Saturday, January 28, 2012

Authorly Habits

In the last few days before the publication of my first novel, I’ve been doing some thinking about how my life will change, now that I stand on tremulous legs, ready to hop the great divide from “unpublished writer” to “published author.” I really want to do it correctly, so I started poking around, seeing what I could find out about the habits of highly effective authors.

Capote claimed: “I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.” That sounds pretty good, although I do tend to nod off in the horizontal position, no matter what time of day. Oh, and until my kids get a bit older and can transport themselves to and from school, I’ll probably have to wait on the afternoon martinis. Lots of great writers hit the sauce, actually—Faulkner (mint juleps), Fitzgerald (gin), McCullers (hot tea & sherry). In my research, I found this book, in which you can find out the cocktail of choice for many of your favorite writers, and the recipe!

But I digress. I don’t have the tolerance yet. Once I had a margarita at lunch with a girlfriend and I had to take a nap afterwards. And I don’t get much writing done at night, usually, because there are several loud, shorter people who bounce around the halls here.

Nabokov used index cards when he wrote; Welty used straight pins to tack her stories into one long strip (I’ll bet she wasn’t a drinker because that probably wouldn’t work out, what with all those pins lying around). Really, the most common habit you find when researching famous writers is very unglamorous. Maybe it’s five hundred words a day, maybe it’s a strict six hours, but basically, they all sit down and write most days.

I'm more interested in lifestyle changes. What pretentious and self-satisfied things will I be able to do now? My husband’s an attorney and he gets to sign his name with a comma and “Esquire.” Can I now sign my son’s Social Studies test with “Mary Vensel White, Published Author?” Maybe a little flourish afterwards? When I write the check for the mortgage, can I add it there? Probably not.

Will people add the honorific as a prefix when they’re talking about me, you know, like they do with “Academy Award Winner?” Example: “I saw Published Author Mary Vensel White buying milk the other day.” Not likely.

At dinner parties, will I become the authority on certain topics? Grammar? Publishing? Tweed? Actually, I guess I’d rather not be asked too many questions when I’m trying to enjoy my dinner and (here we go again) drink(s).

My guess is that in as many ways that it will change things, many more will stay the same. They still expect me to do the laundry around here, and I’ll still write most every day.

A writer never has a vacation. For a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing – Eugene Ionesco

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Robertson Davies: Reading and Writing

I've been looking over this book today, a collection of two essays written by the Canadian writer Robertson Davies.  One essay talks about reading, the other addresses writing.  My edition is out of print and the two essays have been included in a later and more extensive publication titled The Merry Heart, a book I may have to put on my wish list.

In addition to writing novels, William Robertson Davies (1913-1995) was a playwright, critic, journalist, professor, and the founding Master of Massey College.  This accomplished man of letters was one of Canada's best-known and most popular authors and I'm sad to say aside from these two essays, I've read nothing of his work.  I do like the way he looks in the photo above, though, with his Hemingway-esqe beard and asymmetrical, bold face.

Sometimes it's very encouraging to read about other writer's experiences, especially if they are confident and wise, as Davies seems to me.  In his "Writing" essay, he offers this:

If somebody is truly a writer, he will find it out and he will understand that if there is any romance attached to the vocation, it is balanced by a number of unromantic circumstances, for the biographies of writers make it clear what a tough and enduring breed they are.

Makes you feel special on a Tuesday morning, doesn't it?

The essays were published in the early 90s, and although Davies hadn't experienced the rise of ebooks and the endless discussions of their impact, he was considering certain changes for readers and writers in the modern, technological age.  With a life spanning the twentieth century, he's a good source for opinions on this.

The visual imagination of the modern reader is much greater than that of his great-grandparents.  It is said, cynically but with a terrible ring of truth, that the modern film is made for viewers with the intellect of a twelve-year-old.  Emotionally and intellectually this may well be true, but the visual imagination of a twelve-year-old today is acute.  If something is happening in a city street, he does not need the street to be set before him, garbage can by garbage can.  He has seen all the city streets he needs on the large screen or the small one.

Twenty years later, for any current writer thinking about things like flash fiction and interrelated short stories, film's impact on books and even metafiction...well, Davies's insights on the craft of writing are still timely.  And if you're growing tired of the "Show Don't Tell" mantra, Davies has further encouragement:

When Henry James said "Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize," what, in fact, did he mean?... I think he meant, simply, that the writer must show what is happening; he must not describe it coldly, as might a bystander.  Things must happen to his characters... But as P.G. Wodehouse - a master of narrative art in quite a different milieu - once said, action in a plot is not simply a matter of the one-eyed Chinaman coming up through the trapdoor and shooting the butler on every page... great novels are psychological as well as physical in action...  To continue for a little longer with narrative, I want to stress my own conviction that it is vital to serious writing.

And so I may not get much done today besides thinking, as I look through this book written by a reader and a writer for other readers and writers.  I'd like to read some of his fiction.  Any suggestions from Canadians or others on which books to start with?

Friday, January 20, 2012


OK, so it wasn’t exactly a saga. The workmen showed up on time, finished promptly, and did a fabulous job.  And there were boxes to unpack, and so much to do that day (every day) that it wasn’t the tearful reunion I had imagined. I sort of thought I’d sit with a cup of tea, unwrapping beloved books and pressing them to my heart, or something like that. But it’s only been several days later, after the arranging and adjusting, that I’m finally starting to pause before the shelves and see what I’ve got. Because this is really an MVP line-up of books. Several years ago, I went through and gave away probably sixty percent of what I had then. I was beginning to realize that if I continued to keep any book I’d ever laid hands or eyes on, I would never have enough space for all of it. So now I keep books of fiction that I liked very much or loved, or ones I think I may want to refer back to. Same rules apply to other things:  non-fiction, history, religion, whatever. Everything else goes to the church book sale or the used bookstore.


It’s nice to have these books, my old friends, within reach. This morning I pulled this one down: 

I still think it’s one of the best titles ever, and this particular cover is especially evocative. It was nice to look at it again. I also re-read the opening of Plainsong by Kent Haruf, which is just marvelous. So simple, so immediately enveloping. There are books that remind me of certain times in my life, books that remind me of people I know. THE SHELVES are in, and my office is a little less quiet today. And there's plenty of room for more.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I get by with a little help...

I definitely benefit from the sagacity and patience of human friends, but I was really talking about…BOOKS. Because what writer doesn’t consider those cardboard-covered missives among their dearest advisors, a most trusted source of solace, entertainment, and yes—friendship!

This week I’m blogging about a small matter, but one that looms large for me. I’m having some SHELVES put in. We moved to our home just over a year ago and because this house does not have a separate office as the last one did, most of our books went into boxes, banished to the attic. Oh, how I have pined over them! How many times did I look to the meager shelf I do keep by my desk, to share a knowing glance with one of my friends, or even to lift him/her from the shelf and flip tenderly through the pages? How many times did I strain my mind for a quote, or wonder about that obscure book, you know, the one by the Australian writer, what was the name of it? And I would picture them, lined up fearfully in their dusty albeit cozy alcove, wondering when they’d see the light of day and of course, me.

Here is the wall, pre-shelved.  A perfect wall for bookshelves, the contractor said, while I nodded and felt ridiculously proud of myself.  (For those who think he said this out of pure salesmanship, I respond:  You weren’t there.  You didn’t hear the sincerity in his voice.)

I do have some books around, of course. The picture above shows one of several “staging areas” around our room, formed in anticipation of THE SHELVES. Mostly things I’ve read recently, reference books, things on the “to read” pile. Because there’s much to decide in terms of preparation for placement on THE SHELVES. Fiction in alphabetical order by author, of course, but Poetry by Religion or in with the Fiction? Philosophy with History or next to Religion (and thereby, close neighbor to Poetry)? Everything on its own shelf???

Installation date, next Tuesday. Stay tuned for more on this exciting process.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Gettin' all American

So I've just spent my first New Year's Eve in Times Square.  Here's what I wasn't expecting:  the crowds were very controlled, very penned-in, actually, quite sedate.  Not the crazy, boisterous enviroment I was expecting, acknowledging of course that we had the most anesthesized of experiences.  No waiting in lines, no true mingling with the masses.  Even so, the effect when we stepped out to catch Lady Gaga's performance (a peak, supposedly) was so contained, I couldn't help but think most parties I attended in youth were wilder than the "Times Square experience."  In earlier, less cautious times, I know things were different.

But at midnight, something shifted.  The countdown began and the confetti rained.  And everyone started singing.  "New York, New York" followed by "America the Beautiful," and then Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of "Over the Rainbow."  You know the one, with the distinctly Hawaiian sound, all ukelele and crooning voice.  Listen here.

All of it feeling like a smorgasbord, but an American smorgasbord, confetti falling, shiny and bright, the crowd softened like warm butter, everyone suddenly polite and helpful and grinning.  The sky a blackness obscured by bits of color, fluttering and twinkling to the pavement.  And at that moment, there was nowhere better to be than New York City, in the United States of America.  Really, the patriotism caught me quite by surprise (not something I'm particularly prone to), but it was a nice feeling.  What a spectacular city, I thought, what a wonderful place we call home. 

Happy 2012 to all; may you be happier this year more often than you're not.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka