Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – Craft Books

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

Like any good little writer-in-the-bud, I amassed a solid collection of ‘how to hone your writing craft’ books and dissected them, instead of actually sitting down and writing. Far from obscure, some of them have become classics and bestsellers in their own right: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! for screenwriters and not only them; Natalie Goldberg’s poetic Writing Down the Bones; the energetic and legendary agent Carole Blake’s From Pitch to Publication and Stephen King’s memoir-interlaced-with-writing-advice On Writing. I love all of those, but here are some less well known ones which have inspired me just as much.

John Gardner: On Becoming a Novelist

This is, in some ways, the anti-craft book, because most of what Gardner talks about is the innate nature of a writer: the sensitivity and love for language, the observant eye, the storytelling intelligence and demonic compulsiveness. My eye-opening moment when I first read him was this passage:

A psychological wound is helpful, if it can be kept in partial control, to keep the novelist driven. Some fatal childhood accident for which one feels responsible and can never fully forgive oneself; a sense that one never quite earned one’s parents’ love; shame about one’s origins… or embarrassment about one’s own physical appearance: all these are promising signs.

Perhaps I should add here that John’s younger brother Gilbert was killed in a freak farming accident as a child and that John himself was driving the tractor. But he never mentions that in the book.

Instead, he warns of the dangers of over-relying on writing courses and MFAs ‘The world has far more writing teachers than it needs’ and there is a danger that only certain kinds of writing are appreciated and emulated, so the whole experience becomes ‘workshoppy’. Yet he understands that each writer can become better through practice, through feedback and through faith in his or her own abilities.

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or way, an alternative to ordinary ‘life in the world’. Its benefits are quasi-religious – a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand – and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid

In a series of conversations with poet Genine Lentine and adorned with gorgeous photos by Marnie Crawford Samuelson, the late great American poet muses about his garden and his poetry. A beautiful complex metaphor about creativity, this book deserves constant underlining. It was recommended to me by Naomi Shihab Nye, at the very first poetry workshop I ever attended.

In so many instances, the poem is muddied by too much explanation, too much exposure. What one is aiming for is the indication of an energy, or a spirit, below the surface, in the secret vaults of the self, that somehow withers under too much exposition or explanation. That’s why I’ve always believed that so much of the energy of the poems comes from the secrets it folds into what we would call, in a flower, its crown… The rose when it is just about ready to unfold is at its most beautiful.

Twyla Tharp: The Creative Habit

This is more of a typical self-help book, but it’s not aimed at writers. Twyla Tharp is a dancer and choreographer, but her straight talking and variety of creative exercises are suitable for many different artistic disciplines. I’ve written about this book before, but here are some quotes which impress me every time:

A plan is like a scaffolding around a building. When you’re putting up the exterior shell, the scaffolding is vital. But once the shell is in place and you start work on the interior, the scaffolding disappears. That’s how I think of planning. It has to be sufficiently thoughtful and solid to get the work up and standing straight, but it cannot take over as you toil away on the interior guts of a piece. Transforming your ideas rarely goes according to plan.

And the next quotation is even more relevant to my procrastinating self:

I used to bask in the notion that all my obstacles to creative efficienty would vanish if only I had exactly the right resources: my own studio, my own dancers, my own theater, and enough money to pay the dancers all year long and to hire the best collaborators. But I’ve learned that the opposite is true: Limits are a secret blessing, and bounty can be a curse. I’ve been on enough big-budget film sets to appreciate the malignant influence of abundance and bloat.

 

 

 

Friday Fun: Studios and Studies

This summer, I’ve promised myself, I will get to finish the second draft of my novel. The outcome would, of course, be guaranteed if I had one of the creative spaces below at my disposal. If any wealthy patron of the arts is listening…

The Duke of Devonshire asleep in his library at Chatsworth, picture credit Christopher Simon.
Studio in Devon, from The Telegraph.
Studio in rural United States, from Lonny Magazine.
Little dream cottage on the Isle of Wight, from House of Turquoise.
Light-filled study – there might be a problem with glare on a computer screen though – designed by Michael Haverland.
Japanese study and library, from Flavorwire. No problem with screen glare here. Plus, room to make endless cups of tea.
Study in a porch, from New England Home. The decorative plates might hinder my writing prowess somewhat…

 

Inspiration Is a Capricious Guest

The poet of this afternoon died suddenly at end of night,

jostling to pen a word, yawning bile in the long

run-up to the creep of dawn pebble-dashing the curtains.

Knuckled under weight of forms, proof of income, applications

flung in free tote bags he cannot begin to classify,

he’d like to burn but who has fireplaces nowadays, so instead

he snatches at garbled predictive jottings made in ghostly glow,

leave no strand untwisted, no word untravelled,

no innocence.

Divine dictations long since ceased, words do not meet the ear

ready-formed like birdsong. It’s digging in the garden,

toiling in manure for a speck of solid rock.

 

Linking this up to my favourite poetic forum on the internet the dVerse Poets Pub, with their fortnightly Open Link Night.

A Book About Writers’ Retreats: Real People

Alison Lurie: Real People (1970)

Borrowed from the library following a recommendation by Smithereens, it was in the reserve stock section in the basement and had last been taken out in 1988. Clearly, it has fallen somewhat out of favour, but it is a fun book and a quick read, while also posing some interesting questions about artistic ambition.

‘Are those artists, Mom, or are they real people?’ 

That is what a child visiting the luxurious artists’ colony Illyria asks, and with good reason, as hyper-sensitive mid-career mid-successful lady writer Janet Smith finds out. At first, it seems like Eden, with perfect weather, wonderful quiet, friendly and gentle artistic people. Although she seems to lead quite a privileged existence, it is such a relief to be away from the humdrum everyday worries of family life, and focus only on the writing. A sentiment all writers who dream about peaceful retreats will echo no doubt:

At home there’s always the telephone and the doorbell – Bessie will answer, but of course I hear the ring and wonder who it is. And whenever I raise my eyes, I notice something I ought to do something about: smudges on the wallpaper, that peculiar bill from the cleaners… If I look out the window, I don’t see a view; instead I’m reminded that the garage will need repainting soon, I must call White’s Nursery about spraying the fruit trees, and we’ve simply got to have the Hodgdens over to dinner. And when I look back at my story, it’s fallen apart again. I suppose the wonder really is not that I’ve had so much trouble working in Westford, but that I’ve been able to work there at all.

Yaddo, said to be the inspiration for this book.

But all is not well in paradise, of course. The Garden of Eden is beset by worms, serpents, temptation, envy and monstrous egos, especially when a pretty young girl turns up in their midst. Artists prove obtuse or vulgar, pretentious, self-absorbed, while Janet muddles through, feeling guilty about not working, feeling she has nothing new left to say, desperate to prove herself in this milieu yet blind to her own failings. It is beautifully precise social comedy about the scandals and squabbles of the artistic and literary community, but also has something to say about dreams and ambitions and selling one’s self short. Finally, Janet admits to herself that she has in fact a patron, her husband, who is supporting her lifestyle and writing ambitions, although he doesn’t see her literary merit. She considers herself lucky that she doesn’t have to apply for grants or work three jobs to support herself, but in a moment of complete honesty she realises she has given up writing to a certain degree:

… when I decided not to write stories that would embarrass Clark and the children, I gave up writing seriously… Not that it happened all at once. I censored myself gradually over the years, as the children learned to read, as Clark became more prominent locally, as my stories began to be published in magazines more people read… But what I see now is something else even more disquieting. It’s that over the years I’ve begun to avoid doing – and sometimes even seeing – any thing I couldn’t write about.

Fiction is condensed reality; and that’s why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice. I know all this; I’ve known it for years. But all the same I’ve begun adding water, more and more lukewarm water, to every batch I made. Because I was afraid the that undiluted stuff would freeze and burn me, and everyone around me.

Alison Lurie, from her website.

This kind of over-specialised musing and satire may appeal only to other writers, but it’s a shame that there aren’t more books set in artists’ colonies, as there is a rich seam of humour to be mined. Sadly, perhaps all writers are aware that if they let rip, they will alienate their writer friends and publishers, and risk never being granted permission to attend such retreats (above all, to teach at such retreats, a valuable source of income).

Fortnightly Round-Up – 10th June 2017

Well, it’s been a very quiet and uneventful fortnight… just kidding, of course! I probably got too loud and obnoxious for those who are not politically inclined, including on Twitter, but I am over it now.

General Update

What fun we had with the General Election here in the UK on the 8th of June! Faced with such a bad campaign from my own MP (known as Prime Minister Theresa May to others), I was tempted to think she didn’t want the job. Except she obviously does, because she is clinging to it by the skin of her teeth, with an alarming alliance which could start up all sorts of nasty processes again in Northern Ireland. A new election before the end of this year seems likely – hugely fatiguing for everybody, especially the voters. You begin to see the attraction of military coups, don’t you, as people start muttering about how much they crave stability…

But this is not a political blog, and on a personal level it has been a fairly quiet and contented time: half-term holidays, a birthday party for my youngest, meeting up with old friends, impromptu flower arrangements. I managed to rescue a few peonies before the storm flattened them and blew away most of their petals. I am becoming most definitely middle-aged…

Book Haul and Writing Update

Aside from the small pile of books I managed to accumulate during my trip to London, I also ordered a few second-hand books from various sources, based upon the recommendations of my fellow bloggers and Tweeters. This is where I get all of my book-buying impulses nowadays!

Roberto Bolano’s quasi-crime novel was praised by one of my fellow Crime Fiction Lover reviewers Phil Rafferty as being one of the books which got him hooked on crime. Yuri Herrera has been reviewed by Tony Malone and Stu Jallen; also, it’s about migration, so that’s three favourites right there… The British Library Crime Classics often throws up interesting little gems and this particular title Family Matters was recently reviewed by Guy Savage. Finally, I succumbed to Miles Franklin’s books following Kim Forrester‘s spirited recommendations of books on Twitter, with a particular emphasis on Australian fiction, which I have read all too little.

I can now tell you about my writing prize for poetry, although I am none the wiser if it was 2nd or 3rd (I do know it wasn’t 1st). It was the Geneva Writers Group Literary Prize, now in its fifth year. This year the judges were Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books for Fiction, Nick Barlay for Non-Fiction and Naomi Shihab Nye for Poetry. And that is the reason I am so super-excited to have won anything at all, since Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favourite contemporary poets and also the person who single-handedly inspired me to go back to writing poetry in 2012, after a couple of decades of neglect.

Blogging Round-Up

I’m having great fun digging up some of the more obscure times from my bookshelves – it amuses my geekish nature and brings back fond memories. Over the past fortnight, I’ve looked at my Japanese collection and my small collection of hardcover books.

Two blog posts which I try to include on a monthly basis are my May Reading Summary and Six Degrees of Separation meme. This time the latter started with a book I hadn’t read, Steve Martin’s Shopgirl, so it required some acrobatics to find suitable links.

The blog post that got the most attention this past fortnight was my personal reflection on The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent TV adaptation. I was amazed, flattered and humbled by just how many people read it, talked about it, tweeted about it, including many people who had never visited my site before.  Thank you all! It completely smashed my previously modest blogging stats. I seldom get more than just over 100 visits per day (on a good day), but the day I posted that I got 776 and the blog post was viewed nearly 1000 times.

My favourite blog post to write, however, was the simple description of my very enjoyable day out in London.

For those who prefer me when I am less loquacious, however, I also posted two poems: an autumnal one and a military-inspired caper about depression. And of course I continued with my eye candy Fridays of tiny homes and sheds.

Tomorrow and Ever After

Tomorrow I will sit demurely
just wrestle words to the ground
with a flicker of my lashes
flash of sopweed from the Bard.

Tomorrow my characters will come alive,
fight each other, bicker, woo.
Plotholes will hang their grimey faces,
poems stop barking at the moon.

Tomorrow I’ll use post-its in coloured gradations,
fill spreadsheets and schedules, submit with method.
Each sapling of wisdom, each stray pun I will corral
till the day after arrives with a thud.

Portrait of a Poet, by Palma Vecchio. From Google Art Project.

Friday Fun: What About Your Own Study?

It’s all fine and dandy to look at all those palaces and glorious home libraries or artists’ studios, but what does your own writing space look like? I am mildly obsessed with writer’s studies, as you might have gathered, and a couple of years back could not get enough of the Periscope #whereiwrite initiative. So, while this might not qualify as escapist, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Busy? Maybe, but I like inspiration on my walls.
The bookshelves are starting to groan…
Map of Japan from 1745 (the original, not my print).
French dog and Japanese cat living in perfect harmony.
The messy side of the room and armchair filing system
Not quite outside the study window, but this camellia bush is one of the great delights of my garden.

And a special late addition for Lady Fancifull, who was disappointed at the lack of real cats… Here is Zoe in her favourite position when I am working at my desk.