The Saturday Writing Quote — on storytelling

“People … are all storytellers. We just do it in different ways. And what each one of us is doing is wrestling with the idea of what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human. And when you do this, you not only discover what it means to be human, but what it means to be humane. That is a profound idea and worth doing.”

— Thomas Christopher Greene, quoted in Mystery Scene, No. 158, 2019

Photo: The Bovine Bibiliophile, at The Bookstore, Dillon, Montana

Saturday Writing Quote — on creative confidence

Last month, I happened to be in Missoula the evening that Irish crime writer John Connolly was speaking at Shakespeare & Co., a local independent bookstore. Connolly made a comment about what he called “creative confidence.” I didn’t entirely agree with his comment, but I liked the term. And when I came across this poem from WS Merwin, it struck me as referring to exactly that mysterious, undefinable thing.

I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t

you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

—W.S. Merwin, in “Berryman,” (about a conversation between Merwin (1927-2019) and John Berryman (1914-1972))

The Saturday Writing Quote

“Writing is such a necessary way for me to work through what’s on my mind, what I am feeling, what I am thinking, but because I find such solace in writing, this very thing also compels me to push myself, to look beyond myself, to make sure that what I’m writing is not just for me, but also for readers, whomever they might be. I also work not to diminish the act of writing in what I have written and what I read from other writers. Our words matter.”

– Roxane Gay, in The Writer, Oct 2014

The Saturday Writing Quote — on reading

“Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it – coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.”

— Ursula K. LeGuin (1929-2018)

painting: “Bitterroot Winter” by Rachel Warner, collection of the author

The Saturday Writing Quote — on reading

I reread Stephen King’s On Writing, originally published in 2000, last year and found that not only did it hold up well, it held bits of wisdom I may have been too inexperienced to grasp back then. But I think I’ve always grasped this pithy principle.

 

“Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.”

— Stephen King, On Writing (2000)

The Saturday Writing Quote — on reading

With the weather changing, many of us have more time for reading, curling up in a favorite chair with a cup of coffee, tea, or chai and a good book. I’ve got a terrific stack waiting for me! So for October, a few excellent quotes on reading, especially its importance to writers and other creators.

“If I had to choose between writing and reading, I would choose to read, because there is so much I’ve yet to learn, so many worlds I’ve yet to visit, all secreted away between the pages of a book. Writing is what I do and how I communicate. Reading gives me permission for what I do by widening the lanes of my creativity and narrative ambition. Writing is work, but reading is pleasure. …

“Reading was a means to enter a different reality from the physical one I was forced to embody. I don’t want to contemplate how I would have endured these weeks without plunging into books, for pleasure and for research. I’m glad I didn’t have to.”

Sarah Weinman in “The Year I Went Bald,” about writing her first book, The Real Lolita, while undergoing treatment for breast cancer, in The Walrus 

The Saturday Writing Quote — on seeing abstractly

Conscious Creativity: Look, Connect, CreateI’m closing out September with one more quote from Conscious Creativity: look, connect, create by British visual artist and actor Philippa Stanton (Leaping Hare Press, 2018). In talking about abstraction, she is speaking in terms not generally applied to the written word, for good reason. But as a writer who also paints on occasion and has learned to love abstract art — okay, some, not all — I think that learning seeing abstractly helps us see connections. And that is what ignites creates new work, whether it be a poem, a dance, a painting, or a song.

“I strongly believe that by involving and connecting yourself to the world around you through abstract form and thought, your mind will become open to seeing much more than words are able to describe. There is so much to look at both inside and outside our minds that can only ever be communicated through image. However, simple expression through image and abstract thought is often undermined or patronized by some who live on words and wit. But emotion can’t always be expressed in a cerebral way and maybe some days an explosion of pink daubs on a blank canvas says it all.”

The Saturday Writing Quote — on atmosphere

Conscious Creativity: Look, Connect, CreateThis month, I’m sharing some wisdom from Conscious Creativity: look, connect, create by British visual artist and actor Philippa Stanton (Leaping Hare Press, 2018).

Atmosphere is a key element in fiction as well as in visual art, music, and other forms. It is found, Stanton tells us, between the images, and in what our readers and viewers bring to the work.

Atmosphere “is full of something we feel, but at the same time absolutely nothing we can see. It is an essence. It is both something and nothing woven into time and place that can only be captured by feeling and suggestion. We ourselves complete an atmosphere. Atmosphere is about what your imagination is allowed to create beyond what you initially see.”

Murder on the Nile — The Continued Influence of Agatha Christie

Originally published March 5, 2017; reprinted today, in honor of Dame Agatha’s birthday, September 15, 1890. 

A few weeks ago, I was asked to introduce the Bigfork Community Players’ production of “Murder on the Nile,” Agatha Christie’s stage play based on her book, Death on the Nile. That got me thinking about Dame Agatha’s continued influence on readers and writers. The play is great fun—different from both book and movie—and it was a delight to be a part of the show for a night. My comments:

Thank you.

I’m Leslie Budewitz, author of the Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in a fictional version of Bigfork, and the Seattle Spice Shop mysteries.

When Karen Koler asked me to join the fun tonight, we chatted a bit about the play, and our amazement at how widely read – and watched – Agatha Christie remains today.

And that got me thinking about Agatha Christie and her continued influence on mystery writers and readers.

For many of us, her books were the gateway into adult literature. When we’d had enough of Nancy Drew, we gravitated naturally to Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and my favorites, Tommy and Tuppence. I still remember buying my first Agatha Christie, a paperback, in a dime store in Burlington IA when I was ten or twelve. With my own money. I read it by the pool and begged my mother to let me go back and buy more.

Agatha Christie was born in 1890 and died in 1976. She wrote 75 novels, not all of them mysteries, 100 short stories, more than a dozen plays – some based on her novels, and two autobiographies. She was also a prolific diarist. I’m pleased to have won two Agatha Awards, named for the great lady herself, for nonfiction and best first novel. The year I was nominated for Best Nonfiction, one of the other nominees was John Curran, a Brit who’s written two books looking at her secret notebooks, where she sketched out her plots and character ideas, and occasionally wrote the first drafts of her short stories. Her books are still bestsellers, and her plays still draw crowds.

Why?

Because she was first and foremost a tremendous storyteller. John Curran attributes that in part to her unconventional education. She also had a tremendous curiosity about the world. She traveled widely with her mother, with her first husband, an army officer, and with her second, an archaeologist. Those trips inspired several novels, including Murder on the Orient Express. Her trip to Egypt was no doubt the spark for her 1934 short story called “Death on the Nile,” featuring Parker Pyne, one of her lesser-known detectives. She then expanded it into the 1937 novel, featuring Hercule Poirot, and later adapted it for the stage as Murder on the Nile, making significant changes along the way.

She wrote what are typically called traditional or cozy mysteries, where a murder happens in a discrete, defined community, and has a deep ripple effect. The murder disrupts the community, and a surprise – even though one happens in every book. The murder must be solved not only for justice to prevail, but to restore the community, and help the individuals get their lives back on track – something we’ll see in this story.

She also created highly memorable detectives. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are instantly recognizable. They’re both intriguing, he for his experiences, and she for her astuteness despite her apparent lack of experience. That nosy village woman lurks in many of us, and she’s the inspiration for so many modern amateur sleuths, including my own.

Both Miss Marple and Poirot were typically outsiders, although Miss Marple did occasionally investigate an incident in her own village, St. Mary Mead, and that outsider status gave them the ability to see things and make connections others – including the police – couldn’t see. That’s very much an element of the modern traditional mystery, as is the counselor or sounding board role that each often played.

Some of her secondary characters feel like cliches now, but I think that’s the result of time and imitation. She did a brilliant job giving her minor characters the telling details that made them come alive. She also used our assumptions about certain types of characters against us, such as our belief in the innocence of a caring doctor or a devoted child.

We also love her intricate plots. She often recycled plots, or wrote variations of them, which the very prolific can do. The mystery writer Robert Barnard wrote that she could use the same trick a second time – and still fool us. She hid clues in plain sight, and she was a master of the red herring. In fact, we’ll see tonight how she used misdirection to make us think one thing while something entirely different was going on.

She was daring, as anyone who’s read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will remember, but I won’t say anything more, for those of you who haven’t read it yet.

I admire her ability to create a world. Tonight, we’ll feel ourselves part of the group on the cruise, and feel the friendships and tensions that develop. She had an uncanny eye and ear for the subtle conflicts between people, and as one writer friend pointed out, her subtle hints of inappropriate sexual obsession were way ahead of time. Morality is a recurring theme in her work.

She had wit. The same friend recalls her describing a character’s eyes as the color of “boiled gooseberries.” My friend had no idea what a gooseberry was, but the image totally painted a picture.

And she’s inspired modern day authors quite literally. There’s a mystery set a conference on Christie’s work, another hypothesizing that she wrote a long-lost play during her mysterious 1926 disappearance, and another involving a Golden Age of Mystery book club, structured like her novels. In my books, I use a Cast of Characters, as she often did, as a way to help readers remember who’s who, but also as another form of storytelling.

Dame Agatha remains popular because her stories still tell us something about human nature, and because they’re fun.

I’ll be in the lobby at intermission and after the show, chatting about mysteries – both Dame Agatha’s and my own. And I do have books and bookmarks available.

Thank you – and enjoy your trip down the Nile.

(Thanks to Art Taylor and his article in the Washington Independent Review of Books for the origins of “Murder on the Nile,” and to my friend Ellen Byron for sharing her memories and observations.)