Monday, September 28, 2015

Reads for Writers: Great House by Nicole Krauss 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.

          Without a straightforward plot, Great House by Nicole Krauss is not for everyone, but I think it is a good read for writers. At the heart of the novel are several writers and a desk that is important to them as it passes in and out of their lives.  

 I recommend this book more for the insightful writing than anything else. With an unwavering voice, Krauss addresses some of life’s big issues and questions.

…a writer should not be cramped by the possible consequences of her work. She has no duty to earthly accuracy or verisimilitude. She is not an accountant; nor is she required to be something as ridiculous and misguided as a moral compass. In her work the writer is free of laws. But in her life…she is not free. (page 28)

…Do you think books can change people’s lives? (which really meant, Do you actually think anything you write could mean anything to anyone?)…I asked the interviewer to imagine the sort of person he might be if all of the literature he’d read in his life were somehow excised from his mind and soul, and as the journalist contemplated that nuclear winter, I sat back with a self-satisfied smile, saved again from facing the truth…[I had been] countering the appearance of a certain anemia in life with the excuse of another, more profound level of existence in my work…(page 36)

Terrible things befall people, but not all are destroyed. Why is it that the same thing that destroys one does not destroy another? There is the question of will—some inalienable right, the right of interpretation, remains. (page 190)

…The dead take their secrets with them, or so they say. But it isn’t really true, is it? The secrets of the dead have a viral quality, and find a way to keep themselves alive in another host… (page 259)

             When it comes to writers, relationships can be tricky as solitude is a requirement for work.

…I might have stayed up half the night working, writing and staring out at the blackness of the Hudson, as long as the energy and clarity lasted. There was no one to call me to bed, no one to demand that the rhythms of my life operate in a duet, no one toward whom I had to bend. (page 17)

The life I had chosen, a life largely absent of others, certainly emptied of the ties that keep most people tangled up in each other, only made sense when I was actually writing the sort of work I had sequestered myself in order to produce…preferring the deliberate meaningfulness of fiction to unaccounted-for reality, preferring a shapeless freedom to the robust work of yoking my thoughts to the logic and flow of another’s. (page 43)

…I avoided the attic [wife’s study]…out of respect for her privacy, without which she wouldn’t have survived. She needed a place to escape, even from me [her husband]. (page 87)

As for the  writing desk, the description depends on the characters' perspective.

I looked across the room at the wooden desk at which I had written seven novels…One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array…has come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life, an order that, when my work was going well, took on an almost mystical quality…Nineteen drawers…hid a far more complex design, the blueprint of the mind formed over tens of thousands of days of thinking while staring at them, as if they held the conclusion to a stubborn sentence, the culminating phrase, the radical break from everything I had ever written that would at last lead to the book I had always wanted, and always failed, to write. (page 16)

To call it a desk is to say too little. The word conjures some homely, unassuming article of work or domesticity, a selfless and practical object that is always poised to offer up its back for its owner to make use of, and which, when not in use, occupies its allotted space with humility…you can cancel that image immediately. This desk was something else entirely: an enormous, foreboding thing that bore down on the occupants of the room it inhabited, pretending to be inanimate but, like the Venus flytrap, ready to pounce on them and digest them via one of its many little terrible drawers. [a description of the same desk by non-writing character] (page 248)    

Monday, September 21, 2015

Reads for Writers: Books in My Reading Pile

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          It seems like I have a never-ending reading pile. No matter how fast I read, the pile keeps growing. Where are these books coming from?

          Like most avid readers, I have favorite authors that are must reads. So in my reading pile are Devoted in Death by JD Robb (which I’m just finishing but wouldn’t recommend); Why I Came West by Rick Bass (I love reading memoirs about the Great Outdoors in autumn); and Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman (which I am rereading).

          Many of my friends and co-workers are avid readers, too, so I have books recommended by them including I Shall Not Want by Julia Spencer-Fleming (murder mystery series); Live By Night by Dennis Lehane; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (the next book I will start); and South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature by Margaret Eby. (I love reading about authors’ lives—and there is something special about southern writers.)

          I watched Michael Dirda on Book TV on C-SPAN2 recently. I’ve read him before so I decided to try On Conan Doyle (a memoir which I’m enjoying immensely) and Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education (which I think I will love).

          Due to good reviews, I picked up Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont (barely started) and My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard which is hard to categorize, but is a uniquely fascinating book. (I’m halfway through and plan on reading the other two books in this series. Includes many Insightful Asides.)

          Some of the books in my reading pile I discovered while simply browsing. These include A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (full of Insightful Asides); The Bard on the Brain: Understanding the Mind Through the Art of Shakespeare and the Science of Brain Imaging by Paul M. Matthews, MD, and Jeffrey McQuain, PhD, with a Foreword by Diane Ackerman (she is one of my must read authors); and The Art of Crash Landing by Melissa DeCarlo. (The first paragraph made me laugh and the book contains Insightful Asides).

I also read books recommended by authors I like. The Essay: Old & New, by Edward P. J. Corbett and Sheryl L. Finkle, was a recommendation from William Cane in his book Fiction Writing Master Class (post dated 9/7/15).

What are you reading?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Get to the Fight!

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          Half the battle of writing, for me, is getting started. Every morning, the short walk to my desk is suddenly filled with mental obstacles like chores I should finish, errands I need to run, shopping I have to do, family obligations, etc. It’s amazing the number of excuses my mind can conjure up—some of which do derail my day. Conversely, when I’m working through my To-Do List, all I long to do is write.

          Once I sit at my desk, the rest of the battle begins.

On a good day, I open a document, reread what I wrote then dive in. My fingers fly across the keyboard capturing my thoughts. I fight to find the right words and discover new ideas. It’s exhilarating!

          On “bad” days, I cannot think of what to write next. I feel blocked. I have doubts about my ability. When this happens, I have learned to switch to another project immediately. Don’t dwell even if the deadline for the first project is close.

          The key is to write. Don’t face a blank page. Have a list of projects and subjects to inspire you on days like this. Build on previous writing. Look in your monthly notebook for ideas. Write Six-Word Memoirs—a quick and fun endeavor that can alleviate stress. (See post dated 9/10/12 or visit, home of the Six-Word Memoir project.) Do whatever it takes to jump start your writing. Once you are in the groove, you can switch back to the first project.

          You want to get to the fight to find the right words and discover new ideas as soon as possible each day. That’s when you write things you didn’t even know you wanted to say in ways you hadn’t considered saying them all in your own voice.

That’s what makes fighting all the battles to write worth it!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Reads for Writers: Fiction Writing Master Class by William Cane

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

          I’m taking advantage of the back-to-school sales stocking up on pens, paper, and notebooks. Feeling nostalgic, I’m also recommending Fiction Writing Master Class by William Cane this week. Why not take a “class”—it is September after all.

         On page 1, Cane begins:

          So many people today are banging their brains out against the keyboards asking themselves, “Why can’t I write like the greats?” when the simple answer is that you can…”

          On page 3:

          Allow me, then, to introduce you to one aspect of rhetoric…that can literally salvage your writing career, infuse your style with new vim and vigor, and give you a voice equal to the best and brightest who came before you. It’s all in this book about classical rhetorical technique of imitation…[which stopped being taught in schools 80 years ago].

          To simple to be true? Well, consider for a moment that musicians…learned their craft by doing covers of other artists’ songs.

          On page 5:

          The ultimate goal of this book is not to make you a clone of these other writers but to help you learn their secrets so you can express yourself with confidence, style, and your own unique voice…[which] will emerge in a way it never could have done without this crucial foundation.

          Among the 21 authors Cane suggests imitating are Balzac, Melville, Kafka, Hemingway, Salinger as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Margaret Mitchell, Ray Bradbury, and Tom Wolfe. Excerpts from their books are included to illustrate the authors’ secrets.

Start with the chapters about authors you already enjoy reading and branch out to the ones you always mean to get to someday.

Charles Dickens use of characters in conflict while making his readers laugh and cry is revealed in Chapter 2. “Transmuting your own experiences, you will create art and affect your readers as deeply as you yourself have been affected.” (page 24)

          Edith Wharton’s decisions about when to describe settings and foreshadowing are discussed in Chapter 6. “Integration is perhaps the most sophisticated technical device Wharton employs in a scene. It is a method of describing the background location here and there during the course of the action.” (page 66)

            W. Somerset Maugham’s characters, chapter organization, and narrative flow secrets are shared in Chapter 7. “In addition to putting characters in a position where they must decide what to do, narrative can be made to flow more quickly by piquing curiosity about future events and setting up expectations by ‘advertising’ what is going to happen.” (page 77)

          Why no one writes dialogue like D. H. Lawrence is illustrated in Chapter 10. “Lawrence is unique in his ability to find the right emotional language to describe eyes, looks, and expressions. He also knows what is relevant…the words he chooses are full of connotation…” (page 106) How he created excitement in the simplest of scenes is revealed on pp. 109-112.

          Plots, drafts, symbols, and many other secrets are shared from these and the other authors like Ian Fleming’s attention to detail on page 169; Flannery O’Connor’s use of humor in serious writing on pp. 206-208; and Suspense, Stephen King style on pp.242-247.

           Fiction Writing Master Class by William Cane is illuminating and engaging. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery; it’s also educational.