Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Just about any aspiring writer has at least heard of this book, which is probably referred to as often as Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft as an approachable, helpful text from which to learn. I’ve not read anything else by Anne Lamott, but in this book her sense of humor is inviting and infectious. She is honest and relates unattractive tales of her life that help show why she is the writer she has become. At times she gets a little preachy, but a brief glance at her other works shows that faith is a big part of who she is. So, if you accept the rule that writers must use their voice, not that of their favorite writers, then you must either accept her preachiness or just put the book down and move to the next item in the stack beside your bed.

I kept reading Lamott, and I was pleased I did. Published in 1995, Bird By Bird offers a classroom experience in creative writing –- regardless of whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Frankly, her advice isn’t earth shattering, and any writer should already have heard these tips a few hundred times. Still, the chief lesson I took from her was to allow your childhood vision to return and draw on it for your observations, which will inform your work. Be unafraid of what you say –- as you were when you were a child. Another helpful lesson is to accept that your first draft will be shitty and shouldn’t be seen by others. (From my experience, the second draft might be flushable too, and it’s probably best to not show anyone else that ugly thing floating around until it’s fertilized something beautiful.) And for you perfectionists out there, Get over yourselves! For most writers, such advice isn’t too hard to take, but it’s nice to know that a writer who has penned this articulate guide to effective writing practices what she preaches and has had her share of failures.

While I read Bird By Bird, I was reminded of John Irving’s The World According to Garp –- particularly the scene in which Garp discovers his mother has written about him in her book, which becomes a feminist manifesto. He becomes known as the “bastard son of Jenny Fields.” Lamott often talks about her son, Sam, and being a single mother. I wonder what this young man, who’s probably in his early twenties now, thinks of how he’s portrayed -– not that there’s anything wrong. Lamott also speaks about the death of her father, and the death of a close friend, which she has written about in earlier books. Indeed, her nonfiction is probably more successful than this fiction writer would like. But as the old saw prattles on: Write what you know. It’s not exactly how Lamott would say it, though. So find your way while I look further for mine.

Indeed, finding your way is the key. Persevere and know why you are writing. As Lamott says, if it’s just about making money, then you’ll likely be quite disappointed.

Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I’ve always been a Kurt Vonnegut fan, ever since I first read Cat's Cradle in high school; I re-read it last summer and fell in love with the characters once more. Monkey House is a collection of short stories, written in the 1950s and ‘60s. Many would be considered science fiction, and like most works of that era, are heavily influenced by the Cold War. Indeed, most of these stories are products of their time and might be lost on twenty-first century readers in their twenties. Those who’ve read Vonnegut before would recognize some familiar locations such as Wyandotte College and Ilium, N.Y. And the preface of the Dell paperback I read has a few pages from the writer, who gives autobiographical details, such as his former job as a publicist for General Electric, so even those new to Vonnegut will gain some understanding of who this man is.

I believe I read these short stories when I was in college, and I’d essentially forgotten the details of all but “Harrison Bergeron.” By decades, this work precedes the term “politically correct,” but it’s a biting satire of people’s well-intentioned desire for fairness. To make all people equal, the intelligent are handicapped with shocks and noise that distract their minds from deep thoughts. The beautiful are fashioned with masks, and ballerinas lumber on stage with weights. Harrison’s parents, George and Hazel, learn that their son Harrison has broken free from authorities, and as an announcement is being made, he crashes onto the stage, declares himself emperor, removes the mask of a lovely ballerina, and orders the musicians to play without their handicaps. Of course, such independent thought is not tolerated, and when the TV screen returns, George notices Hazel has been crying. She can’t remember why, and the sound of a riveting gun hammers any thoughts out of George’s head.

At the other extreme is the story “Adam,” in which Heinz Knechtmann has become a father. He is a sad sack of a man, a small, slightly hunched man who works in a dry-cleaning plant. A Jewish immigrant living on the South Side of Chicago, Knechtmann’s family was killed by the Nazis. He walks into a bar to toast the birth of his son, Peter Kroll Knechtmann -- named after notable relatives who've been lost -- and while the bartender and another new father join him in his toast, eventually the discussion turns to the White Sox. Though Heinz tolerates the American tendency to mispronounce his surname “Netman,” he seethes at their careless attitude toward life – especially new life. Frustrated, he almost acquiesces to anonymity, but when he finally rejoins his wife at the hospital, he is rejuvenated.

“The baby, Heinz--” She opened her dark eyes wide. “It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Heinz.

Vonnegut’s characters are what entrance me, and I enjoy the tone of his writing. At times cynical and sarcastic, his voice remains interesting from one story to the next.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

What I’m reading

Among my New Year’s resolutions was to read at least two books a month, which I’ve been able to accomplish pretty easily. With a week left in June, I’ve averaged about a book per week. I began Richard Adams’s Watership Down this morning, and I will start Ian McEwan’s Saturday on the train Monday (if not sooner).

However, I fear I’m not thinking enough about these novels, short stories, and works of nonfiction that I read on the train or in bed, or while taking care of bodily functions that otherwise leave me to sit and ponder. So, I’ve decided to create an appendage to my blog. Unlike my Coffee Cup, this blog will have a focus: Books and short stories -- my thoughts on what I’ve been reading: what I liked, what I disliked, what confused me. Assuming this blog will be as popular as the Coffee Cup (which perhaps one brother and a couple friends ever visit), I don’t expect much feedback from the general populace. But I encourage the occasional adventurer to comment, criticize, agree with, or disregard what I’ve said. Also, feel free to suggest other books I should read. Many of the books I’ve been reading lately are resurrected tomes from my college days –- things I’ve not looked at in more than a decade, and books I’ve forgotten I own. I also pick up random books at yard sales and keep the written words in a book shelf, awaiting my moment of discovery.

I’ll try to back fill some of the books I’ve read from the beginning of the year, though with 23 books already behind me – plus a half dozen short stories acquired from One Story –- I don’t know that I’ll get to everything from 2006.

Readers welcome.