Read, damn it!

(The fourth in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my insanely selfless altruism.)

Writing Tip #4

Many years ago, I went through a state of Salinger addiction. Anyone who has ever been a fan of the late stylist at an impressionable age likely goes through something like that with reading Salinger. His sentences are just so good. Can’t say I much re-read him these days, but there’s a moment in one of the Glass family books when he offers some really good writing advice.

The writer of the stories is allegedly Buddy Glass. His older brother, Seymour, is a saint too good for this world. In (I think) a note to Buddy about one of his early stories, Seymour (I’m paraphrasing, here) tells Buddy something to the effect that he’s trying too hard. He tells him that he was a reader long before he was a writer, and so he should write that thing that he most wants to read.

I think it’s exceptionally good advice, and I got similar advice from my professors over the years. I remember going to Richard Bausch, one of the earliest of my teachers, who (unbelievably) may have been unpublished at the time and asking how to end a story.

At the time I was maybe 18 or 19 and wanted to write more than I knew what it was I wanted to write about. The real problem was that I had no idea how to set up a conflict so that it could be resolved. (I was kind of hooked on Kerouac at the time, and just wrote, figuring that by doing so, I’d get something worthwhile.

He said something like read other writers. See how they end stories. I also needed to see how they began them, but the real point was reading.

Several years later, I taught an undergrad fiction class at the University of Houston. It was an evening class, at one of the satellite campuses, and it was pretty full, the first night. I handed out the syllabus, assigned the book (Burroway’s)

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft), and stood hopefully in front of the class and asked what these hopeful young writers were reading. Few of them actually were, aside from the books they were assigned to read for their other classes.

I won’t say that I was shocked but I sure as heck was chagrinned. But the reality is that a whole lot of folks who take undergrad creative writing courses just plain aren’t interested in the idiotic life that being a fiction writer can be. They just needed an agreeable elective.

Part Two

Read poetry. One of my professors when I was an undergrad, Peter Klappert, said something to the effect that fiction writers ought to read poetry, and lots of it, to get the latest news on what language can do. I could not agree more.

Two Days to Mental Health!

The radio ad sounded too bizarre to be true. In two visits, the clinic would restore your mental health. And you could sleep through the whole thing.

My son and I were driving back home from a fishing and camping trip, and I would have sworn that was what I heard. What?!? I probably said. The ad went on to say that you could sleep through the whole thing. Just what had I missed during our short camping trip?

Turns out, it was dental health, not mental health. It was one of those pain-free dental clinics. Boy, for a moment there, I thought there was something really great going on. Ah, well.

Get Naked

(The third in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my otherworldly generosity.)

Writing Tip #3

Get [to the] Naked [Truth}

The old workshop saw is that you should write what you know. I don’t much care whether you agree with that. But at least in one sense it’s true: only you know what you’re passionate about, and only you will be able to figure out how to turn that passion into good writing.

Not long ago, a young writer whose dad is a scientist I much admire, came to me for advice, as most of us do when we’re utterly clueless how to get started (oversimplified advice: Start.) and what kind of writer we want to be.  Continue reading

Do the Work

(The second in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get, such is my otherworldly generosity.)

Writing Tip #2
Do the Work

Novels, stories, poems, memoirs—whatever your pleasure—sometimes may seem to write themselves. But they don’t. You have to get your butt into the chair and in front of the keyboard or however it is you write, and do it. I have known writers, or people who wanted to be writers, who liked talking about writing better than they liked to write. Not a good plan.

If you’re a morning person, a night owl, or an overstressed mother of four young children, you have to be ruthless and steal time to, as Nike has it, just do it. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but just as I did, you have to find what works for you. How do you do that? Continue reading

The Child Must Die

(The first in a series of writing tips you don’t need and didn’t ask for, but are going to get.)

Writing Tip #1
Be Ruthless 

In a piece in the New York Times, Colm Toibin writes gorgeously about ruthlessness. He doesn’t quite frame it that way, but that’s what he’s talking about:

I have been writing about writers and their families so it is strange that the idea of rights versus responsibilities does not preoccupy me. I feel that I have only rights, and that my sole responsibility is to the reader, and is to make things work for someone I will never meet. I feel just fine about ignoring or bypassing the rights of people I have known and loved to be rendered faithfully, or to be left in peace, and out of novels. It is odd that the right these people have to be left alone, not transformed, seems so ludicrous.

He goes on to talk about various writers and their depredations on those they knew and loved, which transgressions may have had the possibility to seriously damage relationships. These writers—as should any writer—ignored that possibility for the greater possibility that stealing that moment or idea, or twisting that fact might make for better fiction.

Continue reading

Pickles, Firecrackers, and Blue Garlic [U]

This is the first time I’ve made pickles this early in the year—usually it’s August, when I’ve given up on my cucumber plants producing enough (last year they did, but I was out of town and when I got back they were either rotten or the size of watermelons) and caved and bought a load at the farmer’s market.

This year, the only thing that went into the pickles that didn’t grow in my yard—that is, vegetable things—was the garlic. Some of the garlic came from the farmer’s market and some came from the Giant around the corner. The only reason I’m making a big deal out of the garlic is because some of it turned blue. Not just blue, but a sort of neon aqua. Continue reading

The Coming Blueberry Revolution

The birds in my yard are pissed, and it’s about the blueberries.

Actually, the only thing I know for sure about the birds is that if they could, they’d eat all the blueberries off my plants and I’d never get more than one or two. I know this to be true because they did it last year. This year, I got a couple of rolls of plastic “chicken wire” and pretty much imprisoned them—the bushes, that is, not the birds. And I may have gotten as much as two quarts from my five or six bushes.

The weirdness comes in when I get the creepy feeling that the birds are watching, and taking notes. This happens when I unwire the pieces of chicken wire to pick whatever is left of the ripe blueberries.

What they are saying about me is chillingly Orwellian, frankly. They want to know why I get all the berries. Why I don’t share. Why I am cruelly letting them starve. Letting their little chicks go hungry. Continue reading

Eat Your Yard

I started making pickles (garlicky dill) three or four years ago, and jam (blackberry and raspberry, then last year, strawberry), and not too long ago, after she took a jar back to New York, my daughter said her friends thought it was so cool that I actually made stuff like that. I’ve been homebrewing beer since the late eighties, and so this didn’t seem to me all that much different. I don’t know why I was surprised that these college students would think that making pickles was so unusual. I’m guessing most of them don’t come from Portland. (If you’ve seen Portlandia, you know what I’m talking about.)

photo of young cucumber

This thing is now about as big as my forearm, and is going to have to be quartered to fit in a pickle jar.

A couple of days ago, I was picking snowpeas in my garden and my next door neighbor was in her yard, watering their flowers. I said, I just love being able to walk out into my yard and eat stuff that’s growing there. She just smiled. She thinks I’m a good neighbor (and I try to be), but she may think I’m nuts, too. Which I might be. Continue reading

Flamethrower, Part Whatever[U]

This morning, as you can see in the image below, the hornets have gotten pretty close to covering half of the lens of this dish. I wonder when the reception is going to start to fail.

hornets nest on satellite dish

So how much of the lens needs to be covered (and is lens the right word?) for the satelite dish’s reception to fail? Any experts?

I mentioned in my post yesterday that this thing is about five feet from the sidewalk. I was being generous. It’s more like 2-3 feet. I hope this image gives the idea of how close it is:

It’s not like I took a tape measure to this, but it seems to be to be a good deal closer to the street than I remembered.

Can’t immediately recall whether I mentioned it in a previous post, but how I noticed the nest was because I heard it. Was listening to my new morning-walk soundtrack, Rufus Wainwright’s Out of the Game, and I just happened to go by during a break between songs. I noticed because I heard it, or them, buzzing.

[Update] I checked on Wikipedia and guess who selected this location? The queen. See 3 Life cycle there. I guess there is no king, but if there were, he would probably have recommended against this particular spot.

Still Got a Picture?

(The continuing story of the hornets’ nest.)

Dear Neighbor:

Hope you still have a picture, but if you don’t, I think I know why.

Kind of looks like the face of an alien in one of my son’s video games. Is it winking?

Maybe this picture will help your picture.

Your neighbor,


P.S. Did I mention that this nest is about five feet (max!) from the sidewalk?

And check this out:

hornets nest on satellite dish

I get the idea that the reception is not going to be very good very soon. And are these guys getting irradiated?

If these little guys are getting irradiated, then will we have a new superhero?

Can’t wait to see where we are tomorrow, though I hope I don’t walk by when my neighbor decides to take action.