The Drive to Connect

My work nook

My work nook. It’s considerably more cluttered than it was when I took this picture three years ago.

After I get dressed in the morning, I put on the teakettle, reheat whatever is left in yesterday’s teapot, light a candle or two, and sit down in my work chair. Before I pull the tool of the morning into my lap (either pen and paper or my laptop, depending on whether I’m first-drafting or revising; today it’s the laptop), I usually reach for my copy of The Writer’s Chapbook (I’ve got the 1989 edition), open it at random, and take whatever my eye falls on as my guide.

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This morning I reached instead for Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language, which happened to be sitting on top of The Writer’s Chapbook. If I had to list the most important books I’ve read in my life, Dream would be in the top five. I’m still reading and rereading it almost 40 years after I encountered it for the first time. You might guess this from the fact that my copy is in two pieces and the front and back covers are less than pristine. (The spine broke between the last two pages of “Natural Resources.” This is not a coincidence.)

This morning my eye lit on the second stanza of “Origins and History of Consciousness.”

No one lives in this room
without confronting the whiteness of the wall
behind the poems, planks of books,
photographs of dead heroines.
Without contemplating last and late
the true nature of poetry. The drive
to connect. The dream of a common language.

The stanza that gave the book its title. A stanza that acknowledges and even begins to respond to the questions I can barely ask out loud: What good is writing in this world where talk is cheap, lies are endemic, and so few people seem up to the challenging of actually listening? What can a writer do?

“Origins and History of Consciousness” blends writing and loving  in imagery that can’t be easily summarized. You can find the whole thing here. At the moment I can’t find the complete text of “Natural Resources” online. It’s a long poem, and everyone loves to quote the last stanza. The Dream of a Common Language is still in print, and all of it’s included in Collected Poems, 1950–2012, edited by Claudia Rankine and published last year.

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Van Morrison, John Lee Hooker : I Cover The Waterfont

This isn’t about writing exactly but it speaks to me so strongly as a writer that I think it might speak to you too. The Immortal Jukebox is one of my most favorite blogs.

The Immortal Jukebox

Often, when we tell the story of our own life, to ourselves, or to others, the narrative teems with incident. An action movie filled with high drama.

Now, reflecting on my own life I have come to realise that a more apt comparison would be one of the contemplative, steady gaze movies directed by Robert Bresson from France or Yasujiro Ozu from Japan.

The meaning is won, revealed, not through a hectic series of heroic events but powerfully accumulated through close attention to small details and patient meditation on the weathering, sometimes destructive, sometimes ennobling, passage of time.

Life is mainly waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Waiting for what you want or need the most.

Waiting for your mother’s or father’s attention.

Waiting for the fabled excitement of love and romance and high passion to blow into your life like a hurricane.

Waiting for someone to recognise you as the one they…

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On Selfish Reading

I’m pretty much self-taught as a writer. As an editor, I had a mentor who taught me to think systematically about the words, sentences, and paragraphs in front of me, how to recognize, diagnose, and fix problems. In my first editorial job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit, I had to clear every manuscript I edited with the person who wrote it. Often these people weren’t professional writers. They didn’t have long experience to fall back on. Some of them were downright touchy. They taught me the importance of knowing what I was doing and being able to explain it. I still do that in my head even when I have no direct contact with the author (as when I edit for big publishers) and when the author isn’t likely to ask me to explain everything I’ve done.

About writing, though — the downside of being self-taught is that though I can review, critique, and coach pretty well, I don’t have a clue about how to teach writing. My syllabus boils down to “Read lots of stuff. Keep writing.” This blog post from Brevity does a fine job of showing how and how much writers (and editors too, I do believe) can learn from reading.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

By Anna Leahy, adapted from the forthcoming anthology, What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing:

Anna Leahy Anna Leahy

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose talks about reading as part of how writers learn, perhaps the most important way we learn such things as “the love of language” and “a gift of story-telling.” Of course, a writer must write, but Prose says, “For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential.” That ability is cultivated by reading.

“I read for pleasure, first,” Prose goes on to say, “but also more analytically, conscious of style, of diction, of how sentences were formed and information was being conveyed, how the writer was structuring plot, creating characters, employing detail and dialogue. […] I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each…

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How Many Is Too Many?

An editor was asking how to explain to a client that he was overusing a particular word.

Writers, even experienced writers, have our pet constructions, our favorite words. Often we don’t realize we’re overusing them. When I’m in revision mode, I’ll pause on a word and realize I’ve seen it pretty recently. I hit CTRL+F (that’s the Windows version — it’s COMMAND + F for you Mac folks), put the word in the search bar, and search upward. Recently I discovered I’d used “stage-whispered” twice in three pages. One of them wasn’t necessary. I got rid of it.

The editor’s query wasn’t unusual, but then the editor wanted to know if there was a “rule of thumb” for how many repetitions of a word was too many.

I replied that I went by the “rule of gut”: as an experienced editor and writer, I know that when something stops me in my tracks, it’s worth a second look.

Other editors pointed out that it depended on the word. Unusual words call attention to themselves. “Stage-whispered” isn’t exactly exotic, but as a dialogue tag it’s not all that common either. Twice in three pages struck me as once too often. Other words are so distinctive that if you encounter one on page 251, you may remember that you saw it a hundred pages earlier.

Aside: In my many years of editing on paper, without CTRL+F to fall back on, I developed a sixth sense for this. I also noted unusual words, variant spellings, and personal and place names on my style sheet, along with the applicable page number. When the Katherine on page 73 became Katharine on page 228, I usually noticed. CTRL+F has spoiled me rotten. I’m not as good at this as I used to be, but I’m still not bad.

The inquiring editor took all this in and finally asked how, if there was no rule, she could explain to the client that he was overusing a word. Had anyone done any studies on how often is too often? she wondered.

Then someone suggested telling the client that his readers would notice and not like it. Back in September I blogged about editors and other gatekeepers who hide behind “readers won’t like it if . . .” Editors who hide behind an “authority” that can’t be contradicted or even verified are treading on unsteady ground.

“Good editors don’t need to hide,” I wrote. “We’ll say things like ‘I stumbled over this bit’ or ‘Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.'”

I’ve learned over the years that anything that trips a reader up is worth a second look. Especially if the reader is someone whose opinion I respect and whose honesty I want to encourage. Perceptive readers who’ll give you their honest opinion about your work in progress aren’t all that easy to find. Encourage them by paying attention to what they tell you.

You don’t have to act on all of it: of course not. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned at the first writing workshop I ever attended is that readers are a diverse lot. One might love a turn of phrase that another finds trite or confusing. Two might interpret a character’s actions in one scene in two different ways — and have equally valid reasons for doing so. Readers bring their own unique experiences and expectations to your work. They aren’t going to read it the same way no matter what you do. Listen to what they tell you, then make up your own mind.

So back to the original question: “How many is too many?” Well, if someone notes that a particular word or phrase or construction comes up a lot in your story or essay, take a critical look at it. Use CTRL+F or COMMAND+F to find out just how often you’re using a word or phrase. Even better, read the passage aloud. The word “audience” comes from the Latin verb audīre, to hear. For many of us, repetitiousness is easier to hear than to see.

Learn what your own literary tics are. You don’t have to avoid them completely: just come up with some alternatives.

And keep in mind that repetition can be an effective device. Sometimes it’s 100% intentional. Here’s an example from my novel in progress:

Shannon knew what the message said. It had been playing when she walked through the door twenty minutes ago. She’d dropped onto the sofa and been sitting there ever since, as the room grew darker and both dogs gave up on being fed early. If she got up, she’d have to decide: play the message back or deep-six it, like she’d deep-sixed the last one and the ones before it.

The last deep-six had been on impulse and she’d been regretting it ever since. . . .

“Deep-six” occurs three times in two adjacent sentences, and in the third instance the verb has turned into a noun. Horrors! Is this too many? Should one of those deep-sixes be deep-sixed?

For the moment, no. I like the way the passage reads. The repetition suggests that Shannon is obsessing about what she’s done and wondering what to do next. Will it survive into the next draft? That I can’t tell you. What seems just right now may seem like too many tomorrow — or vice versa. That’s writing for you, and it’s why I trust my rules of gut more than other people’s rules of thumb.

 

Recognition Rocks

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Ordinarily I don’t do awards, but hey, recognition is good, especially when it comes from a fellow writer, so thank you for nominating me, Gavin Zanker. I recently started following Gavin’s blog, but already I get the impression that he’s making it up and figuring it out as he goes along, which is pretty much what I do. More power to us.

I have two blogs, this one and From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, about being a year-round resident of Martha’s Vineyard. As both writer and editor I’m mostly self-taught, which is to say I’ve learned a tremendous amount from my peers, a couple of mentors, and reading master writers but I haven’t gone to school for any of it. Write Through It is part of my attempt to give something back and keep learning at the same time.

Advice to bloggers, especially bloggers who do other kinds of writing: Your writing will teach you what you need to know. Just keep doing it — and be prepared for unexpected detours and forks in the road.

Here are my nominees, in no particular order. All these blogs expand my world, albeit in different ways. Some of these bloggers don’t do awards, but check out their blogs anyway. They’re special.

The TomPostPile • Tom lives up the road from me. I already knew he was a musician and a master sign painter, but until he started his blog I knew nothing about Wishetwurra Farm. Here’s your intro. He also takes wonderful photos of both here and “away” — sometimes as close as Woods Hole but other times considerably more distant.

Charlotte Hoather • Charlotte Hoather is a gifted young soprano pursuing her music studies in Scotland. She also writes wonderfully.

Cochin Blogger • I “met” Cochin Blogger on an international editors’ list we both subscribe to. His words and wonderful photos have introduced me to daily life in Kerala, which is where he lives.

The Immortal Jukebox  • Thom Hickey’s “blog about music and popular culture.” Every post is a musical adventure, complete with embedded videos.

Evelyne Holingue • Evelyne is a novelist who grew up in France and now lives in the U.S. She’s witty, observant, and perceptive, and she blogs in both English and French. Earlier this year she worked her way through the alphabet, looking for the English equivalents of common French idioms. Her readers joined in. It was wonderful.

The Glass Bangle • Thoughtful, perceptive, funny — this is my window into the world of a writer, poet, and avid reader in India who’s raising two daughters.

MV Obsession • Joan has known the Vineyard for longer than I have, but she sees it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t live here year-round. When I start getting snarky about “summer people,” I think about Joan and all the others who have their feet in the mud of this place too.

What Matters • Janee Woods doesn’t post all that often, but everything she does post is essential reading for anyone trying to understand how privilege works and why dealing with it is important.

Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors • Absolutely crucial for writers thinking of self-publishing, and for those who want to put their own experiences to good use.

Off the Beaten Path: Hikes, Backpacks, and Travels • Just what it sounds like. I’m a lifelong East Coast girl, and Cindy’s wonderful photos of wildlife, mountains, and places you can’t reach by car transport me to parts of the U.S. that I may never see in person.

Alex Palmer: Your Man in the Field • Sports is terra incognita to me, mostly by choice, but Alex writes so well that I might turn into a sports fan in spite of myself. He just launched this blog a few months ago, so check it out. P.S. Not only does Alex live on the Vineyard, he grew up in the same off-island town I did.

Those Pesky Details

Once upon a time I copyedited a novel set in 19th-century New England that had cranberries being shipped to market in May.

Uh — no.

cranberries

Cranberries

I grew up in Massachusetts and have lived here most of my life. When fresh cranberries reach the market in early to mid fall, I stock my freezer with them because they aren’t available earlier in the year. That’s true in the 21st century, it was true in the late 20th (which was when I copyedited this novel), and it was surely true in the 19th, when transportation, storage, and other technologies were a good deal less sophisticated than they are today.

That’s known in the trade as a “good catch”: I caught something that the author, the book’s editor, and everyone who had already read the manuscript missed. Copyeditors are always catching things that everyone else missed, but this was an especially good one. That’s why I remember it more than 15 years later. (Tellingly, I can’t for the life of me remember the title of the novel or the name of its author.)

We copyeditors quite justifiably pat ourselves on the back for these catches and crow about the best ones to our colleagues.

Readers crow about them too when they find what they consider a glaring error in a published book. “Where was the copyeditor?” they cry. “Where was the proofreader?” This is often followed by a lament about how publishing, the English language, and/or western civilization is going to hell in a handbasket.

Well, if there are several glaring errors in a book, coupled with infelicities of spelling, usage, and style, it may be that it wasn’t properly copyedited or proofread at all. But errors do crop up in even the most conscientiously written, edited, and proofread works. The overwhelming majority of them, thank heavens, are minor.

Think of how many factual details go into any book-length work, fiction or nonfiction. Pity the poor author, who must focus on the whole forest while remaining acutely aware of each tree in the forest, each branch on each tree, each twig on each branch, each bud on each twig. Say you’re an expert in a particular sort of bud. Chances are good that you’ll eventually catch the author out — “No, no, no! Those buds never appear before May in the Upper Midwest!” — but chances are even better that most readers won’t notice. It won’t, and shouldn’t, undermine the credibility of the work.

Unless, of course, the work is about trees in the Upper Midwest. Then you may have a case.

swans on the Mill Pond

There’s a lot more to Martha’s Vineyard than swans on the Mill Pond, but we’ve got that too.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, a place that is so often misrepresented in both fiction and nonfiction that much of my own writing is devoted to countering those misrepresentations. At the same time, I know that some errors are more significant than others. I don’t care (too much) if someone has a ferry sailing from Vineyard Haven at 5:15 instead of 5:00. Recently, though, I reviewed a book that got some of the geography wrong and misspelled several names that could have been verified without much trouble. Editor fail, I thought.

I do get really, really angry when someone assumes that what they’ve seen on the news is the whole truth and nothing but; that everyone here is wealthy when our median income is one of the state’s lowest.

“Write what you know” is a truism quoted ad nauseam, but I don’t mind it when it’s accompanied by its obvious corollary: “And if you don’t know it now, do your research.

This is why I was so impressed when I was contacted a couple of months ago by a writer whose novel in progress was partly set on the Vineyard. Could he ask me a few questions? Ask away, said I.

His questions were the sort that would only be asked by someone who had at least a passing acquaintance with the place. The larger world wouldn’t notice if he got these things wrong, but many Vineyarders would. I was thrilled to be asked and impressed that he cared enough to get it right. I answered as thoughtfully as I could. (Note to anyone who’s writing about Martha’s Vineyard: Contact me. I’m not kidding. If I can’t answer your questions, I can probably put you in touch with someone who can.)

This has inspired me. If I didn’t mind answering this writer’s questions — hell, no! I’m glad to be asked! — other people won’t mind answering mine. I’m not going to get all the details right, and even if I do, some people are going to disagree with me. But if I get out there and ask the questions, I’m probably going to meet some cool people and get into interesting conversations.

It’s all good.

Stretching

The nice thing about poetry is that you’re always stretching the definitions of words. Lawyers and scientists and scholars of one sort or another try to restrict the definitions, hoping that they can prevent people from fooling each other. But that doesn’t stop people from lying.

Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.

—  Pete Seeger

I love this quote. Once upon a time poetry was one of my two word mediums. (Nonfiction was the other.) I loved working with traditional forms, especially sonnets, villanelles, and sestinas. They taught me to listen to the words, to say them out loud. Every word had to count, and I had to trust each word to do its job, all the while knowing that I couldn’t control exactly what it did once I let it go.

Gradually my lines got longer and longer. One multi-voice poem turned into a one-act play. From plays I slowly eased into fiction, though I’ve never ceased to think of myself as primarily a nonfiction writer.

It’s been a very long time since I tried to write a poem, but every day I draw on what writing poetry taught me: to listen to the words, to play with them, to let them play with each other.

Am I still “stretching the definitions of words”? Probably not. An essay can include many hundreds of words, a novel many thousands. Too much stretchiness causes ambiguity, which is fine in a work short enough to be read and reread several times but not so fine in a long work whose readers may accept the occasional detour but still expect forward motion.

Still, I do plenty of circling around in both fiction and nonfiction, less with the words themselves than with the images and scenes I create with them. They blend and they clash, they resonate and dissonate. (Two dictionaries think I made “dissonate” up — maybe I’m stretching words after all.) Sometimes they startle me.

Wrote Emily Dickinson, a master of the poet’s art:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies

Perhaps the truth really is too blinding to be faced directly. I have no idea. I’ll let you know when I find it. For now, exquisite precision doesn’t seem to be getting me any closer, so I’m putting my faith in slant and indirection.

Chicago Style

My library’s annual monster book sale was last weekend. Of course I went. Of course I came home with a stack of books, and all for $10.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale is a browser’s heaven: tables and tables of books sorted, and occasionally mis-sorted, into general categories, and many with more books in the boxes underneath. I rarely go with a particular book in mind. I always find books I didn’t know I was looking for.

Or they find me.

Browsers cheerfully recommend books to total strangers, and sometimes get into spirited conversations about books they liked or books they thought were overrated. I was poring over one of the history-related tables, head cocked sideways so I could read the spines, when the fellow to my right handed a book to the fellow on my left. The book passing in front of me was The Chicago Manual of Style.

“Are you interested in this?” asked the fellow on the right, who I guessed (correctly) was the father of the fellow on the left.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn's Copyeditor's Handbook, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

I’ve been on first-name terms with Chicago since 1979, when it was still called A Manual of Style. Could I remain silent while my old buddy and sometime nemesis changed hands right before my eyes? I could not. “That’s the current edition,” I said. “I’ve got it at home. I’m an editor by trade.”

Dad let on that Son was an aspiring writer. Son seemed a little uneasy with the description. “If you have any interest in mainstream publishing,” I said, “that’s a very  good book to have.”

I don’t know whether they bought it or not, or what they paid for it. It was half-price day at the book sale, so probably not more than a buck or two. But if you have any interest in mainstream publishing, especially in the U.S., it is a very good book to have. Or you can subscribe to the online edition for $35 a year.

In U.S. trade and academic publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style is something of a bible. It contains almost everything writers and editors need to know about book publishing, along with extensive recommendations for further reading in various areas. It includes chapters on grammar, usage, and punctuation. At least half of its 1,026 pages are devoted — as its title might suggest — to style. 

What is “style”? Think of all the myriad choices you make when you’re writing and especially when you’re editing your own work, about capitalization and hyphenation, about the use of quotation marks, boldface, and italics. How to treat titles of movies or titles of songs, and words from other languages, and the English translations of those words. And on and on and on. Style comprises all the decisions made about how to handle these things. “Chicago style” is a collection of particular recommendations. If you italicize book titles and put song titles in quotes, you’re following Chicago style, maybe without knowing it.

Much of the nit-pickery that goes into copyediting is about style. Confronted with the plethora of details that go into Chicago style, or Associated Press (AP) style (widely used by newspapers and periodicals), or American Psychological Association (APA) style (widely used in academic writing, especially the social sciences), the novice writer or editor may find it hard to believe that applying a particular style makes things easier — but it does. Every time I embark on editing a long bibliography, I am profoundly grateful to Chicago for its documentation style and to the authors who apply it consistently. I would hate to have to learn or invent a new documentation style for every bibliography I work on.

That goes for other aspects of style too. Following a style guide in effect automates the minute details and frees your mind to deal with the more interesting stuff like word choice and sentence structure and transitions between paragraphs.

The Chicago Manual of Style came into existence early in the 20th century as the style guide for the University of Chicago Press. Then as now, the press specialized in scholarly works, and the early editions of its style guide reflected that. Now it’s widely used by trade publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishers as well as academic presses.

What this means in practice is that not all of its recommendations are well suited to every type of book, and the further one gets from scholarly nonfiction — say, into the realms of fiction and memoir — the more cause one is likely to have for ignoring some recommendations and improvising on others. This is fine with Chicago‘s compilers but not so fine with some copyeditors, who treat the book’s style recommendations as Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

I think of them as Conventions That Should Be Respected, and Generally Followed in the Absence of a Sensible Alternative. I also advise serious writers to introduce themselves to Chicago style and even get to know it. Automate the petty details and you can focus your attention on the big stuff. You’re also more likely to win an argument with a stubborn copyeditor.

Readers’ Challenge

Charles French nominated me for a “readers’ challenge” award. The whole award thing in the blogosphere is a little weird. As far as I can tell, it’s circle-jerkery, with people nominating each other for awards and some people crowing about every award they get nominated for. I am intimidated by how many blogs some of these people follow. Don’t they have lives? Don’t they have jobs? When do the writers among them do their writing?

To hell with that. I like Charles French’s blog on reading, writing, and teaching, and just as important, the questions in this challenge/survey interest me, mainly because I don’t think they were directed at people like me who are in the word trades and don’t read all that much on the side. So here goes.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog's Rally Obedience title ribbons.

One of my two big bookshelves, freshly culled, dusted, and reorganized, and garnished with a few of my dog’s Rally Obedience title ribbons.

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

No way in a million years I would ever have 20,000 books on my to-be-read list. I do have a dozen or so hardcopy books on the shelves at the head of my bed and several more on my Nook. How do I decide? Partly it’s what grabs my attention at the moment. If someone I respect recommends a book, it goes to the top of the list. I’m usually reading two or three books at once, but since I do most of my reading in the 20 or so minutes before I fall asleep, I don’t get through them very fast.

 

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?

Quit. Life is too short to waste one’s time reading crappy books. At the moment I’m about halfway through a nonfiction book that I expected great things of. I semi-promised to review it in my Martha’s Vineyard blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. I’m probably going to skim through the rest and bail. No idea how I’m going to review it, because it’s very relevant to that particular blog and because the whys and wherefores of its failures are worth discussing.

I’m an editor by trade. When I start editing while I’m reading, it usually means that something has gone off the rails. This is the case with the nonfiction book I’m reading now. Where was the editor? I wonder. There probably wasn’t one, even though the publisher is legit and shows up fairly often in the bibliographies of books I copyedit. It’s two or three drafts short of done, and the factual errors are glaring and could have been prevented.

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your GoodReads challenge. Do you quit or commit?

I dabble on GoodReads, but I don’t commit to anything.

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?

Well, I rarely read more than one book in a series, so I doubt I’d notice. If the series is good enough that I read more than one, I probably would have forgotten the cover of the first by the time I started the second. Here’s an interesting question: If books in a series were routinely marketed with non-matching covers and nothing to indicate that they’re part of a series, would anyone pick them up and read them?

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?

I’m rarely reading what everyone else is reading at the same time they’re reading it. If I read it, it’s five years after they’ve forgotten it. So this doesn’t come up often. Sometimes, though, I’ll hear someone say that a book I didn’t like was overrated. I’ll jump in with a “Same here!” and if it leads to further discussion, so much the better. Ditto when someone says she loved a book that I think was widely overlooked. Bonding is good.

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?

Doesn’t bother me at all. The big problem is that I rarely have a hanky handy, so I have to use my sleeve.

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on GoodReads? Cry in frustration?

If I really like a book, I’ll probably avoid any sequels unless I’m assured through the grapevine that the sequel is worthy of the original. If I’ve already forgotten a lot from the original, it probably wasn’t all that great. A good book stands on its own even if it’s a sequel or part of a series. In other words, I won’t worry about it.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?

I no longer lend out books that have particular meaning to me, especially when they’ve been inscribed by the author, but I’m more than willing to lend anything else to anyone who asks. I live in a studio apartment. I frequently cull my shelves and donate the good stuff to my town library’s annual book sale. Good books are happier circulating than gathering dust on a bookshelf. All right, so the books aren’t happier — am. Good books have their work to do in the world, and they aren’t doing it cooped up in my apartment.

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over the reading slump?

How is that a “slump”? When the right book comes along, I’ll stick with it. Till then I’ll find other things to do with my time.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?

There are wonderful new books coming out all the time. I don’t know about most of them. This is a good thing. If the subject is of interest, if I’ve admired the author’s previous work, or if someone I respect recommends it, it’ll go on my mental “to-read” shelf. Maybe I’ll even put it on my GoodReads “to be read” shelf. I rarely buy a book until/unless I know I’m going to (a) read it, and (b) want to keep it around. Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia was one such. I’m also more likely to buy books from independent presses that I want to support. I bought Shade Mountain Press‘s first two books, Lynn Kanter’s novel Her Own Vietnam and Robin Parks’s story collection Egg Heaven. They’re both wonderful. (I reviewed them both on GoodReads.) I’m looking forward to their fall 2015 titles.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

I rarely buy new books, and when I do (see above) it’s because I want to read them now. And I do, though it usually takes me a few weeks to finish them. A couple of years ago I bought Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which was first published in 1988. For years I was more than a little afraid of that book, partly because Atwood is a demanding writer and partly because the subject, so I’d heard, was girls’ nastiness to other girls. Then in late 2012 I copyedited an academic essay about the book that revived my interest in Cat’s Eye and assured me that it wasn’t just about girls’ nastiness to other girls. I bought and downloaded it right then. It was more than two years before I got around to reading it, but I’m very glad I did. It is demanding, but in all the best ways.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?

See above: I rarely buy new books, period. When I got my Nook, my first e-reader, I did buy a novel on a friend’s recommendation, mainly so I’d have something to read on the road. That was three and a half years ago and I still haven’t read it — but I will, I will! I buy more books electronically than I do in print, mainly because the two bookstores within driving distance rarely have what I’m looking for. The downside is that my ebooks tend to sit around longer because I can’t see them, take them down off the shelf, flip through the pages, and decide “Yeah, it’s time to read this one.”

Nomination time

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Clichés, Ruts & Envelopes

A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: “Avoid them like the plague.” Then he’d laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Yes, I thought when I encountered this passage, in part because the cliché Hosseini’s narrator, Amir, was considering is one I find useful: the elephant in the living room, the huge hulking truth that dominates a situation even though, and because, no one in the vicinity acknowledges its existence. When I first heard it, the image was being used to describe the experience of living with an alcoholic. Not only did it ring true to my own experience, it made me think harder about it. Clichés do not make you stop and think. Quite the contrary: they enable you to blow past something without thinking too hard.

My yes was full of admiration, because Hosseini deftly manages to bring the clichéd image back to life by walking around it with a thoughtful eye. So readers will do likewise — or at least this reader did.

Cliché, interestingly enough, comes from the print trade. Originally, says Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it meant “a stereotype or electrotype; especially :  a single stamp of which a number are joined to form a plate for printing a whole sheet of stamps at once.” It’s come, not surprisingly, to mean a phrase, expression, image, theme, or plot whose power has been diminished by overuse.

But as Hosseini’s narrator reminds us, the phrase must have started off useful. Would have been overused otherwise?

Many clichés are phrases that have fallen into ruts. Several words fuse into one: we hear “liketheplague,” not “like the plague,” and how many of us have firsthand experience with plagues anyway? When phrases come adrift from their original, literal meanings, spelling errors frequently result. If you remember that the “rein” in “free rein” is attached to a horse’s bridle, you won’t write of giving “free reign” to your creativity. Likewise the “bridle” in “unbridled passion” — though “unbridaled passion” might come in handy if you know what you’re doing.

And no, you don’t have to have to have firsthand experience with horses to understand where these phrases come from. My experience with elephants is negligible, and I’ve never seen one in a living room, but could I imagine the elephant as representing a huge hulking entity that no one knows how to deal with? Yeah. No problem.

Related to clichés and ruts are what I call “envelope words.” In order to discuss complex situations, concepts, and ideas, we generalize. We have to. Discussions would bog down pretty quickly if we had to describe each concept in detail every time we introduced it. But generalizations quickly become envelopes, and envelopes are opaque: we can’t see what’s in them, and the complexity of all the myriad pieces within is easily forgotten. We mistake the word or words written on the outside of the envelope for the envelope’s contents.

Here’s where knowing your audience(s) becomes important. If your intended audience can be expected to know what’s in the envelope, you don’t have to explain in detail what a given word or concept means. But the more diverse your intended audience — by sex, race, class, generation, culture, religion, place of residence, or any other factor — the less you can take for granted.

Which brings me around to the novel I quoted from at the beginning of this post. Most of The Kite Runner takes place in Afghanistan. When scenes take place in Pakistan or California, Afghanistan is never far away. Thanks to its tragic and bloody recent history, Afghanistan is much in the news. Many of us have stuffed all the visual images and stories into an envelope and labeled it “Afghanistan.”

But as with most news coverage, those stories and images are heavy on war and politics. When war comes to The Kite Runner, readers have already been introduced to life on the ground, to an array of vividly evoked characters and the messy complexities of their intertwined lives. The “Afghanistan” envelope starts to bulge in the middle and maybe split at the seams.

Good writing can do that. It can show readers overused words and concepts in different lights, from different angles. It can reveal the gaps in what we thought we knew. Often it deepens our understanding of the general by focusing on the particular.