Category Archives: Reading Like a Writer

Reading the Times

WE’RE SITTING TIGHT here in Seattle, at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, while news of Boeing’s 737 Max crisis, the Democratic primaries, and the stock market’s volubility swirl around us.

How to stay calm in these stressful times? Curl up with a good book.

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From its first sentences, a good book opens a door into the story and you are welcomed in. Everything in the ‘real’ world – from big concerns, like global warming and homelessness, to the quotidian, like the dog’s teeth that need brushing, and piles of laundry, and unpulled weeds – everything fades away. You may find yourself with that other Laura, settling down to sleep in the loft of a Little House in the Big Woods, or howling with a wolf pup on a faraway mountainside, or summoning an owl messenger to Hogwarts with a certain boy wizard.

Stories give us a chance to live forward and backward in time; to inhabit other places, be they real or imagined. We can put on the skin of a dragon or a fox or another person. In stories, we can experience things that are way too scary or infuriating or heartbreaking to experience in real life. If, subsequently, our own lives serve up fear, or anger or heartbreak, sometimes it is a story that helps us through, offering information and comfort.

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The wonderful irony is that while a story can offer refuge from the ‘real’ world, it also has the amazing power to connect. We humans are story people. I wrote about the chemical reason for this in my last post.

When we share our stories – in both reading and writing – that connection leads naturally to empathy, an empathy that sends us back to the ‘real’ world refreshed for the challenges ahead. I like how Barrack Obama put it: “The thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories.” I hope other politicians know about this.

WE MADE A RUN to Costco Sunday and I can assure you that should we be quarantined because of the coronavirus, we have sufficient maple syrup, guacamole and toilet paper for the duration. More importantly, should the weight of the current news cycle become too heavy, the Seattle Public Library offers an escape to ebooks and audiobooks, all easily downloaded from the comfort of our isolation.

We’re up to the challenge, here, holding down the northwest corner of the map. But a little bibliotherapy may be necessary.

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The characters from Little Wolf’s First Howling, as featured in the Mazza calendar last year. Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the lovely colors.

 

 

 

 

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?

T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.

It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:

I never saw an abominable snowman
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping if I do
that it will be a wee one.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.

It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:

“How To Treat Elves”

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall–
‘Twas taller than himself!

“How do you do, little elf,” I said,
“And what do you do all day?”
“I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he,
“‘N scuttle about and play;”

“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when
A katydid I see,
‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he
Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!

“I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
‘N only jus’ to fwighten him
I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’

“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
‘Upsy-daisy-die!’

“‘N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
‘N what do you think of that?” said he.
I said, “It makes me sick.

“It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool.”
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

A Moving Target

For someone who doesn’t write fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. The basic problem is this: I don’t get it -that is, I don’t get how it’s done. Given all the things a novelist has to do – create a believable plot and believable characters, provide momentum so the story doesn’t sag, choose a point of view and make it consistent, determine a structure,  make the language compatible with the imagined audience, choose a significant setting, create dialogue that sounds real, avoid cliches, avoid coincidences, avoid sentimentality and melodrama, be modern, be unique – the possibility of so many elements being handled with dexterity by a single person takes my breath away.  It’s like watching someone juggle chain saws.

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Or maybe it’s more like watching a man who is really good at three-card monty. You swear you’ll stay focused and keep your eyes on the cards as they move around, you’ll figure out which card is the Ace of Hearts, and you’ll be able to point to it when asked. But every single time, you end up befuddled, pointing at the wrong card and then thinking, “Wow – nicely done. How did he do that?” Same question for a well-written novel.

Three-Card Monty

I go through phases of liking certain fictional elements more than others, which over the years has allowed me to like quite a few books where the juggling act wasn’t all that stellar. For example, I liked plot for a long time  – from kindergarten through sixth grade, with a sub-category tucked in at the end. The initial Plot Phase culminated in two lists (poets + lists = cream + sugar) where I checked off everything ever written by Marguerite Henry and Carolyn Keene. Good memories, and good (enough) books.

Marguerite Henry

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The sub-category of Plot Phase was Melodrama, a capital offense but unavoidable, since I  was, at that point, a teenager. What can you do when you become a teenager in the early 1960’s except re-read Gone with the Wind ten times? And cry when Lorna is shot and falls into the arms of John, her true love, in Lorna Doone?

Gone with the Wind

 

Lorna Doone

Next came the Read-What-You’re-Told-to-Read Phase – junior and senior years in high school, my first couple of years in college. Some brilliant fiction came along and knocked on my door at that point, but I wasn’t exactly at home. I was busy protesting the war in Vietnam and supporting the Third World Strike,  so I skimmed many classics, knowing I would come back to Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment after my friends and I had saved America from itself. We never managed to do that, but I did finally finish the Dostoevsky.

Books Before You Die

What I preferred during this fiction phase was a modern aesthetic – short sentences, clarity, an ironic tone.  Nuance and luscious language weren’t high on my list then, but I craved humor, social commentary, English as it’s really spoken, straight-forward structure.

I read Vonnegut…

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  …and Salinger

Salinger

…and more Vonnegut.

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Since then, I’ve gone through other phases – cared a lot about dialogue for awhile, found prose disruptive, so I read plays.  Found humor forced and happy endings unrealistic, chose to read only depressing and confusing books, alienating all my friends in my book discussion group who just wanted me to get over it. Went through a phase of believing too much in critical responses, so read quite a few prize-winning books I thought I should like but didn’t.

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When I went back to school and studied poetry, I wanted to hear poetic language in fiction, plot be damned. Continued to drive people in my book discussion group crazy by choosing plotless books with gorgeous sentences – lots to think about, but no adrenaline to make the heart race. Began to teach creative writing and found many students had so much trouble with plotting a story that all I wanted for several years were good plots, better plots and best plots. That is, traditional plots – the kind with a beginning and an end, with stuff happening in-between.

For a while I gave up on fiction and believed I couldn’t read it. Checked out a lot of non-fiction from the library. Found myself longing for a good story. Read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and its follow-up, A God in Ruins – got excited about fiction again. Entered a Structure Phase – wanted to take a book down to its studs, see the house plan used to construct it. If you’re a writer in addition to being a reader, you probably pay attention to this, have some curiosity about it running in the background no matter what you’re reading.

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Sarah Mithcell

Book Structure by British Artist Sarah Mitchell

This month it was my turn again to choose the book for our discussion group. I’d been keeping a list (another list!) of books I was interested in, and gradually I settled on one titled The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards. I hear the narrator has a unique, quirky voice, like an old-fashioned storyteller.  Voice was what I loved most about M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party. I feel a Voice Phase coming on.

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So here I am, still confused, still trying to figure out how it’s done, still trying to figure out the magic and the movement and to guess correctly which card is the Ace of Hearts. I understand my own standards for poetry (musicality, mystery) and my standards for non-fiction (interesting subject, graceful prose), but the standards by which I choose fiction and respond to fiction periodically shift. I don’t have a target with a clear bullseye, so my arrows keep straying. Actually, I should reverse the metaphor and name myself the target. The fiction I read keeps shooting its arrows, but I keep moving.

Archery