When I travel, I often take a book on writing to dip in and out of — not a craft book, but something more personal and inspirational. For our trip to Switzerland and Italy, I decided to reread Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It came out in 1994 and my guess is I read it not long after, when I just beginning to write fiction. It was eye-opening to see how much of her advice has become articles of faith to me — did I first glean them from her, or do her suggestions resonate with me now because I’ve reached the same conclusions? Doesn’t matter. If you haven’t read it, or not in ages, I recommend it. It’s like having a smart, smart-mouthed, supportive older sister telling you what she knows, exactly when you need to hear it. I’ll be sharing a few of my favorite quotes over the next few weeks. For now, I want to say what strikes me the most — and this could be a reflection of my own stage and state of mind — is the importance of doing things that give you confidence, no matter what stage you’re at. It could be getting feedback on a WIP or a note from a reader, or simply knowing that you wrote a true sentence or signed up for a class or filled a page in your notebook with memories that you trust will feed the work.
More next week.
Friends, if you’re in the Flathead Valley, join me Tues, Oct 11, from 5:30 to 7:00 at the Bigfork Art & Cultural Center (in the Village, next to the library), for the launch of BLIND FAITH (written as Alicia Beckman) and a talk on the creative process.
When Peppermint Barked, my 6th Spice Shop mystery, came out a few weeks ago, the owner of the local kitchen shop asked me to come by, chat with customers, and sign books. She’s sold a lot of my books – in a town without a bookstore, authors have to look for other partners and outlets – and I was delighted to hang out in the shop for an hour or so on a summer Saturday
The shop sells a line of infused olive oils and vinegars, and when I wasn’t chatting with potential readers, I listened in as two of the saleswomen gave samples and talked up the flavors, how the products could be used, what combos went well with each other and with what dishes. I’m a foodie, so I ate it up. But what I really loved was the language – and that’s why I want to share this moment with you. The terminology or lingo our characters use, the passion they speak with, even the sounds of their voices as they slip into something they know well and love – that’s another tool for bringing them alive on the page.
Think about that the next time you’re out and about. Eavesdrop, make notes, listen to what people say and how they talk about what interests them, whether its plants or tools or pets, or oil and vinegar.
In my view, as a writer, lawyer, and former bookseller, there are no bad books*. Every book serves a purpose and should spark a conversation. The American Library Association has designated September 18-24, 2022 as National Banned Books Week. Learn more about challenges to books and advocacy from the ALA.
“Schools provide safe spaces to talk about controversial issues, and literature presents characters portraying human experience in all its richness and contradictoriness. Reading is a way to take in the difficult situations and understand them.”
— novelist Julia Alvarez
* There are some badly written books, of course, but that’s a different thing altogether!
“….I think the imagination is the single most useful tool humankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination… All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people…
“The minds of animals are a great, sacred, present mystery. I do think animals have languages, but they are entirely truthful languages. It seems that we are the only animals who can lie. We can think and say what is not so and never was so, or what has never been, yet might be. We can invent; we can suppose, we can imagine… “
~ Ursula. K. Le Guin (1929-2018) on imagination, from The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination
Although we are mainly writers here, you know I think we can learn a lot from artists in other fields. The singer-songwriter Kate Bush is known for taking risks, for never producing the same album twice, and pushing herself with each recording.
When asked about her willingness to take risks in art: “This is what art is all about, isn’t it? It’s a sense of moving away from boundaries that you can’t escape in real life.”
When asked about how she’s changed as an artist, she said, “The making of an album leads inevitably to big discovery. And I think that discovery is used best when it’s used on the next album. It’s all a big learning process. Each album is like starting from scratch, but from a new plateau.”
The historian David McCullough died this past week. He’s known for his presidential research and biographies, as well as other work. He saw history as the study of human life, including art, and I was particularly struck by this advice he gave:
“I paint all the time. I love it. And I highly recommend it for everyone. Get out there and paint. It’s good for the soul. But I also particularly stress to people who say they want to become writers, young people, take a course in drawing or painting because it helps you to learn to see, to look, and that’s what writing is often about.”
— historian David McCullough (1933-2022), in an interview with Jeffrey Brown of the PBS Newshour, aired Monday, Aug 8, as part of its coverage of his passing
“In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, I wrote, ‘How you feel in writing is how we will feel in reading.” To be vividly alive is to be open to everything: unrestrained, honest, brave, awake and aware.’ – Don Maass, literary agent and teacher, on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend The Emotional Craft of Fiction (2016), and all Maass’s books on the craft of writing.
Catch me this weekend at the Bigfork Art Festival, on Electric Avenue in the Village!