Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Death or Transformation?

I’ve been reading a lot these past few weeks about the amazing rise of the eBook, and the death of reading, writing and literature as we know it.

Amazon ebook sales topped traditional hard-copy format. The future of the book is so precarious that it requires a think-tank to monitor its demise. And nearly everywhere I look are blithe predictions about what reading and writing will and won’t be in years to come.

In a recent New York Times essay, Kathy Roiphe opens with, “For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation”. How can anyone committed to the work of writing avoid complete paralysis when we are regularly slapped in the face with words like these?

Years ago, back when The Age was New, I learned to read Tarot cards. One of the most startling cards in the traditional deck is the Death card. Death in most developed societies is something scary, ominous, to be avoided as surely as the plague itself. Indeed, the Death card shows a classic image of the Grim Reaper.

Death

Death comes to all, but where does it lead?


But Death in Tarot and in many mystical traditions is not a sign of ending but of transformation. It is far less a card to fear than a card to accept with girded courage knowing that learning comes through change.

Right now there’s no denying that the literary world is experiencing a dramatic shift. The bastion of commercial publishing is as hopelessly unstable as an alpine snow cliff in spring. For those rooted in these institutions, the ground is no longer safe to stand on, no longer certain to hold the weight of our hopes, expectations or needs.

But if we can step back from ourselves just a little, we might also realize that we are witnessing a birth. Something new is growing out of the impending rubble.

I have no idea what that something is or where it will lead any of us. I’m not in the business of making predictions and, honestly, tend to get bogged down in anxiety myself. But somewhere amidst the panic, I’m reaching to embrace this half-formed creature that will lead us all slowly, word by word, creative thought by creative thought, forward whether we like it or not.

I’m looking at this transformation with the kind of speechless admiration a mother bears as she watches her child. As parents, we can either stand aloft and criticize every move that our young one makes, intent to crush its spirit and mold it to our expectations. Or we can nudge gently as we observe our child’s natural instincts, helping to navigate pitfalls and avoid dangers, but still encouraging the child’s desire to explore, examine, create. The first method certainly helps maintain the status quo and preserves an established line of power and control. But it also squelches and malforms. The new creation, like a sapling caught beneath overcrowded trees, grows twisted.

Creativity in whatever form needs a bit of light, room, and air to grow. Maybe I can’t understand it. Maybe I’m one of those grand old trees. But I’m trying not to panic, hoping not to strangle this new life to save my own. I’m lucky I’m not a tree. Loosely rooted where I stand, I’m willing to move aside and leave a little space for the new wonders growing around me.

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The Best Gift for Writers

You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.

The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.

Colum McCann, winner of the National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, is apparently fond of quoting Samuel Beckett: “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

How utterly true!

Time
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.

We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.

There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.

Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
Books are some of the best teachers

Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.

But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.

Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.

Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.


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Briefer Stories for Our Times

Take a look at A.O. Scott’s lovely and appropriately brief survey and prediction of the American short story in Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the American Short Story. It’s especially relevant to so many creative writers who often focus at least initially on the short story form.

Short stories have only very rarely brought any writer the attention of the reading world. Even finding a home for these carefully crafted vignettes can be frustrating and is almost never lucrative. The short story’s true reward must be in savoring the satisfaction that comes from the realization of refinement and excellence.

Yet A.O. Scott predicts that, like so many other forms of media, literature too is undergoing a monumental transformation in our ever more scattered and digitized world. As with music and movies, perhaps the future writer’s goal will no longer be the “Great American Novel” but something more compact, more succinct, more digestible, more suited to shortened time and attention spans. To distill the total essence of the “now” in a single story of 20 or 30 pages is an almost inconceivable challenge. But perhaps that is precisely the correct way to attempt to capture this American moment. It’s certainly something for all writers to strive to achieve.


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Stegner’s Centennial

February 18 was Wallace Stegner’s centennial. He has always been one of my favorites, and in a fascinating commentary in The New York Times, Timothy Egan reminds me why.

Stegner’s work was rooted in the rough reality of a thankless life in settings that, even when they didn’t (rarely) reek of the dusty sweep of a stark western landscape, you had the sense that they did. It is in his emptiness that I sense affinity; even in a crowded scene, his work breathes of loneliness, the sense that each of us is utterly and completely apart. It is a sentiment I share at the heart of my own writing, though I hide from it in my daily life as much as I can. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that sense of separation, to accept that there is nothing to support us here but the frail fantasy of companionship in the face of a vast, unforgiving universe.

I was surprised to read that Wallace Stegner’s work was shunned by the east coast literary elite, especially after having won both the Pulitzer and National Book Award. It is to me a startling example of a particular bias that views literature as flowing from a very narrow stream. His simplicity and depth, the crisp brilliance of his language, his almost spiritual sense of humanity and landscape, and his wisdom and generosity as a teacher, make him among my most beloved authors.

I have often shared with my writers circle his fatherly advice from a small collection of his essays, On Teaching and Writing Fiction. In “To a Young Writer”, composed in letter form, he warns of the pitfalls along the unforgiving path toward literary perfection; and in “Goin’ to Town: an Object Lesson” he reviews, practically line by line, the creative and critical process of writing one of his extraordinary short stories. It’s a book I return to again and again. I suggest it to every writer.