Monday, May 27, 2013

Reads for Writers: Diane Ackerman Provides a Masterclass

From Kate's Writing Crate... 
As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide Masterclasses within their books.   
            Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be Masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.

            Diane Ackerman is an award-winning poet, essayist, and naturalist. With this unique combination of talents and passion, it's not surprising that the depth and breadth of her books are extraordinary.    
            I discovered Ackerman when I asked the best writer I know personally to recommend her favorite books for writers. She listed A Natural History of the Senses in the top 10. An odd choice I thought, but I trusted her judgment and read it.  

            The genius of Ackerman is how beautifully she incorporates facts into her lyrical prose and enlightening examples while exploring not only our senses, but, in other books, the natural history of love and the mystery of the brain as well as the play activities and adventures of many species of animals. She leaves her readers wiser, more aware of the world and themselves, and intrigued to learn more--all excellent reasons for everyone, but especially writers, to read her books.   
            All writers are explorers. We begin with our thoughts, emotions, and ideas as well as facts and imagination. We pick up our pens or sit at our keyboards and head into unknown territories, writing through the jumble in our minds. As C. Day-Lewis stated, "We do not write in order to be understood, we write in order to understand." And E. M. Forster noted, "How do I know what I think until I see what I say."   
            Lucky for us, Ackerman understands a great deal and has many inspiring things to say:     
            "How sense-luscious the world is… The senses don't just make sense of life in bold or subtle acts of clarity, they tear reality apart in vibrant morsels and reassemble them into a meaningful pattern…The senses feed shards of information to the brain like microscopic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle…"(pages xv & xvii).   
            "For convenience, and perhaps in a kind of mental pout about how thickly demanding just being alive is, we say there are five senses. Yet we know there are more should we but wish to explore and canonize them." (page 302)   
            "Evolution didn't overload us with unnecessary abilities...The body edits and prunes experience before sending it to the brain for contemplation or action…This makes our version of the world somewhat simplistic, given how complex the world is. The body's quest isn't for truth, it's for survival." (page 304).   
            "So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life." (page 305).   
After reading Diane Ackerman's books, writers should be more energized and take less in life for granted adding more depth to their lives and writing.    

Further reading: A Natural History of Love; Cultivating Delight: A Natural History of My Garden; An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain; Deep Play; The Moon by Whale Light and Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales; and Dawn Light: Dancing with Cranes and Other Ways to Start the Day.


  1. I first encountered Diane Ackerman when she was a writer in residence for "Victoria" magazine in its first incarnation, back in the 1980s. Her essays were a wonder of lyricism, gentility, and elegance.

    One of my favorite books incorporates the essays from that publication, and Ackerman is well represented. The book is "The Quiet Center: Women Reflecting on Life's Passages."

    I must explore her writing further.

    Connie Ciampanelli

  2. Hi Connie,

    Thank you for all your thoughtful comments on our blog.

    I am pleased to find out about "The Quiet Center" as I enjoy Diane Ackerman's writing. I will read it soon. Thank you for the recommendation.

    Please continue to share your thoughts and book recommendations. It's fun to get feedback from a colleague.

  3. Dear Kate,

    If you do read "The Quiet Center," I'd love to know your opinion. It is not a book intended for young women; rather, the essays are by and for women who have experienced life in all its love and splendor and heartache.

    I read one single story after completing a novel. As I finish "The Quiet Center" yet again, I start once more from the beginning. I have read it through perhaps four or five times. It is a treasure, one I have given as gifts to a handful of women friends whom I believe would appreciate it as much as I.

    I love the cover illustration by Malcolm "Skip" Liedke, so much so that I've searched for prints but I do not think any exist. The original? I'm afraid an original just might be out of my league. The art beautifully conveys the mood of the book.

    Another favorite in this vein, not essays but a novel of friendship between middle-aged women, is Anita Diamant's follow-up to the brilliant "The Red Tent," "Good Harbor," from 2001.

    Thank you for your kind words, which I deeply appreciate.

    Connie Ciampanelli

  4. Hi Connie,

    I have The Quiet Center somewhere, I will find it and write a post about it so we can compare notes.