Anyone who writes fiction should read fiction. I’ve pushed back against that truth at various points in my life: reading takes time away from writing, or my writing style becomes spoiled by the author I’m reading. But it’s self-evident common sense. The only way to learn about fiction is to read it.
The attention economy puts constraints on the time available for fiction reading. We’ve got to keep up with social media, and we’ve got to make sure we get our news from more than one source, don’t we? How am I ever going to decide what to spend my limited time reading, of all the books that are shiny and new, and all the acclaimed stories that have ever been published?
That’s why I appreciate it when somebody I really respect tells me what to read. In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders compiles seven stories by four nineteenth-century Russian authors (Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Nikolai Gogol). Based on twenty years of teaching these works to aspiring writers at Syracuse University, he follows each story with an essay analyzing what makes it work, and a series of “afterthoughts” that extend these lessons to the process of writing.
There’s no contemporary author I admire more than George Saunders. Lincoln in the Bardo (a novel, because “novel” is the only word broad enough to encompass everything that is swept up in this work) won the Man Booker award. His stories are published regularly in TheNew Yorker. They’re unfailingly deep and engrossing, fully imagined down to astonishing specifics.
I’m probably like many modern American readers in that I haven’t read much in the way of Russian writers or nineteenth-century literature. So to start, thank you to Saunders for exposing me to these seven stories. That said, the fun of the book for me was in the exploration and explication, and especially, in the indirect glimpses into Saunders’ own way of writing.
“Every element should be a little poem, freighted with subtle meaning that is in connection with the story’s purpose,” he writes about the first Chekhov story. He lays out a method of writing that emphasizes revision, over and over, a relentless recursive examining of every word and phrase to make sure it belongs and it delights. The quality of Saunders’ writing proves the effectiveness of this intuitive but demanding process. I’m grateful to him for sharing these insights.
Throughout the life of a book, there are moments meant for celebration. Many writers know these points well. There’s the seedling of an idea, those difficult days when we’re finally able to put words on the page, the finalization of a first draft, etc.
For Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective, the milestones were a bit different. There were the early submissions, sending the first acceptance, growing our platform, collecting all the accepted work into one document, finalizing the order of writing, the last two days of line edits, and of course, Publication Day! And these many moments were worth celebrating in different ways. However, organizing an evening filled with many of the family, friends, and authors who helped make this book a reality felt bigger than those other moments.
Perhaps this juxtaposition comes from the many months spent in isolation. Or maybe it was the culmination of all my worlds coexisting in my favorite local bookstore holding real copies of a book I created with my best friend. Whatever the reasons, this evening was special.
It must be said that the success of any published author can be accredited to local bookstores, which open their doors and their shelves. FITZ Books in downtown Buffalo, NY is one such place. Found by coincidence or kismet, this store and its owner, Aaron, hold a special place in the journey of this collective.
During the early days before we had a final cover or any real idea of page count, Aaron offered to let us use the space beside his bookstore for a small release. Everything was contingent on COVID-19 of course, but we realized this book would not exist without the pandemic, and kept our fingers crossed that this release party could happen one day. We remained hopeful that numbers would improve, that we would be able to bring together a small group of people to truly celebrate this book.
Leading up to January 29th, I did find myself absorbed in plans for the space: the antique typewriters from my own collection, posters of the front and back cover for the windows, and of course, print copies of the collective to sell at the release. It wasn’t until the night of the party when everything was done, starting the playlist crafted just for the event by two wonderful friends, fiddling with the vintage marcasite ring I wore for luck and my great-grandma King’s necklace chosen for a bit of love that I found myself ready to actually celebrate all we had accomplished.
Family arrived first. Friends arrived shortly thereafter. Being able to share this collective with the other local authors including J.S. Bowers, A.M. Kelly, and Christy Nolan was something I treasured. And having the opportunity to introduce my writing group, the Lock Keeper Six, to my work friends and my best friend really felt like a merging of worlds that not many people have the opportunity to experience.
My best friend made the trip from Brooklyn and we found ourselves in the somewhat strange position of answering questions about what we would do next, what project would fill our time now that this book was out in the world. We had answers, nothing quite substantial, though we do have ideas. But mostly, we were able to share our love of storytelling, the reason why we heralded this book into existence over the last few months.
We signed books and discussed the poems, stories, and essays we thought each person might enjoy most. As contributors ourselves, we were also able to discuss our own work in the collective, which we were thrilled to include among truly phenomenal writing. Among these poems, was one of my own entitled “Things to Leave on the Mantle, or Lies We Tell the Dark,” which is dedicated to my friend, Tina.
And we talked about isolation and creativity, about the people we were as young writers ourselves, and our hopes for those who might benefit from us donating our proceeds to 826 National. We talked about the pandemic now and what it might mean to future readers ten years from now when they pull this book from their shelves. It was all surreal and lovely.
At one point, I took a step back to observe. Perhaps this is the writer in me, searching for strands of conversations and imagining the stories that could take place in a similar world. It struck me, however, that these are the moments we celebrate. Or rather these are the moments we must celebrate because the days can be dark and the world may seem chaotic, but there are flashes of brightness that will flicker away in ephemeral escape if we’re not there to fully immerse ourselves within them.
And just like that, the night was nearly over. We sold out of the copies of books we brought, though more will be ready for purchase at FITZ Books soon! We packed up and started to make our way out before stopping to discuss stories with the store’s owner. Again, Aaron’s kindness and passion for books struck me. I, too, am a bibliophile, and chatting about narration styles and authenticity and what must be done to help the reader feel connected to the page was something I savored during the last few minutes spent in that space. For this, I am truly grateful.
Throughout my life, I have always thought of myself as a collector. I have my books and my typewriters and my antique teacups. I have journals, both empty and full, jars of seashells and boxes of movie stubs. Now I have this collection of work written during the pandemic. And I have phenomenal people who I’ve had the fortune to collect throughout my life. To them, I owe so much. And to my best friend and editor, I owe these moments of celebration. He continues to be a bright light in my universe, and I know my dreams are never too big as long as he is by my side.
To those near and far who have continued to champion this book over the last few months, please know you were in our thoughts throughout the evening. To the writers who trusted us with their words, please know, you, too, were there during the celebration of our book’s release.
As the editors, our work is done. Now it is up to you, dear readers, to continue stoking the flames of this once tiny spark of an idea. We hope you will share your favorite pieces from this collective with your friends and family. We hope those words keep you connected while the world continues on through uncertain times. We wish nothing more than for you to feel understood, if only for a few pages.
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Pages Penned in Pandemic: A Collective is now available! Follow the link to find out how you can get your copy. It is available in print or as an ebook. To sweeten the deal, proceeds from the sale of Pages Penned in Pandemic will go to 826 National, a nonprofit that helps young writers. My contribution is a story titled “The Elves and the Shoe Designer,” and I’m thrilled to be part of this collective. Heartfelt thanks to editors Kayla King and Justin Maher, who managed this huge project beautifully. Watch my blog next week for a guest post from Kayla King!
“The Elves and the Shoe Designer” is a story that is auxiliary to my novel-in-progress, which is (currently) titled Wash Away. The story is not part of the novel, but without giving away any spoilers, a peripheral character in the novel features prominently in this story. It was helpful to me to write this side-item to learn more about one of my characters. (Yes, as a writer I learn about my characters by making up things about them in my imagination.)
The protagonist of Wash Away is named Zenna and she’s a chemist. Right from the start I realized how unfortunate it is that I did not ever develop any aptitude or interest in chemistry, and never learned anything about it past the eighth grade. I resolved to do something in a structured way to gain some chemistry knowledge and be able to use chemical terms correctly. So I read Chemistry for Dummies by John T. Moore, which is designed to accompany any college Chem 101 course.
I borrowed Chemistry for Dummies from the Buffalo-Erie Public Library using the Overdrive system to send the ebook to my Kindle. Not surprisingly, there was no waiting list for it. Everybody knows how to borrow books using Overdrive, right? Your public library is here to help you!
A handy thing I learned about Kindle is that you can highlight text in a book you’re reading, and your highlighted notes remain on the Kindle even after you return the book to the library. Even better, you can download the notes to your laptop and make it a real working file. (Search “download Kindle notes” if you don’t know how to do this.) My highlighted notes from Chemistry for Dummies became a tremendous vocabulary resource for me when I was writing scenes of Zenna in her lab.
As long as I’m writing Kindle love lines here, I’ve found that many people don’t know you can email a book to your Kindle. It accepts several file formats including doc and pdf. I’ve used it to proofread some of my friends’ unpublished manuscripts. Find your Kindle’s email address through your Amazon “Manage content and devices” page.
My final pro tip for Kindle users: go to Project Gutenberg to get classic works of literature that are no longer under copyright. The very first book I put on my Kindle was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This month I’ve been reading both Treasure Island and Frankenstein. One of those two titles is dull enough to put me to sleep. I’ll leave it a secret which one.
In 1915, my great-grandfather, George E. (Edmund) Bowers, purchased a weekly newspaper called The Alton Democrat. The paper remained in the Bowers family for about 56 years.
Alton is a town in Sioux County in northwest Iowa; its 2010 census count was 1,216. It is somewhat overshadowed by its more colorful neighbor, Orange City, home of the annual Tulip Festival.
The masthead of The Democrat contained a radiant rendering of Lady Liberty along with the motto “When tongue and pen alike are free, safe from all foes dwells liberty.”
My grandfather George E. (Emmet) Bowers and his sister, Mary L. Bowers, had active roles in operating the newspaper for most of their lives. Grandfather George (1893-1978) wrote a column for the paper for 60 years with the title “It Seems To Us.” His column ran under the pen name “Floyd River Philosopher” and whenever he referred to himself in the column, he used the abbreviation “FRPh.” The FRPh also wrote a crossword puzzle for the paper.
My first publication was a guest item in “It Seems To Us” of December 3, 1964, where I wrote a paragraph about the winter birds in Alton, including nuthatches and downy woodpeckers. Grandfather helpfully added that “Johnny is seven and in the second grade” and with some amount of pride noted that I typed my own copy.
I remember The Democrat’s office was an intimidating place full of heavy machinery, including a linotype machine, printing press, and folding machine. The newspaper archives, going back to the paper’s founding in 1885, were in bound volumes along one wall.
My uncle Frank Bowers took over publishing and editing the paper, along with his wife Jan, and in 1971 the Democrat was named Iowa Newspaper of the Year by the Iowa Press Association. Sadly, Jan didn’t stay, and ultimately Frank felt he had to sell the paper. He wrote about it in his “Our Views” column of October 26, 1972:
“When things looked bleakest, some of Orange City’s most important businessmen chose to rebel against our independent and irreverent treatment of what they regarded as ‘their’ community. After a tongue-in-cheek parody introducing new Northwestern college students to Orange City, the local furniture magnate withdrew all support.”
A depressing list followed, of other businesses who stopped advertising in the paper, and Frank’s column ended with the words “I’m sorry, grandfather.”
The Democrat continued under new ownership, but stopped publishing for good in 1982.
I love the title of Brenda Ueland’s book If You Want To Write, because it requires the reader make a spontaneous act of creativity to mentally finish the phrase. If you want to write… go ahead! If you want to write… write! If you want to write… what’s stopping you?
Ueland’s book was published in 1938. She was a writer who found herself leading creative writing classes for adults, often women. If You Want To Write is a treasure trove of sharp insights she learned helping her students over their own obstacles. She offers encouragement on every page, right from the very first words of chapter one: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something to say.”
This is not a book of advice about grammar or how to query agents. Instead it’s a sort of spell of enchantment about the power in self-expression, that starts with giving yourself permission and building a shell against criticism.
Here’s a creative exercise: For the next ten minutes, behave as if the universe is trying to communicate a secret lesson to you. Can you decode it? What are the patterns in the sky and the wind right now? Why did that song come on the radio at that exact instant? In these days when we are bombarded with messages all day from social media and news, it’s enlightening to look for indirect significance from the cosmos instead. This exercise is so effective in altering consciousness that it was cited as basic magic by Grant Morrison in his terrific essay Pop Magic.
One of Brenda Ueland’s nuggets of guidance is to “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.” It’s advice that is not far from the habit of writing “morning pages,” which I wrote about here recently. If you’d like a little structure for your honest diary, I could recommend the daily exercises in the newly released book Dear Wellbeing… by my friend and colleague Susan Balogh.
I’ve never advanced beyond the idea I first had when I was twelve, that being a music journalist would be the coolest job in the universe.
Even then, back when Rolling Stone was still on newsprint, I recognized the essential paradox of music reviewing: It is impossible to describe in words what a song sounds like. You can fling around your adjectives, you can label a genre, you can list the recording and production details. But you cannot tell a reader whether they will like a song or not.
I’m so glad, after all these years, to be able to point to a music column I love: “The Number Ones” by Tom Breihan at Stereogum.com. Mr. Breihan is writing brilliant reviews about every single #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 from its inception in 1955.
Accumulated years have provided music journalism something today that it didn’t have when I was twelve: history, context, memories. Writing about songs everybody knows brings music journalism into the realm of archival research, perfect for an old librarian like me. A number of music magazines/sites today are focused on recycling old information, re-reporting quotes from the past with new headlines.
“The Number Ones” transcends that. Mr. Breihan’s writing is incomparable. Online publication makes possible something print magazines could never offer: the chance for the reader listen to the song, and watch the video, at the same time they’re reading the article. This allows the writer to stop trying to explain music, and instead to delight in a role of accompanying it.
It turns out that there’s something magical about writing in chronology, and it’s this: The readers know what’s coming next and can plan their comments in advance. Stereogum has attracted an audience of readers who know their music. The comments section of “The Number Ones” is packed with would-be music journalists themselves, who take the column about the song at hand and explode it into something extraordinary that encompasses the whole universe.
When I was unemployed for a few months in 1986, I started to write a novel about a planet that only used music for religious purposes, and what happened when a scientist on that planet picked up radio waves from Earth from 1955. Now I have a column that reminds me of that experience. “The Number Ones” gives me the gift of discovering old music for the first time.
Creativity is a process suffused with magic and mystery for me. Who can explain where imagination comes from? How did humanity learn to put marks on a page that would become stories in the minds of readers? One of the reasons writing and writers are so fascinating to me is respect for something so potent yet so little understood.
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a resource that shares this sense of wonder and delight. At the same time, it’s a practical and effective guide to becoming a better and more productive writer. I recommend it for people who, like me, believe inspiration is something that can be cultivated.
I was introduced to the technique of “morning pages” by The Artist’s Way. The idea, and these are my words not Julia’s, is to start the day by clearing away the accumulated load of mental trivia and idle thoughts and anxieties, before starting on the day’s real creative work. Morning pages are completely free-form and personal, to be written as quickly and as mindlessly as possible. They have no apparent purpose. They are not intended ever to be read again.
Morning pages have made me a better writer. I’m not able to give a rational explanation why, but I don’t argue with what works.
I don’t strictly adhere to Julia Cameron’s method. For one thing, I don’t always write them in the morning. I might need to knock some distracting stuff out of my head in the middle of the day. I sometimes have the feeling that there’s too much on my mind and it’s blocking me from focusing on my story. Writing morning pages can help me push that detritus aside. For me, it’s something of a cousin to keeping a to-do list. If you write it down, you don’t have to think about it anymore.
Julia wants morning pages to always be written by hand, and for the morning session to always end up with three filled pages. Again, with my thanks but apologies to Julia, that doesn’t work for me. I don’t write anything by hand any more except notes and lists. Truthfully, I think that I never learned to hold a pen correctly, and writing more than a few sentences by hand starts to cause knotty muscle pain in my forearm. I think faster than I can write (we all do), and for me the speed of using a keyboard is essential.
“It is harder to be blocked than to do the work.” — Julia Cameron
I write a lot every week. I’ve got a novel in progress, and during November, I try to binge on it (I’m currently behind in my NaNoWriMo word count, but I’ve added a scene almost every day since the start of the month). I also keep a journal, post on my blog, stay in touch with friends by email, and do morning pages (more on those in an upcoming post). But the most important writing I do is keeping a gratitude journal.
Both “keep” and “journal” are inappropriate words for me to use in that sentence. I write my gratitude on scraps of paper, frequently on the reverse of to-do lists that are finished. And I never hang on to them, or even read them over. I write them down and into the recycle bin they go. And that’s the way it works for me. The single important thing is the act of writing down what I’m grateful about.
Feeling gratitude is one of a small number of things proven by researchers in “positive psychology” to increase happiness. And that’s about half the reason that feeling gratitude is important: to feel better. And the other half, honestly, is to make the world a better place.
I’m not an outwardly-focused person, or a humble person. Writing down my gratitude is a corrective for both those things. I recognize and acknowledge how other people have helped me, and how there are things in the world that I love, and that I wouldn’t be as successful as I am if the universe wasn’t providing an invisible platform of support for everything I do.
I do it with a pen. I don’t stop until the page is full. Certain people get a mention every time — whether it’s near the top or near the bottom of the page may depend on what’s on my mind at that moment. I quite often write them at night, after I get into bed. But I might do one any time, if the sense comes over me that I’m not in balance and I might need to feel a sense of appreciation and love and blessing.
I have so much to be grateful for, and it’s not the purpose of this blog to make those things public, but it is hugely important to me that I know those things myself. A few nights ago I was waiting to fall asleep, after I had already written a page of gratitude notes and tossed it into the bin, I began to be flooded with dozens of other names and images. People who have been in my life, who have helped me in some way with friendship or who have perhaps strengthened me with their antagonism. So many beautiful human souls, starting with my parents and sisters and grandparents and my very first childhood neighborhood friends. I tried to slow myself down and let them flow through me in a systematic way, year by year, remembering people I went to school with, teachers, friends of the family. And for each face, I tried to feel a moment of gratitude and send a blessing. Immersing myself in the memories of all these people who were part of my life, one after another…
It took me two hours to get up to 1990, and that’s where I started again the next night.
The idea of a songwriting team – a lyricist and a composer – seems anachronistic, an artifact of the past. Tin Pan Alley, the glory days of Broadway musicals, the American Songbook. Since the rock era began, it’s much less common to find songs written by structured partnerships in this way.
I’m a member of one of these quaint collaborations, though. I have been a lyricist for more than forty years for my very good friend C.P. Butchvarov. Some of the best creative experiences of my life have been wrapped up in collaborative songwriting.
Both C.P. and I write songs without each other, as well. As a musician and composer, I’m barely competent; as a lyricist, C.P. is damn good. But we don’t suffocate ourselves by trying to make every song dependent on each other.
As the person who writes the words, I’m aware that lyrics are the least important aspect of a song. For most songs, I believe that the lyrics carry less than ten percent of the impact for the listener. The words can be stupid, they can be nonsense, and the song can still be great. In my opinion, the primary responsibility of the lyricist is to make vocal sounds that fit the melody and the arrangement. That’s the fundamental logic behind my preference that the words should be written after the music.
The perfect musical setting can make a line of lyrics vault into the realm of greatness. Here’s an example from a music-and-lyrics songwriting team, Elton John and Bernie Taupin: “I’ve finally decided my future lies beyond the yellow brick road.” I’m fairly certain the lyrics were written first and put to music in this case. The song has a beautiful melody with an unpredictable chord progression. When it comes to this final line, the vocal takes on a march rhythm, then unexpectedly and brilliantly soars into a different key. That moment brings chills, and as lovely as they are, it isn’t Bernie’s words that do that to me.
A flawless line of lyrics can make a song more memorable. Another composer/lyricist team I admire is Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter of the Grateful Dead. I confess that I get impatient with some of Jerry’s slow, trudging melodies. I’d probably skip over the song “Candyman” every time I listen to “American Beauty” if it wasn’t for this gem of a couplet: “Good morning, Mister Benson, I see you’re doing well. If I had me a shotgun, I’d blow you straight to hell.”
Songwriting is a process with magic and alchemy involved. There is no thrill greater than listening back to a powerful song and feeling I can’t believe I wrote that! C.P. Butchvarov wrote a song called “Mountain Country” that was amazing, but I lobbied him over a barroom table in Grand Teton National Park to let me rewrite the lyrics. Thanks, C.P., for letting me have a little piece of the credit for this great song. Listen to the result here.
At age 13 I read the proofs of my dad’s first book (Designing the Communication Experiment by John Waite Bowers). The original meaning of “proofreading” was the necessary step of closely reading proof pages from the printer, since errors might have occurred when the author’s manuscript was transferred to type at a print shop for publishing. This was the author’s last chance to fix anything before hundreds or thousands of copies of the book rolled off the presses.
I earned a penny for each error that I found in dad’s proofs, but I got a bonus payment of a nickel for identifying a chart that had its X and Y axes reversed. Maybe that positive reinforcement was why I learned to enjoy proofreading.
In my experience, many authors are not good proofreaders of their own work. This becomes a serious problem for somebody who is self-publishing. Get somebody to read it for you before you go to final formatting. You may be blind to your own errors.
When Nobody’s Wife was published, I wasn’t given the chance to proofread before the book went to press. It has some mortifying errors in it. One of the worst is that the word “Foreword” was misspelled “Forward.” It turns out there must be a lot of people who don’t know the difference between those two words, because I’ve seen that same mistake in books several times since then.
In college I worked a couple of semesters at Windhover Press, setting type by hand and proofreading when a book was ready to be printed. We proofread in pairs, backward. One person read aloud from the author’s manuscript while the other person read the proofed pages, but we read the words in reverse, from end to beginning. It’s tedious but it’s a good technique, because reading forward, your mind and eye will skip over errors and fill them in mentally. Reading backward, it is impossible to attach meaning to the words and so you notice them for what they are, artifacts of ink on a page.
I recently proofed the final draft of a book for a friend who is self-publishing. I like closely reading another author’s work; I learn about variations in writing voice and styles. The reading-backward technique is not feasible when solo proofing, because you will fail to notice sentences that are missing words or have words in the wrong order. I adapted a little bit by reading some of the pages from the bottom paragraph to the top, so that I would not fall into the reading trance.
Proofreading is not the same thing as editing. In my mind, a proofreader should only mark real errors, and that means skipping past places where a sentence could have been phrased more clearly or another word would have been a better choice. But in proofreading for a friend, I might find it irresistible to mark the worst of those with suggested revisions. That’s just being helpful, right?