Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity by Louise DeSalvo

The Art of Slow Writing

The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity has some good information for writers, both those new to the craft and those who have been around for a page or two. The message being that it is OK to take your time with a project, and although its focus is more on writing a book, its suggestions apply to shorter pieces as well. And, really, to artists of any kind.

The author, Louise DeSalvo, breaks the books into sections addressing in turn Getting Ready to Write; A Writer's Apprenticeship; Challenges and Successes; Writers at Rest; Building a Book, Finishing a Book; and, Beginning Again. Each section contains an introduction and about ten essays.

She draws on her own writing experiences which I found engaging. She has plenty of experience to draw on. She has written ten books and edited quite a few others, started the Hunter College MFA in memoir program, and has studied and written extensively on Virginia Woolf. 

She also offers quotes from other writers about how their writing process works. And herein lies the problem. So many of the quoted wisdom appears in the form of just one or two words within a sentence: "messy desk", "darkness and despair", "fruitful imitation". Open to almost any page and you will be faced with a barrage of quotation marks. I found it to be very annoying. 

Also, the fact that she uses as sources interviews and articles published online by others is perhaps why these quotes are so ambiguous. I also found her use of such sources to be problematic. Ms. DeSalvo writes a blog and many of the chapters, she admits, came from essays posted there although they were "substantially revised" so maybe she used these sources for those posts. 

There was also a lot of repetition in introducing a "guest" writer (see how annoying those quotation marks get?) in chapters throughout the book although I suppose if one is jumping around within the sections that might prove to be helpful. As I read the book straight through I got a little tired of reading over and over again what books quoted authors had written.

That said, I did glean some insights from the book. Even though her process pertains to writing longer fiction or non-fiction, I found myself identifying with the trials and tribulations in writing the shorter journalistic pieces and essays that I create. 

I liked the final section on Building a Book, Finishing a Book with its chapters on making choices about what to leave in and what to take out of a piece. Working to untie the knots in the narrative. The constant revisions and finally the just letting go so, as she quotes William Faulkner, "I could finally have some peace with it." Then, the elation that comes with a finished piece of writing - no matter how long - and the subsequent "Now what?"

She mentions quite a few non-fiction books in the text and I made note of six that I want to follow up with. The internet sources that she used are listed in the back as well so the reader can always go directly to the online interview with, as she writes, a "real" writer. (Her quotation marks.)

All in all, I found the message of The Art of Slow Writing to be valuable in an age when we all seem to be so task and completion oriented. I don't think I have the stamina to attempt a long project such as a novel or memoir, but if I ever do get the itch, I will know that it is OK to slowly scratch it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

In Which I Retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani

The Abbey of Gethsemani
near Bardstown, Kentucky

Last year over the four-day Thanksgiving Day weekend, I took a retreat from writing and technology and everyday distractions and discontents. I didn't even have to pack a suitcase as I stayed at home and hunkered down with books and my journal and sketchbooks. Many naps later, I felt restored.

This Thanksgiving week, beginning Monday, I am going on another retreat but I will have to pack a small bag. I am signed up for four days at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery about one hour away from my home. 

Over the past 20 years or so, I have stayed many times in the Abbey's guesthouse and roamed its wooded grounds and gardens, browsed the shelves of its library, and attended frequent prayer services with the monks and other retreatants.

Meals there are taken in silence. No talking or listening to music or radio in one's room. No whispering in the hallway. There is no internet or cell phone service. I find it to be quite refreshing to be away from the chatter of the everyday world. 

The Abbey is also a famous literary site as it was the home of author Thomas Merton who is best known for his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, along with his journals and letters, and his books containing reflections on the spiritual life. 

My favorite is his Secular Journal in which he writes about art and literature and travel. Its entries were made before he came to live at the Abbey. In its last pages, Merton writes that he is spending time at Gethsemani to consider whether to become part of its community. The final entry reads:

"I shall speak to one of the friars."

Merton, known to his fellow monks as Father Louis, entered the Abbey on December 10, 1941. Twenty-seven years later to the day, Merton died in Bangkok, Thailand after giving a talk at an interfaith conference there. He was accidentally electrocuted by an electric fan as he stepped out of his bath. 

His body was flown back to the Abbey of Gethsemani and he is buried there. His grave marker is as simple and plain as the white robe and hooded black scapular that he wore.

I am looking forward to this uninterrupted time away from my computer and chores and am resisting the impulse to overpack - not clothes, mind you, but books. I usually take too many and then find something in the guesthouse library that I end up reading instead.  

It will be a fine way to spend these few days at Thanksgiving, to fall into the rhythm of the monks' schedule, to read and reflect, and to be away from the distractions of worldly affairs.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel

I am a big fan of libraries. I have had a library card allowing me free access to its treasures from every library in each city I have lived. I visit libraries when I travel. My mother was in charge for many years of one of the busiest branches in our city library system. My first job was as a page in one of the smaller neighborhood branches when I was in high school. I shelved books and was paid a whopping fifty cents an hour.

A few years ago, I even asked the head of the city library if I could spend the night in the Main Library. I wanted to write a feature story about what that would be like. He just looked at me, mumbled something about security, and shook his head. 

Oh, well. I tried.

Which leads me to The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. From the title one may think this is a horror story in which evil lurks in the stacks. But it is not. Instead, Mr. Manguel looks at libraries - public and private, ancient and modern - from many different perspectives. So we have chapters - fifteen in all - with titles of, for example, The Library as Shape; as Imagination; as Order; as Workshop; as Mind.

He begins with a description of his own library built on the spot of the barn of his 15th century house in France and lets the reader know that his favorite time to be there is at night. 

If the library in the morning suggests an echo of the severe and reasonably wishful order of the world, the library at night seems to rejoice in the world's essential, joyful muddle.

But we soon leave the author's library and go on a magic carpet ride through history, literature, architecture, lost books, lost libraries, censorship and the burning of books (which is where the real evil lurks), and other people and their libraries. 

In one of my favorite chapters - The Library as Workshop - Manguel evokes the room known as 'the study', a classification one doesn't hear about any more except in reading Golden Age British mysteries. The study, he writes, is the area within the library where writers do their work. So we get a glimpse of the studies of Erasmus, Borges, Kipling, Victor Hugo, and Cervantes.

As for the author's study, Manguel writes:

There's a notable difference, for me, between the large room in which I keep most of my books, and the smaller room in which I work. In the large room, the "library proper," I choose the volumes I need or want, I sit and read and make notes, I consult my encyclopedias. But in my study, the chosen books are those that I consider more immediate, more necessary, more intimate.

He goes on to list as his chosen books both the pocket edition and the two-volume shorter edition of the Oxford dictionary, the 1962 version of Roget's Thesaurus, Graves's Greek Myths, and a few others, which he writes, "feel like extensions of myself, at arm's length, always helpful."

The rooms in which writers (that subspecies of readers) surround themselves with the materials they need for their work acquire an animal quality, like that of a den or a nest, holding the shape of their bodies and offering a container to their thoughts. Here the writer can make his own bed among the books, be as monogamous or polygamous a reader as he wishes, choose an approved classic or an ignored newcomer, leave arguments unfinished, start on any page opened by chance, spend the night reading out loud so as to hear his own voice read back to him, in Virgil's famous words, under "the friendly silence of the soundless moon."

I have faithful reader, Tullik, to thank for recommending The Library at Night to me. It is one of those books that is a liberal arts education in itself offering interesting tidbits on a variety of subjects. And it has photos which add to its appeal.

I must admit that as I was reading this book, I was overcome with the desire to install bookshelves on every wall in my house. To turn my entire home into a library...a library for day and for night. What sweet dreams.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon

The small cabinet over my refrigerator is full to the brim with those wonderful black-and-white school composition notebooks. They are the journals that I have been writing in for years. Interspersed with that lot are other spiral bound notebooks, a few 'pretty' journals, and even some loose-leaf pages kept from an ill-fated attempt to keep a diary using a three-ring binder. 

I also have a drawer that holds journals that were started for a particular reason and abandoned - perhaps kept on a short trip or as the beginnings of a commonplace book. 

All this leads me to Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries.  I first read it soon after its publication date in 1983. It is a book that I have been wanting to reread and finally got around to doing just that last month.

I had been sporadically keeping a journal for years before I first read this book - I still have two of the little diaries with locks from high school - but Mr. Mallon introduced me to people who were like-minded in wanting to keep a record of their days. 

Here were writers, artists, preachers, politicians, crooks and even an assassin who felt compelled to make note of their thoughts, dreams, desires, and events happening not only in their private lives but in the world around them. 

So we have samples from the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Degas, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Thoreau. There are also entries from a whole raft of everyday people. Mr. Mallon has gathered all these keepers of the word into sections: Chroniclers, Travelers, Pilgrims, Creators, Apologists, Confessors, and Prisoners.  

This is not a series of entries one after the other. Mr. Mallon entertains the reader with his own witty and insightful comments and connections on the entries and their compilers. This book helped me to expand my own journals into more than just whining about whatever particular inconvenience life was handing out at the moment. I found reading this book to be a fascinating look into the minds and lives of so many. Fascinating, even more so now, rereading it some decades later and after many hundreds of journal entries of my own. 

My own journal keeping has developed, or maybe I should say declined, in the past few years to more of a nightly list begun as a way to remind me that I actually do accomplish some things each day. But I was inspired by one of the diarists in Mallon's book, Toni Bentley, a corps member of the New York City Ballet who kept a journal for one Winter Season begun on November 21, 1980 and finished on February 15, 1981. She used it to assess her career in dance and her commitment to her art. 

So I hunted up this attractive journal that I had tucked away for a special occasion...

...and began keeping what I am calling A Winter Journal on November 1, 2014. 

Of a late afternoon, I sit at my desk overlooking my small front yard and ponder and muse and write about whatever strikes my fancy. It may be a page describing the items on my desk, two pages bemoaning my fate at the mechanical problems my Jeep is experiencing (and have thankfully been repaired), or it may just be a list of cities I still want to visit. 

I might also include observations on the weather, the light, the leaves piling up, or the red cardinal at rest on the rim of the French blue birdbath. 

I write with a comfortable Lamay fountain pen that I purchased on a trip to Savannah a couple of years ago. (Fountain pens are my one weakness!) The pages are smooth and lined and the book has a nice heft to it so I know I mean business. I bought this one and a red one like it ages ago. I only paid $7 for each one. Now I wish I had bought a few more.

I realize this post has turned out to be more about me than A Book of One's Own, but I highly recommend Mr. Mallon's look at diaries and the people who keep them. It just might inspire you to pick up a notebook and begin to write. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day Photos: Final Colors of Autumn

Even on a gloomy, misty day, there is beauty to be found.

These photos were taken today, Veteran's Day, at Cave Hill Cemetery. It is an historic place that includes a National Cemetery which honors the military service of the America's veterans.

Every Veteran's Day, a local veteran's group places flags on all graves
at the National Cemetery. An honorable tradition. This section holds 
graves of Civil War soldiers. 

Not sure what kind of trees these are, but the leaves looked like
pieces of gold hanging from the branches.

Close-up of droplets sparkling on the leaves. 
Perhaps someone can identify this tree for me?

This maple, although the photo doesn't capture it, looked as if someone
had plugged it in and flipped the electrical switch. Even under gray skies it was brilliant.

I love that I can see the graceful branching of this stately tree.

I am surprised that so many trees are still hanging on to their leaves.
 But, as I stood and took this picture, they were swirling all 
around me. It was like being in a 'leaf globe'. With rain and cold
coming in this week, I am glad I captured these colors of fall
before they disappear into winter.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In Which I Mingle with the British Upper Classes

I read, one right after the other, three books that featured the ways and fashions and eccentricities of the British upper class. All three I bought at the recent Summer Used Book Sale at Locust Grove. 

First up was Snobs by Julian Fellowes that I wrote about here. I found it to be a witty and gossipy look at a fictional aristocratic family and an outsider's attempts to fit in.

Then came my first brush with Nancy Mitford in her comic novel Love in a Cold Climate. This one I almost bailed on as at first I couldn't keep the characters straight. They all had titles and names and nicknames and nicknames of nicknames. Very confusing but I persevered and I am glad I did. The story, which centers around Polly Montdore and her strange choice in a marriage partner, really took off for me with the appearance later in the book of the heir-apparent to the Montdore fortune, Cedric. By now, Polly has been disinherited by her very, very wealthy father. Cedric flies and flits across the pages. He is quite flamboyant. He loves beautiful things, has great taste, and is quite the flatterer.  A great character.

The final book was A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. I know it was written to satirize the British "landed gentry and mercantile class" of the 1930s but I saw it as of novel of grief. 

Tony Last grieves for the days when there was money enough to care for the beloved country manor house that he inherited - along with its exorbitant death taxes. His wife, Brenda, grieves for the gay life she feels she is missing in London and takes up with an unsuitable and boring fellow named John Beaver. John Beaver grieves because he hasn't the money to allow him entry to the upper class society that he craves. No one really likes him and he is only useful to his moneyed acquaintances as a last minute guest to make an even number at a luncheon or dinner table.

When a family tragedy breaks the hearts of both Tony and Brenda, he takes off on an ill-fated exploration trip to South America. Things don't turn out too well for Brenda either, as John drops her when he realizes she isn't going to get much of Tony's money. 

This book has a very odd ending which I won't give away. Suffice it to say, there is more grief before the final page.

Now I will leave the British upper classes to their own devices and deceits.  Next up, the memoir of Australian-born writer John Baxter and his globetrotting travels in search of books. It's titled A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict and is already promising to be great fun. 

What are you planning on reading this weekend?