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I started out my professional career with a red pencil in my hand at a law book publisher, working on stacks of galleys and page proofs. I had no knowledge of the law but an intuitive knowledge of proper grammar and spelling as well as a bit of an OCD compulsion. It was a winning combination.
Here’s an update on an editor’s favorites from Illustrator Grant Snider:
More stuff here…have a go…
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
– excerpted from Books I Wish I Wrote: On Writerly Jealousy, by Kaulie Lewis
St. Jerome and the Angel
Simon Vouet, oil on canvas, ca. 1622/1625
Do the work. The words will out.
– from Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
by Dani Shapiro
Isaac Asmiov explains in a memoir by his wife:
Homo sapiens alone of all the known objects in the universe can look forward to inevitable death; he alone can sigh for the might-have-beens. It is the penalty of humanity. Shall we accept the gifts of humanity; the consciousness of beauty; the exaltation of abstractions; the knowledge that makes gods of us; — and not accept the penalty, too?
To refuse the penalty is to refuse the gifts; to live in a false world of our own making is to deprive ourselves of the real world—and in the real world, with all its faults, has a grandeur and glory for which there is no substitute.
The chapter in the book this came from is “Imagination” – and to put this all in context, it comes from a section that discusses our telling of tales whether they be poetry, fiction, or nonfiction. That we are the only living species on this earth that can tell those tales since we are the only ones capable of the grief of the past and the dread of the future.
It’s a bit of a devil’s bargain – light doesn’t exist without dark, joy doesn’t exist without pain, love doesn’t exist without indifference. We need one to understand the other, to see the other.
This was brought home recently in a discussion among cancer patients and caregivers about diagnosis, treatment, and the long recovery, when someone asked “when can I be called a survivor?”.
The actual definition is that you’re a survivor at the moment of diagnosis. You have cancer. You’re still here.
But the question itself is much more complex since the diagnosis of cancer carries with it the deepest threat—and greatest dread—that we’ve ever felt. Because it is at the moment of diagnosis that we suddenly realize the most sudden and deepest grief of loss. The loss of what we have and what we might have in the future.
It is also in that moment, that we become human.
And as we become human, we become vulnerable.
And as we become vulnerable, we are open to all that is around us, both the light and the dark.
Some of us are changed physically more than others. Others face more physical difficulty post-treatment than others. But all are changed emotionally and are more aware not only of the difficulty of what we face, but the wonder of drawing breath and living in the moment.
The cancer patient that asks “when am I a survivor” is really asking “am I going to die”. With that question, comes the heavy burden of the grief of loss, but ultimately the sudden recognition of the preciousness of what we have. The future is important but we also become more demanding of the here and now.
No one can tell the future. No seer, no physician. But one thing for certain is that the sun will rise and the sun will set and in between is the grandeur of all that we have and all that we are capable of.
And all the tales that can be told…
[Book excerpt from Notes for a Memoir: On Isaac Asimov, Life, and Writing by Janet Jeppson Asimov…]
Only the Dead Know Brooklyn
Thomas C. Wolfe
“You come wit me,” I says. So when we gets onto duh train I says to him, “Where yuh goin’ out in Bensonhoist?” I says. “What numbeh are yuh lookin’ for?” I says. You know – I t’ought if he told me duh address I might be able to help him out.
“Oh,” he says, “I’m not lookin’ for no one. I don’t know no one out deh.”
“Then whatcha goin’ out deh for?” I says.
“Oh,” duh guy says, “I’m just goin’ out to see duh place,” he says. “I like duh sound of duh name – Bensonhoist, y’know – so I t’ought I’d go out an’ have a look at it.”
“Whatcha tryin’ t’hand me?” I says. “Whatcha tryin’ t’do – kid me?” You know, I t’ought duh guy was bein’ wise wit me.
“No,” he says. “I’m tellin’ yuh duh troot. I like to go out an’ take a look at places wit nice names like dat. I like to go out an’ look at all kinds of places,” he says.
“How’d yuh know deh was such a place,” I says, “if yuh neveh been deh befoeh?”
“Oh,” he says, “I got a map.”
“A map?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “I got a map dat tells me about all dese places. I take it wit me every time I come out heah,” he says.
And Jesus! Wit dat, he pulls it out of his pocket, an’ so help me, but he’s got it – he’s tellin’ duh troot – a big map of duh whole goddam place with all duh different pahts mahked out. You know – Canarsie an’ East Noo Yawk an’ Flatbush, Bensonhoist, Sout’ Brooklyn, duh Heights, Bay Ridge, Greenpernt – duh whole goddam layout, he’s got it right deh on duh map.
“You been to any of dose places?” I says.
“Sure,” he says. “I been to most of ‘em. I was down in Red Hook just last night,” he says.
“Jesus! Red Hook!” I says. “Whatcha do down deh?”
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I just walked aroun’. I went into a coupla places an’ had a drink,” he says, “but most of the time I just walked aroun’.”
“Just walked aroun’?” I says.
“Sure,” he says, “just lookin’ at t’ings, y’know.”
“Where’d yuh go?” I asts him.
“Oh,” he says, “I don’t know duh name of duh place, but I could find it on my map,” he says. “One time I was walkin’ across some big fields where deh ain’t no houses,” he says, “but I could see ships oveh deh all lighted up. Dey was loadin’. So I walks across duh fields,” he says, “to where duh ships are.”
“Sure,” I says, “I know where you was. You was down to duh Erie Basin.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I guess dat was it. Dey had some of dose big elevators an’ cranes an’ dey was loadin’ ships, an’ I could see some ships in drydock all lighted up, so I walks across duh fields to where dey are,” he says.
“Den what did yuh do?” I says.
“Oh,” he says, “nuttin’ much. I came on back across duh fields after a while an’ went into a coupla places an’ had a drink.”
“Didn’t nuttin’ happen while yuh was in dere?” I says.
“No,” he says. “Nuttin’ much. A coupla guys was drunk in one of duh places an’ started a fight, but dey bounced ‘em out,” he says, “an’ den one of duh guys stahted to come back again, but duh bartender gets his baseball bat out from under duh counteh, so duh guy goes on.”
“Jesus!” I said. “Red Hook!”
“Sure,” he says. “Dat’s where it was, all right.”
“Well, you keep outa deh,” I says. “You stay away from deh.”
“Why?” he says. “What’s wrong wit it?”
“Oh,” I says, “it’s a good place to stay away from, dat’s all. It’s a good place to keep out of.”
“Why?” he says. “Why is it?”
Jesus! Whatcha gonna do wit a guy as dumb as that! I saw it wasn’t no use to try to tell him nuttin’, he wouldn’t know what I was talkin’ about, so I just says to him, “Oh, nuttin’. Yuh might get lost down deh, dat’s all.”
“Lost?” he says. “No, I wouldn’t get lost. I got a map,” he says.
A map! Red Hook! Jesus!
[Short story originally published in The New Yorker,June 15, 1935…read it all over at the Southern Cross Review…]
From Flying Lessons, a short story in the collection, Stranger Things Happen by author Kelly Link:
June went to St. Andrews. She thought it would be pleasant to spend a day by the sea. The train was full and she sat next to a fat, freckled woman eating sandwiches, one after the other. June watched her mouth open and close, measuring out the swish and click of the train on the tracks like a metronome.
When the sandwiches were gone, the woman took out a hardcover book. There was a man and a woman on the cover, embracing, his face turned into her shoulder, her hair falling across her face. As if they were ashamed to be caught like this, half-naked before the eyes of strangers. Lily liked that sort of book. The name of the author was Rose Read.
It sounded like a conjuring name, an ingredient in a love spell, a made-up, let’s pretend name. Leaning over the woman’s speckled-egg arm, June looked at the photo on the back. Mile-long curlicued eyelashes, and a plump, secretive smile. Probably the author’s real name was Agnes Frumple; probably those eyelashes weren’t real, either. The woman saw June staring. “It’s called Arrows of Beauty. Quite good,” she said. “All about Helen of Troy, and it’s very well researched.”
“Really,” June said. She spent the next half an hour looking across the aisle, out of the opposite window. There were several Americans on the train, dressed in tourist plaids, their voices flat and bright and bored. June wondered if her honeymooners would come to this someday, traveling not out of love but boredom, shifting restlessly in their narrow seats. Are we there yet? Where are we?
Shortly before the train pulled into Leuchars station, the woman fell asleep. Arrows of Beauty dropped from her slack fingers, and slid down the incline of her lap. June caught it before it hit the floor. She got onto the station platform, the book tucked under her arm.
[h/t to Library Journal for the lead in…]
Just for fun – Hubspot’s opinion and flowchart on using that uppercase symbol:
…writers tend to get into trouble when we try to make punctuation do the job that words are supposed to do. Words are what we should use to get our readers excited about our content, not punctuation. That’s what language is for, after all.
The trouble is, words are hard work. Even professional writers struggle to find the right words when we want to persuade, to energize, to goad others into action. So it’s not too surprising that we often fall back on using punctuation to lend us a hand.
…exclamation marks are the biggest trap of them all. Overused all over the web, these hardworking little symbols are the smiley faces of the punctuation world. We rely on them far too heavily when what we really need to do is go back to our words and try to make them convey more precisely what we’re trying to say.
Don’t ask punctuation to do a word’s job, is what we’re saying.
Could’ve used a comma in that last sentence I think…
Here’s their handy little decision tree to help you along the writing road (click for larger):
I do use them from time to time…but much prefer the ellipsis myself…I make my own rules…
Machines will soon be doing our writing for us – and Evan Selinger lays out the plan:
If you’ve bought books or music on Amazon, watched a film on Netflix or even typed a text message, then these mind-reading machines may have steered you to that choice by making recommendations.
These algorithmic mind readers are now turning to a new task: anticipating what you’re going to type next. It’s autocorrect on steroids, and promises to shape our behaviour in unexpected ways.
Last year, Apple introduced what it described as the next stage in this technology: QuickType, which is supposed to predict “what you’re likely to say next. No matter whom you’re saying it to.” Apple is so pleased with the product it says the tool yields “perfect suggestions.”
…by encouraging us not to think too deeply about our words, predictive technology may subtly change how we interact with one another. As communication becomes less of an intentional act, we give others more algorithm and less of ourselves.
– excerpted from “Will Autocomplete Make You Too Predictable?”
Go read the article. We’re doomed…
by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman
When it comes to writing, the difference between a hobbyist and a professional isn’t really money. Instead, I’ve found the difference is more internal than external, an issue of priority and persistence and self-seriousness, all of which I also understand are things that can be difficult to maintain when the demands of work and family and laundry (always laundry) are pressing on you, and especially when it feels like nobody else believes in you. It would be a little disingenuous of me to imply that every acceptance I have received hasn’t acted as a kind of lifeline, a reason to keep going, or that they still don’t. They do, of course they do. But I guess what I’m saying, mostly to myself, but also to you and to anyone else who might be struggling with this, is that you don’t need a book deal for your commitment to your writing to be valid, you do not need a grant or a residency or an MFA. All of those things are nice, and by all means you should go after them, but I guess what I’m saying is that you do not need permission. You give yourself permission, one day at a time, you find the hours and protect them, you treat them as important and they become important, you treat your work as valid and it becomes valid.
I still think the day I became a writer was not the day I sold my book, nor the day I was accepted to a la-di-da program. It was probably the first time I set an alarm and actually got out of bed, when I went to the kitchen and ground the beans and poured the water, and most importantly when I told myself to sit down and get to work because this mattered.
photo via Sackett Street Writer’s Workshop