

Right. Because “No way, Jose” is so dated.

And Kreider’s not the only one. When TV giant Showtime recently solicited designers to submit ad comps on the off-chance the winner would be displayed to a bunch of folks attending a boxing match, Dan Cassaro’s response went viral. He was asked why it struck such a chord with his fellow designers.

Because they all get these emails. And it’s not just designers. I received a ton of responses from writers, cartoonists, architects and people in other professions who get asked to work for free. … But I also wanted to let people know that while it’s good to say no to this kind of work, it’s even better to explain to everyone why this business model is unacceptable.

When I posted the Hyatt article on Facebook, many of my self-employed friends came unglued, and I don’t blame them. The point I wanted to make was this sort of thing is happening in the arts across the board. You’ve heard the restaurant joke, right?**** My musician friends have heard it. They don’t think it’s funny. Not least because there’s inevitably some poor schlub who takes the gig for the exposure. But, the saying goes, you can die from exposure.

Kreider notes,

My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy—doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great—because it’ll help get her name out there.

And that’s the thing. You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you? You know, just to see how you will work together. But that’s the sort of requests I get, y’all. Just last week:

I’m looking for an editor for my 96k+ fantasy novel. It is book 1 of 4. I’d love to get a quote and sample edit. Thanks!!

Last month I got this one:

Could you do a free developmental or copy editing sample of the extract below? Whichever you think is needed—and as much as you like. Just start on p. 1.

Before that, this:

Would you consider editing a few pages gratis, so I can see if we are a fit?

Um. What does one say to this type of naïveté (or disingenuousness)?*****

Sure, you can read all over the Internet that you should get a free sample from an editor you’re thinking of hiring to find out if you can work together. But that’s just wrong. I object to free. (I used to do it, years ago. I used to give a free sample. And it never once led to a paying gig. Never. Once.) When a prospective client uses the word sample and doesn’t overtly offer to pay for it, it reads (to me, at least) as if he or she is asking for something free. For me to do something on spec.

I wonder, then, if the person asking me for a freebie is experienced enough to recognize whether an editing sample is “good”? Most seem to have a manuscript burning a hole in their pockets and they’re anxious to get started. They want a sample and a quote, stat. When I have to qualify the request—How many words? What type of edit?—I can tell they haven’t even looked at my website. And I can’t show them someone else’s edit. (I’d love to; some of them make me look pretty good.) But that’s proprietary. However, you can see the results—just check my portfolio.

How will we work together, though? That seems to be a huge question for some folks. Here’s one thought: many of my blogging topics are chosen to expose my editing philosophy, if you will, and my blogging voice—which really is me—was chosen to expose who I am as a person. I believe it does.

So this is the last time I’m going to whine about this. (Maybe.) I’m done chasing the geese. If you’d like to sample my product, check out the blog. Here’s a list of posts specifically about the writing and editing process. If you want a sample done on your specific manuscript, drop me a line and I’ll give you a quote for my time.

Thank you, and God bless America.

* It shouldn’t always be about price. Hyatt talks about the expense of traditionally designed covers, and notes he was able to get a cover designed for $400 to $500. But there was quite a bit of commentary on the post about how often that image of the life preserver has appeared in ads and on other book covers. The life preserver image was probably from free or nearly free stock; there’s no way a designer could meet the $400–500 budget otherwise. When you pay the going rate for an image, you are also paying to guarantee it isn’t sold to anyone else.

 

** To be fair, Hyatt notes that he uses traditional designers for most projects, “but when I am stuck or need something fast, I am increasingly turning to crowd-sourced design.”

 

*** Hyatt isn’t the only one who crowd-sources design, of course. Those online stationery companies (wedding invitations, Christmas cards, and so on) use contests to select the work of designers they will display. I have no idea if it’s lucrative for the designers. But you should think about this when you’re buying Christmas cards next year.

 

**** Q: We are a small and casual restaurant in downtown Vancouver looking for musicians to play special events that might become nightly if the response is good. No pay but you can sell your CD and get exposure. Interested?
A: I am a musician looking for a restaurateur to come to my house to make dinner for my friends and I. Might become nightly if the response is good. No pay, of course, but you get to promote your restaurant. Interested?

 

***** This is what I say:

Thanks for getting in touch. I no longer offer free samples. Editing is my business; I am a professional, and it’s how I earn my living. My time and what’s in my head (and heart) are the only things I have to sell. So I can’t really give my time away. I will be happy to do a one-chapter sample at my hourly rate; it takes an average of three hours. I hope you understand. I do, however, give a lot of free advice on my blog. You should check out this page on my website; it might be helpful to you. If you would like personal recommendations, most of the authors and industry professionals you see on my website are easily reached. All the best, J.

Tweet: Should you take the job for the exposure? But you can die from exposure.
Tweet: You don’t ask your dentist for a sample filling, do you? Just to see how you will work together?
Tweet: When a prospective client uses the word sample & doesn’t offer to pay, it feels like an insult.
Tweet: Is this “the free market at work”? Crowd-sourcing professional creatives.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in The Arts & Media, Your Editor Says … | Tagged as: , , , ,

Short Saturday: And What About the Fiction?

We were just discussing My Year of Reading Nonfiction, which was fun … but, hey, I did read twenty-eight fiction titles too. What were they? How did they stand up to the nonfiction?

I have a list of them too. I’ve been keeping an annual Books-I’ve-Read list for a few years, but I was galvanized by a list of “thoughts on reading” by Austin Kleon* (“a writer who draws”), one of which is to keep a list of books you read each year and share the list. There will be a post about that at some point.

So I’m sharing. This is the fiction I read in 2014:

Carol Anshaw / Carry the One
Kate di Camillo / The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Richard Ford / Canada
Gayle Forman / If I Stay
Gayle Forman / Where She Went
Karen Joy Fowler / We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
John Green / An Abundance of Katherines
Colleen Hoover / Slammed
Joshilyn Jackson / Someone Else’s Love Story
Jenny B. Jones / Can’t Let You Go
Douglas Kennedy / Leaving the World
Julie Kibler / Calling Me Home
Lois Lowry / The Giver
Anthony Marra / A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Grace McCleen / The Land of Decoration
Ian McEwan / The Children Act
Liz Moore / Heft: A Novel
Liane Moriarty / The Hypnotist’s Love Story
Jandy Nelson / I’ll Give You the Sun
David Nicholls / Us
Rajdeep Paulus / Swimming Through Clouds
Louise Penny / The Long Way Home
Meg Rosoff / The Bride’s Farewell
Rainbow Rowell / Eleanor and Park
Donal Ryan / The Spinning Heart
Colm Tóibín / Nora Webster
Daniel Woodrell / The Maid’s Version
Sara Zarr / The Lucy Variations

If I had to pick, I’d say these were spectacular:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Carry the One
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
The Spinning Heart

I loved many others on this list. (Only hated—and didn’t bother to finish—one: Leaving the World. Wouldn’t recommend Calling Me Home, though.) I’ve already written about Constellation. I’ve got plans to blog about several others, so stay tuned. :)

* I’ve been following his blog. The nature of creativity is a fascinating subject for me, and Kleon’s got it in spades.

 

Tweet: I’ve been keeping an annual Books-I’ve-Read list for a few years. Here’s the fiction.
Tweet: My Year of Reading Nonfiction … but I did read some fiction too!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Books You Might Like | Tagged as: ,

My Year of Reading Nonfiction

There is a photo of me in my mid-twenties sitting at the kitchen table reading a book. There are two other books on the table, one open, and my arms are positioned in such a way that I am touching all three books. This would not be untypical for me. In those days, I would stumble upon a topic that interested me and then read everything about it that I could get my hands on. Books, obviously, since back in those days there was no Internet.

I’ve always loved biographies and history and anything that might be categorized as popular science. There was my year or so of reading physics (actual physics, but also a few biographies of Einstein), and from there I moved into mathematics and mathematicians. And I can tell you with some confidence that I have read every biography about Mozart ever printed, because, yes, there was my half-decade of reading (and listening to) Mozart. (Actually I’ve never stopped listening to Mozart. Why would you, really?)

Of course, I can satisfy my curiosity a lot easier these days (because, you know, Google), which is both good and bad—I get answers quickly (because I’m not going to the library or the bookstore, researching, or reading whole books) but my knowledge is not nearly as deep or rich precisely because I am not reading whole books.

And yet … I keep buying them. Something looks interesting in a review. Someone mentions a title, says it was really good. I find a book I remember from long ago on the remainder pile. You know how that goes. About fifteen months ago I took a look at the shelf that houses my TBR books and noticed that I had a lot of unread nonfiction. Way out of proportion to my reading habits.

Because, let’s face it, I love fiction. (And I love editing fiction, too, although I also work on plenty of nonfiction.) I definitely read more novels than not. Here’s my fiction-to-nonfiction breakdown for the seven years preceding 2014:

2007 – 31 / 7
2008 – 27 / 9
2009 – 28 / 13
2010 – 28 / 11
2011 – 33 / 9
2012 – 24 / 8
2013 – 46 / 8

Those numbers, when I checked them, were shocking. What had happened to me? Self-employment had something to do with it; I worked a lot anyway, and then the recession … oh, you know. I also had an undiagnosed medical condition that cut my bedtime reading hours. I was tired all the time and didn’t have the spare bandwidth one needs for nonfiction pursuits. So I relaxed into fiction. (I was treated in the latter half of 2012, and you can see the difference it made in 2013’s overall numbers.)

Until I declared 2014 My Year of Reading Nonfiction.* I went through the shelf and pulled out a lot of titles I’d really intended to get to (sometimes for years). It was an ambitious stack, but I was determined.

Three titles in, I realized I would not survive if I read only nonfiction. (The first book I read in 2014 was Behind the Beautiful Forevers—need I say more?) I need the escape hatch of fiction. So I decided—one shouldn’t set oneself up for failure, after all—I would be happy if I ended up with a one-to-one ratio. And at year’s end I’d read 37 nonfiction titles and 28 fiction titles.

This is the nonfiction I read in 2014:

Diana Athill / Somewhere Towards the End
Diana Athill / Stet: An Editor’s Life
Elizabeth Bard / Lunch in Paris
Julian Barnes / Levels of Life
Jean-Dominique Bauby / The Diving Bell & the Butterfly
Katherine Boo / Behind the Beautiful Forevers
John Bradshaw / Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science …
Susannah Cahalan / Brain on Fire
Paul Collins / The Trouble With Tom
Patrick Comerford / Embracing Difference
Cara De Silva, ed. / In Memory’s Kitchen
Edmund de Waal / The Hare with Amber Eyes
Rachel Held Evans / A Year of Biblical Womanhood
Anne Fadiman / Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
Michael Gates Gill / How Starbucks Saved My Life
Hugh Halter / Flesh
Ben Hatch / Are We Nearly There Yet?
Piper Kerman / Orange Is the New Black
James Lasdun / Give Me Everything You Have
Greg Lawrence / Jackie as Editor
F. Ndabatamiye, A. Parker / Frederick
Ann Patchett / Truth and Beauty
William Powers / Hamlet’s BlackBerry
Joe Queenan / One for the Books
Phyllis Rose / The Shelf
Will Schwalbe / The End of Your Life Book Club
David Sedaris / When You Are Engulfed in Flames
Maurice Sendak / Caldecott & Co.
Joshua Wolf Shenk / Powers of Two
Rebecca Skloot / The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Gary Taubes / Why We Get Fat
Barbara Brown Taylor / Learning to Walk in the Dark
Carol Wall / Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening
Patricia J. Williams / Open House
Simon Winchester / Krakatoa
Simon Winchester / The Professor and the Madman
James Wood / How Fiction Works

There’s some history, some memoir, several books about books, a little bit of popular science, humor … Only a couple were duds and most were excellent. A few made me change the way I think, and I especially recommend them to you**:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House 2012)
“Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India collided with old India and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life. … Late at night, the contractors modernizing the airport dumped things in the lake. Annawadians also dumped things there: most recently, the decomposing carcasses of twelve goats. Whatever was in that soup, the pigs and dogs that slept in its shallows emerged with bellies stained blue. Some creatures survived the lake, though, and not only the malarial mosquitoes. As the morning went on, a fisherman waded through the water, one hand pushing aside cigarette packs and blue plastic bags, the other dimpling the surface with a net. He would take his catch to the Marol market to be ground into fish oil, a health product for which demand had surged now that it was valued in the West.”

Cat Sense (Basic Books 2013)
“We must also ask whether the cat is being inadvertently and subtly altered by those who hold cat welfare closest to their hearts. Paradoxically, the drive to neuter as many cats as possible, with its laudable aim of reducing the suffering of unwanted kittens, may be gradually eliminating the characteristics of the very cats best suited to living in harmony with humankind: many of the cats that avoid neutering are those that are most suspicious of people and the best at hunting. The friendliest, most docile cats are nowadays neutered before leaving any descendants, while the wildest, meanest ferals are likely to escape the attention of cat rescuers and breed at will, thus pushing the cat’s evolution away from, rather than toward, better integration with human society. We are in danger of demanding more from our cats than they can deliver. We expect that an animal that has been our pest controller of choice for thousands of years should now give up that lifestyle because we have begun to find its consequences distasteful or unacceptable.”

Hamlet’s Blackberry (HarperCollins 2010)
“There’s always been a conflict between the exterior, social self and the interior, private one. The struggle to reconcile them is central to the human experience, one of the great themes of philosophy, literature, and art. In our own lifetime, the balance has tilted decisively in one direction. We hear the voices of others, and are directed by those voices, rather than by our own. We don’t turn inward as often or as easily as we used to. In one sense, the digital sphere is all about differentiating oneself from others. Anyone with a computer can have a blog now, and the possibilities for self-expression are endless. However, this expression takes place entirely within the digital crowd, which frames and defines it. This makes us more reactive, our thinking contingent on others. … This shift is affecting everyone, including those who are not fully participating in it. This is not a small matter. It’s a struggle that’s taking place at the center of our lives, for control of how we think and feel. When you’re scrambling all the time, that’s what your inner life becomes: scrambled.”

Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperCollins 2014)
“Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape? The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound. … While those who are frightened by the primal energy of dark emotions try to avoid them … those who are willing to wrestle with angels break out of their isolation by dirtying their hands with the emotions that rattle them most. In this view, the best thing to do when fear has a neck hold on you is to befriend someone who lives in real and constant fear. The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, ‘Tell me about it. I have all day.’ The hardest part about doing any of these things is to do them without insisting that your new teachers make you feel better by acting more cheerful when you are around. After years of being taught that the way to deal with painful emotions is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of reschooling to learn to sit with them instead, finding out from those who feel them what they have learned by sleeping in the wilderness that those who sleep in comfortable houses may never know. ‘One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,’ Carl Jung wrote, ‘but by making the darkness conscious.’”

Powers of Two (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014)
“The emotional point needs to be made explicit: Creativity has become a broad, vague term, a kind of stand-in for universal good, even a synonym for happiness (or, as in innovation, for profits). But making new, beautiful, useful things is as much about discord as it is about union. The creative impulse is born of a sense of incompleteness and inadequacy. It’s often fueled by frustration, by an incessant—though perhaps hard to articulate—sense that things are not as they ought to be, or as they could be. Many of us believe that finding one’s partner or soul mate means arriving at a place of consistent satisfaction. But it may be quite the contrary, that a pairing proceeds from an awareness that there is a gulf to cross, and all you have is a dinghy. … But one of the qualities that comes along with strangeness between partners is that they will never fully know each other. … [L]ong-term relationships are always beset by a paradox that human beings want both security and novelty. They want ease and familiarity and they also want to be challenged and aroused.”

The Shelf (Farrar, Straus and Girous 2014)
Libraries are constantly getting rid of books they have acquired. They have to, or they would run out of space. The polite word for this is “deaccession,” the usual word, “weeding.” … But skeptics of library weeding, like [Nicholson] Baker, are keenly aware of the difference between gardens and libraries: once you’ve weeded out a book, it isn’t going to grow back again. … [At my university library] there were nine thousand [novels on the weed list]. … To my deep sadness, I recognized titles on the list. Their removal from the library was like an actual death, a kind of death I had never imagined. People who feel strongly about retaining books in libraries have a simple way to combat the removal of treasured volumes. Since every system of elimination is based, no matter what they say, on circulation counts, the number of years that have elapsed since a book was last checked out, or the number of times it has been checked out overall, if you feel strongly about a book, you should go to every library you have access to and check out the volume you care about. Take it home awhile. Read it or don’t. Keep it beside you as you read the same book on a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. Let it breathe the air of your home, and then take it back to the library, knowing you have fought the guerilla war for physical books.”

Why We Get Fat (Random House 2010)
“The physicians of Bruch’s era [the 1940s and ’50s] weren’t thoughtless and the doctors of today are not, either. They merely have a flawed belief system—a paradigm—that stipulates that the reason we get fat is clear and incontrovertible, as is the cure. We get fat, our physicians tell us, because we eat too much and/or move too little, and so the cure is to do the opposite. … This is what Bruch described in 1957 as the ‘prevalent American attitude that the problem [of obesity] is simply one of eating more than the body needs,’ and now it’s the prevalent attitude worldwide. … Over the years, this calories-in/calories-out paradigm of excess fat has proved to be remarkably resistant to any evidence to the contrary. Imagine a murder trial in which one credible witness after another takes the stand and testifies that the suspect was elsewhere at the time of the killing and so had an airtight alibi, and yet the jurors keep insisting that the defendant is guilty, because that’s what they believed when the trial began.”

I spent a lot of time this year buttonholing friends who’d love one title or another, talking about what I’d read on Facebook, and on and on. I delighted in the books I was reading! And I am recommitted, friends, to a more robust fiction-to-nonfiction ratio in my personal reading—in spite of the fact that I am currently wallowing (oh, like the baby elephant on the beach) in fiction.

What nonfiction have you been reading? Tell me about it in the comments!

* The previous year (2013) was My Year of Reading Irish Literature, and although I have considerable notes, I haven’t actually written that post yet.

** One of these is my favorite book for 2014—but I haven’t written that post yet, so you’ll have to wait.

 

Tweet: My plan to read mostly nonfiction last year—and how it worked.
Tweet: I am recommitted to a more robust fiction-to-nonfiction ratio in my personal reading.
Tweet: “I would stumble upon a topic that interested me & then read everything about it.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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Now … Get Back to Work!

You probably know I had a little computer problem back on October third. These things never come at a convenient time, of course, but let me tell you, it was a perfect storm of crap. The briefest rundown of that six-week period would include deaths in my family and among close family friends, serious illness in both close family and close friends, a personal health scare (“Don’t worry!” my primary care physician said as she referred me on. “It’s extremely slow-growing and easily treated.” Um, OK.*) … and on the brighter side of the spectrum, a short visit from the Boy (he was here when It happened), the Irishman was to arrive in a couple weeks, and I was in the middle of designers and printers and addressing envelopes because I was planning a small wedding. (Mine, actually. But that’s another story.)

As you know, I was too shocked to try to make up all my lost work at the pace required, so I announced a partial hiatus of the blog. By the time I arrived at that solution, I was completely broken. I know that sounds horribly melodramatic, but it’s the truth. I was on-the-floor broken.

And then I got an email from a dear friend:

Hello Lovely,
Five things.
1) I am so sorry about your computer.
2) I am glad you got to take a break (however stressful the circumstances).
3) I think your strategy for blogging for the next few months is excellent.
4) While I’m pretty slammed right now, in a week or so I should be able to get enough air to do a guest post for you.
5) I hope your visit w/ the Boy was affirming, invigorating, and happy. I enjoyed the photos on Facebook.
Now, get back to work.
Love,
April

Well. If that isn’t the best prescription for dealing with a personal setback, I don’t know what is. So let’s review, in case you’ve had one yourself:

1. What happened sucks. You’re allowed to grieve.
2. Sit down. Catch your breath. Only gymnasts are expected to bounce right back up after a fall.
3. If you don’t already have one, devise your Plan B.
4. Ask for help. You don’t have to carry this burden by yourself.
5. Do something that will invigorate, energize, or affirm you, so you’ll have the strength and heart for the hard work of rebuilding.

I’m back. Let’s get started. :)

* I had the test, did not have to have the painful biopsy. That doctor—I’ve been her patient for twenty years—came in, hugged me close, and teared up when she told me to go home and be happy. All is well.

 

Thank you, April Line, for that note and for your friendship, which I treasure.

 

Tweet: A gentle prescription for dealing with a personal setback.
Tweet: If you don’t already have one, devise your Plan B. You’ll need it!
Tweet: Sit down. Catch your breath. Only gymnasts are expected to bounce right up after a fall.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized |

Short Saturday: The Future of Western Literature

You all know I love literary fiction, so naturally this article in the Guardian caught my eye: “Nobel judge fears for the future of western literature.”

Engdahl said that the “professionalisation” of the job of the writer, via grants and financial support, was having a negative effect on literature. “Even though I understand the temptation, I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions,” he told La Croix. “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”

It’s an interesting idea, don’t you think? I absolutely agree that a deep and broad life experience feeds writing. On the other hand, the comments also seem to reflect a sort of literary ivory tower attitude. So have a look. Tell us what you think in the comments.

Tweet: In the past, great authors worked as ‘taxi drivers and waiters’ to feed their imaginations.
Tweet: “Nobel judge fears for the future of western literature.”

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

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