Monday, April 12, 2010

And Now It's Time For ... A Bit About Writing!

If you've read my book, you saw that coming, since two early chapters were "A Bit About NASCAR" and "A Bit About Buddhism." Anyway, doing book publicity seems to have revealed a nation full of aspiring writers. Even though this is my one and only book, on a weird topic, and not selling well, I still get asked for writing and publishing tips every time.

I don't have any publishing tips, I tell people, because the publishers came to me and asked me to write a book. That's certainly not going to be a common occurrence for most people. However, if your writing is (or could be) in the form of an essay, you definitely should take a tip from me.

As it happens, I knew a staffer at my local NPR station, but local radio people are not hard to meet. On the contrary, they're friendly, bright, and dying to find something new, wonderful, and compelling to put on the air. I gave my essay to my friend and asked if she thought it was good enough to record for NPR. She thought it was, and the rest is history. If your writing is good enough, your local station almost certainly has a program where local people talk for a few minutes about something that interests them. Ours is called "Civic Soapbox," but it can be about any topic you like. Make it compelling, and it will air, simple as that. My essay got uploaded to the national NPR chain and aired nationwide, but even if yours airs locally you can still go around saying that you have been a guest commentator on NPR, and that's pretty cool in itself.

I have three good pieces of advice about writing. Not a bit of it is originally mine. I blatantly stole it and now I'm fencing it to you. I have found virtually nothing in the whole industry of writing advice books that was useful, compared to these two essays and one simple quote. Follow these rules and you will probably never need any other advice at all.

The first is from George Orwell. My history professor, mentor, and friend Justus Doenecke handed this essay out the first day of class to all his students. It taught us not only how we were expected to write, but how we were expected to think -- with rigor and clarity.

Orwell lists only six succinct rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign word or jargon phrase where you can use an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules short of saying something outright barbarous.

This is great writing advice, but the real beauty of Orwell's essay is in his philosophy of language. I believe with him that as much as our thoughts shape our language, our language also shapes our thoughts. I agree with this unreservedly. If our language is habitually filled with "I can't," we come to think of ourselves as helpless. If it's filled with "I hate," then our thoughts turn to hate habitually even in new situations, and we think of the world as full of enemies and hateful things.

But for Orwell this extended most importantly to politics. If we use sloppy, lazy speech, our thoughts become sloppy and lazy. We become less able to cut through rhetoric to smell the bullshit underneath. And if our political thinking becomes sloppy and lazy, then our freedom is vulnerable. We risk becoming confused and seeking a way out of the confusion of jargon, rhetoric, and convoluted speech by flocking to a strongman with simple, violent slogans and simple, violent actions.

Here's the full Orwell essay, a magnificent piece of writing in itself and some of the best writing advice you will ever get: If there is nothing else you take away from the essay, at least take the idea that there is nothing so important as precision in language and thought. Language and thought are how we define the world, so precision matters.

The second piece of writing advice comes from my former employer (and another mentor and friend) Ralph Cohen, an English professor of over thirty years. Much of his advice follows Orwell, but as a guide to writing college papers especially, Ralph's advice can't be beat. He adds:

  1. Care about the paper you write. Imagine it in a book entitled The Works of [Your Name].
  2. Make the transitions between your sentences and your paragraphs clear and logical. This task is the most difficult in writing, but out of difficulty we find invention.
  3. Do not hedge. Words like "maybe," "perhaps," and "might" do not keep you from being wrong; they merely alert the reader to the fact that you are worried about it.
  4. Write about works of art in the present tense, since Hamlet will be stabbing Polonius and the asp will be nibbling on Cleopatra's breast long after your grandchildren have forgotten your name.
  5. Lose the word "very" from your written vocabulary, do not use "transition" or "impact" as verbs, and only use an exclamation mark after the happy face you scrawl on the bill you give diners.
  6. Never write more than required. Remember what Donne can say in a 14-line sonnet.

The full collection of Ralph's Rules is here. If you know him personally, the examples he gives about arrogant professors are all the funnier:

And the last, best piece of writing advice I've ever seen comes from W.H. Auden: have something to say. Perhaps this is ultimately the underlying idea of my comments on "small" fiction. The best technique in the world doesn't matter if you really don't have much to say, if you're writing just to be a writer, just to be famous or rich. The "large" fiction I like came from writers who had ideas burning their way out of the writers' pens. Keats wrote knowing that he was dying of tuberculosis. What he said had to matter, or he would have wasted his very limited time in saying it. NASCAR and Buddhism may not matter to many people, but they matter to me. So Auden's advice, which came as a comment to the students who packed his famous lectures on Shakespeare, is this:

People say, for example, "I want to write," though nothing ever gets
written. Why? First, they're mistaken about writing. They
aren't specific: they say they want to "be a writer," not that they want to
"write such and such." The eye is on the result, not on the process, and
behind that is a lack of passion and of the willingness to go through the hard
stages of training and study. You must be in love with your work, not your

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Bit About Reading

OMG, a new blog post! I know, I'm terribly inconsistent about updating this thing. I'll try to improve.

First, an update on Buddha on the Backstretch. Since my lecture in California at the end of January, I've done a couple of radio interviews about it and two public readings, one for a local writers' group and one for the Virginia Festival of the Book. The festival is a pretty big event, featuring nearly 150 public events, 200 authors, 33 publishers, and 20,000 total attendance. I read the essay at the back of the book, the one that became an NPR commentary, which the publisher heard, which led to him e-mailing me, which led to the book itself. It's called "How Dale Earnhardt Made Me a Better Buddhist," and I wrote it just after Earnhardt's 2001 death.

I was paired with two other sports writers, both far more veteran than I, including one who has authored or co-authored over sixty(!) books. After I read the essay, he said quietly, "I can see why an editor thought that needed to be a book -- that's something really special." That was deeply gratifying. I was also gratified (and surprised) that the bookstore where the event was held promptly sold all of the copies it had, and ever since, my Amazon sales have been plugging steadily along. It's still not exactly selling like hotcakes -- in fact, during the Q&A someone in the audience asked me, "Who's buying it, Buddhists or NASCAR fans?" and I said, "Honestly? Neither," which got a nice chuckle. But it looks like it does have good word of mouth -- the people who have read it are recommending it to others.

So that's where that stands. What was this blog about? Oh yeah, reading. The book's editor is a professor. When I spoke to his class, he emphasized that I had read over eighty books in six months for research -- and that while I was working full-time. Admittedly, that was kind of insane. I did nothing but work, eat, bathe, sleep, and read. I skipped weekend plans, stayed home from family events, stopped watching nearly all television (I saved three shows I knew I would actually miss, but cut everything else out), didn't go out to dinner ... nothing. I was a madwoman about reading three books a week, every week, nonstop, no exceptions.

That's over with now, but it let me know just how much I was capable of doing if I chose to buckle down and do it. So ever since then, I've held it in my mind that I'm capable of reading no less than a book a week, preferably two, and I'm aiming to do that consistently this year.

This all started a few years ago with a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:

"Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them
in; but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of
their contents."

Reading that stung me a little. I'd managed to build up a library of around 500 books, but an embarrassingly tiny number of them had actually been read. I determined the moment I read that quote to stop buying so many books and to start reading them. At the time, I had read about ten books in the previous year. At that rate, I realized, it would take fifty years to read just what I already owned, even if I purchased nothing for the next half-century!

Well, that was untenable, unsupportable, and outrageous, all the way around. Since my madwoman's peak would be 160 books a year, and even I'll admit that was a little crazy and exhausting, I decided that 50-100 books a year was quite achievable, and that starting this year, I would achieve it. [Obviously, I also achieved it two years ago, researching the book, and I knocked off quite a bit in 2009 -- more on that in a moment -- but I didn't count up last year's reading precisely.]

Last year, I decided to apply to grad school, and wound up doing another madwoman's feat. I planned to take the GRE Subject Test in English Literature. One problem: I never majored in English, or Literature, or any combination thereof. In fact, I took exactly one lit course in college. I was a history major instead.

No problem. I would simply read, in two months, four Norton Anthologies back to back. [To quote one lovely writer, I shall pause here to allow for reeling around and fainting.] If you remember your Norton from college, it was the 3,000-page brick in your backpack printed in teeny-weeny Eyestrain-o-Vision on onionskin paper. Undeterred in my apparent fit of temporary(?) insanity, I checked out the two-volume Norton Anthology of British Literature, the Anthology of World Masterpieces, and the Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 2. A grand total of over 11,000 pages of reading. Once again, I dropped all other projects, buckled down, and got it done. Two to three hundred pages a night, every night.

The upshot of this is that I think I might be pretty well qualified to make a few observations about reading. One, please do read the classics. My bout with the Nortons was quite often the first chance I'd had to read them (being a non-lit major after all). Once a book becomes a classic, we tend to think of it as "good for us," our "Vitamin L (as in literature)." We don't expect to like it.

But classics don't become classics because they're good for us. They become classics because they're a delight to read, the kind of book you finish and either start again or rush off to press it into the hands of your friends. I was swept away by so many of the classics. I never expected to love Milton's Paradise Lost, but I did. I loved Jonathan Swift's absurd but biting satire and Virginia Woolf's quietly fierce sisterhood. I loved everyone from Homer and Aeschylus to Hemingway and Margaret Atwood. I copied down whole chunks of Thomas Carlyle because I never wanted to forget it, along with Simone de Beauvoir and D.H. Lawrence.

Secondly, when you do read the classics, you realize how many allusions to them surround us. You might have vaguely known that something was a classical allusion, but it's a distinct pleasure to not only recognize it immediately but to savor the additional meaning that it gives to the work that alludes to it. The Simpsons is full of such allusions -- it's still a great show if you don't get them, but it's richer and deeper and often more poignant when you do. I'm currently reading Tristram Shandy, and it is a virtual encyclopedia of learning, so much so that it requires extensive footnotes to capture all of the references, allusions, jokes, and glances.

It's an observation only about my own reading that of my five hundred books, fewer than 20 of them (excluding Shakespeare, who is a category of his own with me) were fiction. I know I'm strange that way. I'm strange in many ways, but let's not digress...

Fiction usually makes me impatient. Somewhere in the course of the book, I'll say to myself, "These people don't exist! Why am I wasting hours on them?" It's the history training, but I find understanding more about the Titanic or the Holocaust or Reconstruction much more interesting than fiction. Histories are about how people reacted when pushed to the extremes of their lives -- what they did when war or death came to their doorstep or when they had lost everything. How they not only survived, but thrived. How they built the world I'm lucky enough to live in today. To me, that's compelling.

And I suppose that's a related issue of mine about fiction. I know I'm not alone here, because I've seen other critics say the same thing: fiction these days is so small. Mark Twain wrote to battle racism and stupidity, a David-versus-Goliath battle if there ever was one. Virginia Woolf wrote to be the "female Shakespeare." No setting small goals for herself there! Now, novels seem to all be essentially dressed-up romances -- dramas of the household, the tale of one family and its various problems. Well, I think Tolstoy is wrong when he says, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Too often, one modern novel about an unhappy family (or person) is exactly like another -- tiresome and self-indulgent. Or rather, Tolstoy may be right, but the books about them are not unique. And what do 5,000 novels about dysfunctional families give us? Virtually nothing of worth, nothing you can't get out of a self-help book, and nothing you probably can't observe on your own street. History, by definition, is large. Classics are always large. And I guess I like my fiction to be large.

That said, since tearing my way through the Norton Anthologies, which were mostly fiction that I loved, I have been reading more of it this year, although it's usually with an eye toward something I'm thinking about writing or an eye toward reading some classics that I missed. [By the way, the result of Mad Reading Scheme 2.0 was that despite being a non-lit major, I scored in the top ten percent on the Test of Literature in English, so I outscored 90% of presumed majors. Thanks, Norton!]

So far this year, I've read:

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson
Curse of the Narrows, Laura MacDonald (history)
The Other Side of the Night, Donald Butler (history)
A Fellow of Infinite Jest, Thomas Yoseloff (a biography of Laurence Sterne)
Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
The Bible, Karen Armstrong
The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
God's Problem, Bart Ehrman
Too Many to Mourn, James Mahar (history)
Hooked, Kaza (ed.) (Buddhism)
Awake, Dyia (ed.) (Buddhism)
No Time to Lose, Pema Chodron (Buddhism)

So far that's keeping me on track with my goal of reading 50-100 books this year. We'll see how grad school interferes with that plan. If I have the 50 knocked out by August, when school starts, maybe I'll just declare victory and dive into scholarly reading. Standouts on that list, by the way, are Curse of the Narrows, The Other Side of the Night, and No Time to Lose. I love reading Pema Chodron -- she's such a wise, warm, wonderful writer. The other two are both histories. The first is of the Halifax Explosion, which occurred when a munitions ship exploded in Halifax Harbor during World War I, and the other is about the night the Titanic sank and the two ships that were nearest to her and what they did -- and didn't -- do. All three are fantastic books that will stay with me for a long time. And that's really all I ask out of a good book.