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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Our 'unacknowledged' historians

“Increasingly I think of myself as some strange and solitary conductor, introduced to a group of very dynamic musicians who happen to be my characters, and I have no idea how they are going to play together, and I have certainly no idea how I am going to put manners on them.” – Colum McCann
Born on this date in 1970, McCann is a native Irishman who now makes his home in New York City where he is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing in the Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College.

His work has been published in 35 languages and has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Paris Review.  McCann has written 6 novels, including TransAtlantic and the National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin.  He also has written 3 collections of short stories, including 2015’s Thirteen Ways of Looking.

McCann said the best writers attempt to become alternative historians.  His own sense of the Great Depression, for example, is guided by the works of E.L. Doctorow  “In a certain way, novelists become unacknowledged historians, because we talk about small, tiny, little anonymous moments that won't necessarily make it into the history books."                    
  “Every first thing is always a miracle," he said. “The first person you fall in love with. The first letter you receive. The first stone you throw. And in my conception of the novel, the letter becomes important. But what's more important is the fact that we need to continue to tell each other stories.”

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Monday, February 27, 2017

Explaining the inexplicable

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” – John Steinbeck

I distinctly remember when Steinbeck died in 1968 because we discussed his legacy at length in my college class on The American Novel.  “He is,” my professor told us without hesitation, “the embodiment of The American Novel.”
Of course the embodiment of Steinbeck’s work was his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, which won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1939 and cemented his position for what would later become his selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature.    Author of 27 books – 16 novels, 5 collections of creative short stories, and 6 absolutely wonderful books of non-fiction including one of my favorites, Travels With Charley – Steinbeck can be found around the globe, published in virtually every language.    It is estimated that his writings have sold in excess of 200 million copies in these various iterations.

Many of his writings are considered classics of Western literature and so palatable that  a remarkable 17 were adapted to film.
A native Californian who set many of his works there,                         
 he also did more to document the ravages of The Great Depression than any other writer.  Those stories, though, took their toll.  “In utter loneliness,” he wrote, “a writer tries to explain the inexplicable.”

Despite his brilliance and many awards and accolades, he often questioned his own writing.   “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world,” he once said.   “And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Encouraging new talent to follow your lead

“Writing is no dying art form in America because most published writers here accept the wisdom and the necessity of encouraging the talent that follows in their footsteps.” – Elizabeth George
I’ve written about George before – but she’s so eminently “quotable” that I can’t resist a few more nuggets of wisdom from her on her birthday (born this date in 1949).   A native of Ohio who earned her writing degrees in California, she has risen to prominence for her mysteries set in Great Britain and featuring Inspector Thomas Lynley.   The Inspector Lynley Series has been much celebrated on both the BBC and PBS.

A firm believer, as she notes above, in helping new writers find their footing, she said it upsets her that sometimes those who are established in the writing field feel writing is an innate talent.  “I find it both fascinating and disconcerting when I discover yet another person who believes that writing can't be taught.  Frankly, I don't understand this point of view,” she said.  “ … Craft can be taught. And writing is both an art and a craft.”

George said it is the job of the novelist to touch the reader.  “Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe. 
“I try to create a challenge for myself in each book.                     
 And sometimes, believe me, I just kick myself afterwards, and say, 'Why on earth did you ever attempt this, you idiot!' But I'm always better for the experience.”

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Saturday, February 25, 2017

Feeling, questioning, writing experiences

“One reason to write a poem is to flush from the deep thickets of the self some thought, feeling, comprehension, question, music, you didn't know was in you, or in the world.” – Jane Hirshfield

American poet, essayist, and translator Hirshfield was born on this date in 1953.  A native New Yorker, she was among the first class of women to graduate from Princeton where she studied writing and started her career.  Since then, she has authored 8 award-winning books of poetry, a number of major translations, and countless essays.
Her book, Given Sugar, Given Salt, was a finalist                    
for the National Book Critics Circle Award and her collection, After, was shortlisted for the U.K.’s T.S. Eliot Prize and named a “Best book of 2006” by several major newspapers and journals.   Her book The Beauty was long-listed for the National Book Award and named a “Best book of 2015” by The San Francisco Chronicle.

“My job as a human being as well as a writer is to feel as thoroughly as possible the experience that I am part of, and then press it a little further,” she recently wrote.  For Saturday’s Poem, here is Hirshfield’s:

A Person Protests to Fate

A person protests to fate:

"The things you have caused
me most to want
are those that furthest elude me."

Fate nods.
Fate is sympathetic.

To tie the shoes, button a shirt,
are triumphs
for only the very young,
the very old.

During the long middle:

conjugating a rivet
mastering tango
training the cat to stay off the table
preserving a single moment longer than this one
continuing to wake whatever has happened the day before

and the penmanships love practices inside the body.

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Friday, February 24, 2017

On the Plains, in our hearts

“Writers who aren't from rural states in the Midwest or the West often treat such people as if they were the Waltons or the Beverly Hillbillies.”— Kent Haruf

The son of a Methodist minister who was born on this date in 1943, Haruf grew up in Colorado and lived almost his entire life there until his death in 2014.  Haruf's award-winning novels take place in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, roughly based on the “Plains” city of Yuma, one of his residences. 

Among his many  rock-solid novels, award-winners The Tie That Binds  (the Whiting Award and a special Hemingway Foundation/PEN citation) and the amazing Plainsong are perhaps the best to cite when talking about what it was that made his writing so special.   I first caught on to Haruf when my friend (and award winning author in his own right) Verlyn Klinkenborg told me about discovering Plainsong.   Later, Klinkenborg reviewed it, saying, “(It’s) a novel so foursquare, so delicate and lovely, that it has the power to exalt the reader.”  Plainsong won the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award and the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award.

I never got to meet Haruf but did meet his wife Catherine at the Colorado Book Awards and heard more from her about Kent and his writing. Shortly before his death in Salida, Colorado, where he spent his latter years, he wrote,  I'm attempting to                         
broaden my novels' scope through landscape and weather.  Leaves falling off trees, overnight storms, timeless elements which, irrespective of human endeavour, have always been there and, as long as there is life and snow, will always be there.”

For those of us like Haruf – and Klinkenborg, and myself – who grew up on the Plains, there is much about which to write, but few who can properly handle it.  Haruf was among the very best. 

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Life's tests ... and lessons

“In school, you're taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you're given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Tom Bodett

Author, politician, voice actor, and radio host, Tom Bodett is also well-known for his frequent guest appearances on the NPR staple “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”  Celebrating his 62nd birthday today, he was born in Illinois, grew up in the Michigan and then spent many years in Alaska before moving to Vermont.

Since 1986 he has been the spokesman for the Motel 6 hotel chain, ending commercials with the phrase, "I'm Tom Bodett for Motel 6, and we'll leave the light on for you."  

A longtime resident of Homer, Alaska, he authored several books about that area, including a Children’s adventure Williwaw! and the bestselling The End of The Road based on his popular radio show broadcast from there.  Bodett also is creator of The Loose Leaf Book Company, a radio program centered on author and book interviews, discussions, and dramatizations.  
  A “dyed in the wool optimist,” he once noted that the                           
difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that an optimist laughs to forget, but a pessimist forgets to laugh.

Optimism, he said, provides ongoing hope.  “They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”

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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A story in the making

“You don't just have a story - you're a story in the making, and you never know what the next chapter's going to be. That's what makes it exciting.” – Dan Millman
Millman, born on this date in 1946, is a former gymnastics champion and coach, world-class martial arts specialist, and author – since 2006 – of nearly 20 books published in 29 languages.   His first book, Way of the Peaceful Warrior, was adapted into the film Peaceful Warrior, starring Nick Nolte.

Part fiction and part autobiography, the book tells of a chance meeting Millman had with a service station attendant who becomes a spiritual teacher to him as a young gymnast. The attendant, whom Millman names Socrates, becomes a kind of father figure and teaches Millman how to become a "peaceful warrior” en route to winning a gymnastics championship.

Also a renowned and much sought after lecturer on personal development, Millman said he never really intended to be a writer, but did start thinking about it after college.  “I kind of got more interested in writing after I turned in my last college essay and nobody was going to tell me what kind of academic papers to write anymore,” he said.                        
  He said when he realized he could write whatever he wanted, whenever and about whatever topic he chose, he liked it.  As for his choices, “I learned that we can do anything, but we can't do everything... at least not at the same time. So think of your priorities not in terms of what activities you do, but when you do them. Timing is everything.”

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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Using history as a 'writing engine'

“Once you have your characters, they tell you what to write, you don't tell them.” Alan Furst 
Arguably, Furst is the “inventor,” so to speak, of the historical spy novel.  And, he said he doesn’t write plots but rather writes around history and historical things to create his books.  “I use history as the engine that drives everything,” he said.  
Born and raised in Manhattan where he attended the Horace Mann School, Furst – who turned 76 yesterday – went to Ohio earn a Bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College, then studied at Penn State for his Master’s.  After returning to New York, he took writing classes at Columbia and started working in advertising and writing magazine articles, most notably for Esquire, and as a columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. 

While he had several books and novellas published during his earlier writing years, it was while he was in Paris that he developed his style for the historical spy novels that became his trademark.  Since the mid-1980s he has written a dozen novels set in the late 1930s and during World War II.  While only 2 share a common plot, all are loosely connected with recurring characters and settings, especially Eastern European.

Furst said it takes him 3 months of research and 9 months of work to produce a book. “When I start writing, I do 2 pages a day; if I'm gonna do 320, that's 160 days.”
His advice to those seeking to find a voice is                  
to find a time, place and idea and make it your own.  “I chose a time in the (20th) century which had the greatest moments for novels - the late '30s and World War II,” he said.  “My theory is that sometimes writers write books because they want to read them, and they aren't there to be read.  And I think that was true of me.”

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Monday, February 20, 2017

The American Story from our Presidents

On Presidents’ Day, I thought sharing about a few of the many books that have been written by our former presidents might be in order.  These below are often rated as the best of the lot by many book critics, and I present them as a reflection upon the fact that they felt it was important to put words onto paper and share their thoughts in this manner.

They also provide a great look at the times in which these men worked and lived – a “written” snapshot, if you will, on America, the world, and history.


Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant by U.S. Grant.  While this book focuses on his time in the Civil War instead of his presidency, many regard this as one of the best books - if not THE best - written by a President. 


Crusade in Europe by Dwight Eisenhower.  Eisenhower was best known as a key player in America’s World War II efforts. This book focuses on the drama and stress war brings; however, many commend it for its surprisingly warm account of his life and those around him.


A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety by Jimmy Carter.   Carter authored many books, but this is perhaps the most comprehensive about his life, and thoughts about his predecessors.


Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama.   Obama’s emotional account of race in America was so popular it became a #1 New York Times best-seller even before he was elected.


Theodore Roosevelt (an autobiography).  Roosevelt was our most prolific Presidential author, penning 38 books and thousands upon thousands of letters, essays and other writings.  This 1913 book is a detailed and remarkable accounting of a great life.  He died in 1919.



As I wrote above, these are just a few of the books by our Presidents.  Today or the week ahead would be a great time to start a book by any of them (each of our former Presidents has written at least one book; most more) and reflect on their "Writers Moments" that capture our American story in its fullest.   Happy Presidents’ Day.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Those 'reflections' of daily life

“I think that when you're writing fiction what you're doing is reflecting life as you see it, and putting down how you think and how other people think, and the sort of confusions that you don't normally like to admit to.” – Helen Fielding

Born on this date in 1958, English novelist and screenwriter Fielding is probably best known as the creator of the character Bridget Jones, and a sequence of novels and films beginning about the life of a thirtysomething singleton in London trying to make sense of life and love.  And, she said, it all came about because she was hung up on how to complete another book on which she was working. 

“I was writing an earnest novel about cruises in the Caribbean and I just started writing 'Bridget Jones' to get some money, to finance this earnest work,” she said,  “and then I just chucked it out.”
The Bridget Jones character was actually an outgrowth of a regular newspaper column she was writing for the London newspaper The Independent who asked her to write a column as herself about single life in London.  Embarrassed to put herself in the stories, she created the character and her stories acquired a big following.  In 1996 she wrote the first Bridget book. 

Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, have now been published in 40 countries and sold more than 15 million copies. Bridget Jones’ Baby is doing equally well.  In a survey conducted by The Guardian newspaper, Bridget Jones’s Diary was named as one of 10 novels that best defined the 20th century.  And in 2014, Fielding was one of just 20 writers on The Sunday Times list of Britain's 500 Most Influential.                                
                                         A secret to success, “I always market research my books before I hand them in by showing them to five or six close friends who I trust to be honest with me, so they are very heavily re-written already.”

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Saturday, February 18, 2017

The 'music' of words

“You have your identity when you find out, not what you can keep your mind on, but what you can't keep your mind off.” – A. R. Ammons

Born on this date in 1926, Ammons was a North Carolinian who worked as an elementary school principal and as a glass company executive before turning his full attention to literature – both teaching and writing.   From 1964 to 1998 he taught creative writing at Cornell University while authoring hundreds, if not thousands, of poems.

Ammons wrote about nature and the self, themes that had preoccupied Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman and that remained the central focus of his work.  His Collected Poems, 1951–1971 (a terrific read) won a National Book Award.   And his Selected Poems is an excellent introduction to his works  Ammons died in 2001.          
                                                                “What is poetry?” he was asked.   
                                                                “Poetry," he replied, "is the music of words ...  
                                                                the linguistic correction of disorder.”   
For Saturday’s Poem, 
here is Ammons’


 It was May 
before my attention 
came to spring and  
my word I said
to the southern slopes 
missed it, it 
came and went before 
I got right to see:  
don't worry, said the mountain, 
try the later northern slopes 
or if  
you can climb, 
climb into spring: but 
said the mountain  
it's not that way 
with all things, some 
that go are gone

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Exploring the psychological side

“I don't know that I am fascinated with crime. I'm fascinated with people and their characters and their obsessions and what they do. And these things lead to crime, but I'm much more fascinated in their minds.” Ruth Rendell

Rendell, in fact, made a huge impact as the creator of a separate brand of crime fiction that explored the psychological background of both criminals and victims.  In the process she became one of Great Britain’s (and the world’s) all-time leading crime and mystery writers.

Born on this date in 1930, she started writing in her late 20s and then just never really stopped until her death in 2015.   During a 60-year career, she wrote hundreds of novels, and short stories, including 24 featuring her best-known creation, Chief Inspector Wexford.  Wexford was the hero of many popular police stories, some of them successfully adapted for television. 

She also wrote 30 stand-alone mystery and crime novels and 15 under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.  In the process she won virtually every major mystery and crimewriting award and was honored with the title of Baroness by the Queen.  I have had quite a lot of prizes,” she wrote at the time (1996) “but I don't think it makes any difference to the ease or difficulty to the writing process.”
Rendell’s advice to young writers is to write with style.                  
It doesn't matter what kind of book you write - you ought to write it well and with some kind of style and elegance,” she said.  “As for me, I don't know what I would do if I didn't write.”

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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Writing the most important things

“Happiness for me is getting to write about the most important things I know.” – Richard Ford

Ford, novelist and short story writer born on this date in 1944, is best-known for his 4-cycle series The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and Let Me Be Frank with You.  Each book follows a portion of the life of Frank Bascombe, who moves through early middle age towards his later years.

Book two, Independence Day, achieved even more accolades.  Independence Day won both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner in 1995, becoming the first novel ever to win both awards in a single year.  The third book, The Lay of the Land, was nominated for a 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award; and the fourth, Let Me Be Frank With You, was a 2015 Pulitzer finalist.

Also an award winner for his short stories, Ford has described his sense of language as "a source of pleasure in itself.”  He says valuing language is a key to good writing and balks at being compared to other great writers.                                            
"You can't write ... on the strength of influence,” he said. “You can only write a good story or a good novel by yourself.”
“My job is to have empathy and curiosity for things that I've never done. Also, I'm a person whom people talk to.”

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