The Best of My Reading Year

“Lost my focus” “Couldn’t concentrate” “I read so little this year” and other similar laments repeated in my reading and writing circles in recent days as friends tally the number of books read in 2017 compared to previous years and goals are set for 2018.

 

I get it. The personal and the political conspired in 2017 to pull my attention away from that which is so precious to me: reading. But the good literary news is that the year was full of many gorgeous, unforgettable reads, even if the sum total of books completed was less than I would have liked. And here, in no particular order, are those that I most treasured and would press into your hands if I could (click on the titles to read my full Goodreads review):

 

FICTION

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (2015)

Time stops with each story in this collection. These are not easy reads and I needed a deep breath and some distance after each story. But Berlin’s is some of the most astonishing writing I have read. Ever. It pains me that it has taken so long for us to recognize her power and mastery, that she will never know how deeply she has affected this new generation of readers. But do yourself a favor. Make it a priority to read this collection- take all the time you need, dip in and out, but know that you will finish a different human being than when you started.

 

News of the World by Paulette Jiles (2016)

But this extraordinary novel is so much more than its plot. This is a story of two misfits at either end of their lives, brought together by happenstance and tragedy who bond during an epic journey through an unsettled land. It is novel of place and of a very particular point in history. It is a few years after the end of the Civil War, but hardly an era of peace. Captain Kidd brings with him news of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, granting black citizens of the United States the right to vote. Texas is still very much the Wild West, and Jiles captures the grit and heat, the awesome threats and beauty of this massive state.

 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)

The marvel of this novel is how we become so quickly and solidly attached to the protagonist of each chapter, even though we don’t remain in his or her life for long. And how agile Gyasi is in portraying each generation and location, despite dramatic shifts of culture and geography. The chapters set in West Africa are the most revelatory. I’ve read extensively of the evil and agony of pre-and post-antebellum racism and violence in the United States, as well as the disease of Jim Crow that followed emancipation. But to see the entangled roots of slave history in West Africa, revealed with such vivid storytelling, is astonishing.

 

The Accidental by Ali Smith (2005)

The Accidental shows the rusted and broken bits inside the moral compass of the Smarts, a bourgeois British family of four on summer holiday in a drab northern England town. Eve Smart is mid-list novelist and mother of 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. Michael Smart, husband and step-father, is a philandering professor of English. It becomes all to easy to detest the Smart mère et père, for they are eye-rollingly entitled and pretentious, but this novel is about the kids. And it is in their voices that Smith’s prose shines like a beacon.

 

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2017)

What a rich and complicated novel. I reeled with each page, cringing in horror at the Great Plains massacres and Civil War atrocities, astonished by the elegance of Barry’s prose, the fresh wonder of Thomas McNulty’s voice, the lovely matter-of-factness of taboo love and the shock of willing participation in America’s brutal expansion. Days Without Endis a work of staggering beauty.

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017)

It is the inevitability of migration that moved me the most. We have always been a world, a mass of humanity, on the move. From the very origin of our species, we have migrated. The notion that one part of the world belongs to one certain group of people and should be closed to others is as absurd as doors in gardens that suck people from Amsterdam and expel them in Rio de Janeiro. I inhaled this elegant, uncanny novel in all its prescient relevance and stunning imagination. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams (2017)

This is an extraordinary debut, written with a masterful sense of plot and pacing and a keen understanding of the thorny world of western intervention in the developing world. Her prose calls to mind the exquisite Francesca Marciano — another contemporary Western writer with personal experience in Africa — with its clarity, precision, and beauty.

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017)

Lidia’s prose is visceral and shocking and physical. She writes from the body as much as from the mind and the heart and you feel her words. As a reader I was stunned, horrified, aroused and broken. Whatever your expectations of this book, lay them aside. Just read and embrace the power of what fiction can do to tell the truth of the world.

 

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (2015)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH is a luminous portrait of friendship and grief, of the cruelty of youth and the resiliency of the human spirit. Younger readers will find solace in Zu’s determination and big heart; older readers will marvel at the sensitivity and deep truths of a finely-wrought narrative. This is an exquisite novel.

 

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry (2017)

This is a novel of tangled, rich love, both mannered and wild. Multiple hearts beat with loves unrequited and an aching pervades the pages, expressed in letters, in long glances, in touches to cinched waistlines and damp napes of the neck. Along with the palpable sense of dread that follows rumors of a winged beast is a sense of desperation and longing that may spin out of control at any moment: desire without fulfillment can be as dangerous as a legendary ichthyosaur. This is as lovely a novel as I have read in a long time, reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Sarah Waters. Sarah Perry is a breathtaking writer. Settle in and be prepared to be swept away on a wave of exquisite prose and storytelling. Highly recommended.

 

The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (2017)

Snow and ice, the forest, the silence, the hunters and hunted combine to give The Child Finder a sense that it is once-removed from reality, perhaps a relief for the reader even as the narrative dives deep into the horrors of child abuse and abduction. Denfeld calls upon her own childhood experiences, and that as a professional death penalty investigator and adoptive mother of three children. She lives in real time the sadness and desperation of the used and abandoned, and that reality lives in this frightening and yet ultimately uplifting and redemptive novel. A breathtaking combination of suspense, horror, love, darkness and light, The Child Finder is simply one of this year’s most compelling and astonishing reads. Brava, Rene.

 

NON-FICTION

 

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford (2003)
The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

 

Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature by Kathleen Dean Moore (2010)
This is a collection of essays and meditations that have appeared over the years in various publications, so they are loosely knit by the theme of finding redemption in the natural world. Moore’s style is poetic and thoughtful, gentle and open- in direct contrast with the often abrupt and heartless way that nature has of carrying on with the business of life and death. But each essay is intimate and poignant, full of gratitude and hope.

 

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)
I was married for nearly twenty-five years, years that were happy and full of adventure, but perhaps more heartbreak that we could withstand. I celebrate the beauty of what we had and the wisdom in the letting go. Dani Shapiro speaks of “the third thing” that unites couples, whether it’s a child, a Corgi, an avocation or hobby, and this idea resonated deeply. I had several “third things” with my ex-husband, but in my most recent, and recently-ended relationship, the third thing seemed to be a third rail of pain and codependency. Now, as I welcome a deep and gentle love, I have at last the third thing with a partner that I’ve been craving: art. The mutual understanding, celebration and commiseration of what it means to be an artist, whether it’s creating with paint or with pen, is such sweet relief.

Past Becomes Present: A Story Finds its Home

Those cooking magazines stacked on a shelf. I hold on to so little from my past that is tangible, but these long, glossy journals contain dreams and memories about which I cannot speak. I never look through them, and yet I take comfort in the pretty swirl of logo on their spines. They tell of a land where I once made Spicy Pumpkin, Peanut and Spring Onion Fritters, Harissa Lamb Mince, Black Cherry Cake with Ricotta Cream, savored wines from Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago, and pressed flat the corners of color-drenched articles about Waiheke Island, Hawke’s Bay, Akaroa, planning future explorations of our new home: New Zealand.

~

A photograph of three men on a bridge in southwest Ireland. Their waterproof jackets in primary red, blue, and green are playful beacons in a drizzle that softens the air so the photograph looks brushed with mist, like the picture of a dream. One of those men is gone, now.

~

A disaster I watched unfold from thousands of miles away. A city crumbling, streets liquefying, familiar buildings collapsing on themselves, as if dealt a sucker punch to their architectural sternum. The café where I had served slow-braised lamb shanks and poured glasses of pinot noir now in ruins, streets I had walked and biked to yoga, the library, the tea shop, the bookstore turned into canyons filled with rubble. But I no longer belonged to that place. There was nothing I could do but mourn.

~

“We write to exert power over something we can never control,” says Nellie Hermann, creative director of the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. “The past.”

~

The stories that live inside me are threads of evidence. Evidence of my past, real and imagined, remembered and wished for. Many of those threads dangle, barely visible unless the light shifts or the breeze picks them up. But sometimes a thread catches on a thought, and then another, until they weave themselves into a pattern, and that pattern becomes a narrative of character and place, of movement and change.

~

A stack of cooking magazines that hold regrets and broken dreams. A photograph of a moment that holds memories of a man who walked by my side on a green peninsula, where together we built a bistro in the misty air. An earthquake that shattered a place I’d called home. These threads found each other last summer, twirling into a rope I held as I wrote.

~

It is an honor when someone selects your story to share with the world. It is a thrill to press a beautiful volume of prose and poetry and art against your heart and know your words beat within its pages.

~

Mud Season Review, the literary journal of the Burlington Writers Workshop, selected my short story Prix Fixe for its first annual print issue. I am so pleased.

Peter, Randy and Brendan, Dingle Peninsula, June 2006
Peter, Randy and Brendan, Dingle Peninsula, June 2006

Mud Season Review Print Issue

Mud Season Review  Volume 1 May 2015
Mud Season Review Volume 1 May 2015

Of all the gin joints in all the towns…

Two years ago, I wrote a story based on someone who slipped in and out of my life in a matter of weeks, set in a place where my heart swelled, then shattered. The short story was published earlier this year and I was so pleased. But it’s an unfinished work. It is the foundation of an idea I’d considered developing into a novel, before I settled upon the tale I’m writing now. The characters knock around in my head, waiting. When the time is right I know they’ll still be there, ready to tell me what’s been happening since we last met.

 

Round about the same time my short story found its way to print, a slim and elegiac novel landed on bookshelves. It came to my attention over the summer and a few weeks ago I read it. I hadn’t heard of the author, but the novel had solid recommendations. The high praise is merited. It is an introspective, fragile story written in quiet but lyrical prose. It’s a book I’m glad to have read.

 

Except.

 

There is a French word which combines disappointment with a feeling of having been set up, somehow: déçu. I read this lovely novel and I said, “Je suis déçue.”

 

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

 

The similarities between the novel and my short story are striking. All the more so because the similarities are completely coincidental.

 

Which writer hasn’t heard the maxim, “There are only seven basic plots, but thousands of variations”? But I’m not just talking plot here. We each wrote a story with the same evocative setting, about a woman struggling in isolation who meets a vulnerable soul in need of rescue. The same kind of rescue, through the same means and bureaucracies and from the same sort of community. And in the distance stands another character, eager to help, if she’d only drop her defenses and let him in.

 

There’s a certain beautiful karma to the thought that perhaps we worked on our stories at the same time, that there are ideas, a place and themes big enough to carry us both in similar directions but which allow us to explore different emotions, interactions and outcomes.

 

But there’s a part of me that says,”Well, shit. Now what do I do?” Change the setting? No way, José. It’s as integral a part of the story as any of my characters. It is a character. And if I changed the story, well, that doesn’t work for obvious reasons. I feel deflated. Flattened.

 

Deçue.

 

And yet. The story I have written, the one that rattles around in my heart saying “Write more of me” is still mine to tell. As much as the other author owns the story that appears in the novel. Our stories may not be unique, but our voices are. I’ll admit, I’m relieved my short story was published before the novel appeared, so there can be no question that any similarities are coincidental should I ever take my plot and characters further. But I believe once I begin writing it again, something very different will emerge. I will, as Melissa Donovan advises (paraphrasing),“Forge ahead and believe in the story I want to tell.” 

 

Here are a couple of posts from great writers/writing coaches which help me keep perspective.

Melissa Donovan, Writing Forward: Are There Any Original Writing Ideas Left? (this is the post where I pulled the paraphrased quote above).

And because every writer keen on storycraft should read Chuck’s rockin’ blog

Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds 25 Things Writers Should Stop Doing

 

And thanks to Casablanca for having the best quotes at the right time.

Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand
Gore Bay, Cheviot, New Zealand

Twenty Words

As I grind through The Novel, with thousands of words behind me and just a few thousand more ahead, I am aching to write short fiction again. There is such challenge and satisfaction in crafting a complete story, with fully formed characters facing obstacles and arriving at some sort of resolution, in fewer than 10,000 or 5,000 or 1,000 words. Excuse the running metaphor, but short fiction is a speed workout that leaves you trembling with endorphins, legs wobbly from those fast-twitch muscle fibers that fired you through quarter-mile repeats instead of the measured slog of a long-distance run.

The fast-twitch fibers in my brain were reawakened during the workshop I attended yesterday during the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference: Flash nonfiction: Writing Memoir in 750 words or less led by the delightful Sayantani Dasgupta, a writer and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Idaho (Side Note for Grammar Geeks Fewer vs. Less – I’m straddling the fence here. Since we’re discussing word count, I’m sticking with fewer than, but I’m open to being persuaded in the direction of less if you can make a compelling “bulk” case. Oh my goodness, I heart Grammar!).

I am preparing myself for the emptiness I will feel when The Novel is complete. Not finished, mind you – months of revisions and multiple drafts undulate like an ocean before me; I’m already a little queasy at the thought – but the characters will have done their work and will either walk away forever or lie down to rest until their time comes ’round again. I’m braced for the “Now, what do I do?” feeling that will hit about the time the year turns away from autumn and hunches its head to the oncoming winter. So, I let my mind wander away from the Languedoc just a bit and feel around for new ideas. I return to jotting down those snippets of my life or overheard bits of others’ that become fodder for new tales to tell. My autumn/winter goal, to break up the tedium of editing editing editing, will be to complete several pieces – from flash to shorts and whatever is between.

In short fiction, each word carries great significance. This is true of all writing, of course, but there is the luxury of development and backstory in long form prose. Flash fiction in particular is a kissing cousin to poetry. Each word pops, stings, zings, shocks, compels, evokes, hearkens. There is a rhythm – a poetic flow – but also a tightness to the structure that makes it a complete art form, distinct, difficult and powerful.

To get us thinking about the power of words, Ms. Desgupta presented this writing prompt during yesterday’s workshop:

What if you were only allowed to use twenty words for the rest of your life? List these twenty words. How will you write a story of your life so far and of your vision of the future by weaving in and out of these twenty words?

In my tendency to overanalyze even the simplest of exercises, I wanted to make certain my words could convey multiple feelings, needs, desires, and experiences. These four came immediately to mind:

  • earth
  • fire
  • water
  • air

Then I thought of the things I do that make up the who I am:

  • write
  • run
  • read
  • wander

What I value most spilled out:

  • marriage
  • health
  • peace
  • present

Random things I cannot live without:

  • coffee
  • wine
  • vision (another one of those multiple meaning words, but suffice to say I’m epically near-sighted)
  • home

Words I would not want to give up, even though I could convey their meaning by pointing my finger:

  • I
  • You

And it struck me that I included these two words:

  • Fear
  • Fuck (this one appeared on several lists; I think we all need one good curse in our arsenal. This covers so much ground in four letters: perfection)

But I didn’t include Love. I reckon love is implicit in words 1 -18. 19 & 20, too, really.

Can I write the story of my life using only twenty words? I think I just did.

Which twenty words would tell the story of your life?

How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine
How many of my 20 words can you find in this photo? Chinese Gardens, Ft. Worden State Park © 2013 Julie Christine

Ten thousand words swarm around my head; Ten million more in books written beneath my bed*

Yesterday I penned  typed the final words of the final project of the writing program in which I’ve been engaged since late autumn 2010. From her studio in Salem, OR my writing mentor has assigned a dozen projects designed to build writing chops in someone who wrote her last piece of fiction when she was twelve. In eighteen months I have written, edited and revised thousands of words. A few thousand of those became six short stories, three of which I have submitted for publication. Two were published and one was short-listed for a national literary award. I need – must – do the slog work of getting the others off my hard drive and into an editor’s in-box. Many editors’ in-boxes. Rejection is an execrable and universal certainty of writing for publication. The form rejection letter is why God made the shredder.

But soon, after I receive feedback from this latest attempt, I will be on my own. No deadline, no direction, no word limit, no encouragement, no criticism. If I felt writing to be a solitary pursuit before, well, welcome to hanging in the wind.

I move forward with the unshakeable feeling that the small successes I’ve achieved thus far are cosmically laughable, that at some point my writing will gather dust and lurk in the corner next to my abandoned acoustic guitar. My stories will suffer from skills as short as my stubby fingers; like my “C” chord, they will almost – but not quite – make it.

What will keep me writing are the moments when I lose myself in the page, when the story takes over, when the characters wrench the outline from my hands, tear it into shreds and run off in their own direction and I can scarcely type fast enough to keep up. I write for the calm which comes over me, when I have no desire to eat, drink or move for an entire afternoon, yet when I finally rise from the chair to stretch, I am replete and relaxed. I write for the one true sentence (merci, E.H.) that may appear among hundreds of attempts, the sentence for which I can’t quite believe I was responsible when I read it later. I write because I have a loving partner who responds to my comments said in jest or dream about wanting to write full-time by catching my hand, looking me in the eye and saying, “I think you should, Julie.” I write because I’m afraid of what will become of me if I stop.

I know that really, I’m not alone. In the brief time I have explored my voice as a writer, I have discovered the heart of Seattle’s writing community: Richard Hugo House. The handful of Hugo workshops in which I’ve participated have inspired and terrified me. I have walked away from each with ideas, resources and a sense that I’m not entirely insane. Now that I am free from the obligations and pressures of my writing program, I can’t wait to enroll in a long-term Hugo House course. Twitter, of all places, is a community of infinite possibilities. I encounter writers every day and take part in weekly discussion groups with writers of all experience levels. This blog – these pages of rambling, navel-gazing drivel and book reviews – have brought kindred souls into my writing life. My writer’s to-do list includes next weekend’s Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, exploring the online courses offered by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the real-time workshops at Port Townsend’s The Writers’ Workshoppe.

I will regard this ending as a beginning. Whatever I write from this point forward I write for me, on the steam of my imagination and commitment to practice.The blank pages loom large. The feeling is delicious and disturbing.

*title credit to the brilliant songwriters and musicians The Avett Brothers and their song “Ten Thousand Words.” I end my post with additional, painfully fitting, lyrics from this song:

“Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different
We love to talk on things we don’t know about”

Just A Homework Assignment

I’m currently enrolled in an essay writing course taught by writer and journalist Amy Paturel. Our first assignment was to craft a profile of ourself as a writer. How’s that for a stretch of the imagination?

Profile of a Writer-in-Progress

I ran my tenth half-marathon three weeks ago.  I completed my first long-distance race in November 2003 and I have run at least one half-marathon every year since.

So yes, I run. But I stumble when calling myself a runner. Runners are sleek, long-legged creatures who speak of fartleks, negative splits, performance shoes, PR’s. Runners are “A” personality types who train to qualify for Boston, layout their gear the night before, and eat meals calibrated to maximize protein and carbohydrate loads.

Me? I’ve got ten pounds I can’t seem to outrun, no matter how fast I sprint on interval days. I’ve followed several Runner’s World training programs, but in all these years I’ve never broken out of the Intermediate Category. My running togs are crammed into a dresser drawer; early mornings find me cursing quietly as I sort out black shorts from dark blue shirts. I finally sprang for a fancy Garmin GPS sports watch a few months ago. Now I have an accurate-to-the-footfall accounting of how slow I am. Yes, I run. But I feel ridiculous saying “I am a runner.”

I was in my early thirties when I first felt compelled to cross a finish line. Yet,the desire to write has been in me since I could tie a pair of tennies on my own. I have wanted to write since 1975, when I read Louise M. Fitzhugh’s classic “Harriet the Spy,” at the age of six. But the intent faded over the years to a “Wouldn’t that be lovely?’ dream as I pursued graduate work and created a career developing study abroad programs. I traveled, I schmoozed in various ivory towers, I had articles published in Transitions Abroad, a chapter in a textbook, and I contributed to our department newsletters.

But that was work; it didn’t make me a writer. Writers attend Tuesday evening writer groups; they have bulletin boards covered in Post-Its that detail characters and plot threads; they have MFA’s, manuscripts, agents, and a folder full of rejection letters that prove the prodigiousness of their efforts.

Two years ago I stopped keeping a journal, a practice I had started in 1975, inspired by Harriet and her notebooks. After a year’s hiatus, I was aching to write. I wanted to be free from recording the minutiae of my day, yet be accountable to an audience. So last summer, I began this blog. I construct essays and book reviews and my reward is a writer’s rush such as I never experienced scribbling in my journal. It’s like a runner’s high. Even when it hurts, and I suck, and I’m injured, and it rains, and I’m just not in the mood, running feels ridiculously good. Similarly, once the page begins to fill with words, the literary endorphins flow.

I am a self-taught writer; my classroom is the endless library of fiction and non-fiction that I live to read. I can conjugate the past conditional of irregular ˆre verbs in French, but I can’t keep straight when, in English, to use a semi-colon or when a simple comma will do. I absorb the advice of the accomplished: Stephen King makes me think twice before employing an adverb; Natalie Goldberg fills me with guilt for not writing enough; William Faulkner compels me to murder my darlings; William Zinsser just scares the crap out of me.

Returning to the page in this blog has given me the courage to find my voice and to pursue fiction writing. I enrolled in a two-year, non-residency fiction writing program late last autumn. My writer-mentor critiques my assignments. I bask in or shrink with her feedback. I rewrite and carry on. I attend the occasional workshop at The Richard Hugo House, a writing center in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. I soak in the amazing writer juju and soothe my sense of inadequacy when we read our efforts aloud with the knowledge that I am taking essential risks. By risking, I will learn.

I find myself using the essay to mine my memory for inspiration. I search for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and to look for the smallest details that will spark my imagination and ignite a new story. Based on the work I have submitted as part of my writing program, I am now working on a series of short stories inspired by my experiences living in Appalachia, the Rockies, central Africa, France, Japan, and New Zealand. And I dream of a stone cottage in the Languedoc where I would write to the sound of goat bells in the garrigue.

My first short story – and I mean first, as in written and submitted – was published last month.Thirty-six years after a precocious eleven year-old from Manhattan’s Upper East Side – sporting black-rimmed spectacles, with a penchant for tomato sandwiches, and mentored by a Dostoevsky-quoting nanny – entered my life and inspired me to write, I have published my first story. Just don’t ask me to call myself a writer.

N.B. I am now four weeks into Amy’s essay writing course and preparing a couple of non-fiction pieces to submit to magazines in the coming months. The class been hugely beneficial – I highly recommend it – Amy is an amazing writer and teacher. And I’m keeping a journal again. 

 

Book Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

On Writing: A Memoir of the CraftOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

96.9 percent loved this. I may even knock it up to “It was amazing” as its treasure trove of advice sinks in.

Here’s the thing: Stephen King knows how to tell a story. From the early to late 80s- junior high through mid-university- I read nearly everything he’d written. His novels are the only of the horror-genre that I’ve read; it’s never been my cup of tea, either in print or film, but King’s writing is a cut above. He is the literary equivalent of Bruce Springsteen. I don’t own a Springsteen album, but when I hear one of his songs, from any era, I know I am hearing pure genius. Story-telling genius.

I believe King’s mainstream success has little to do with his ability to scare the bejesus out of his readers and everything to do with the emotional chords he twangs with his characters, his dialogue, his everyman dilemmas that arise from the most bizarre circumstances. As he counsels in On Writing, don’t worry about writing what you know, write what you love to read. So, King loves sci-fi and scary stuff. And he is able to write about with such astonishing skill that even the most avowed detractor of popular fiction is held captive by his pen.

This writing guide is divided in two parts. In the first, King takes you through his hard-scrabble childhood, focusing on the events that shaped him as a writer. I enjoyed the heck out of this. He recounts his past in a sweet, sad, funny, and completely natural voice. I didn’t know anything about his personal life, which included years as an alcoholic and coke addict.

Then he turns to offer practical writing advice, which can be summed up as: Read A LOT; Write A LOT; Create a space of your own; Blow up your television; Use the active voice; Limit adverbs; Watch out for dialogue attribution; and, above all, Write stories. Not plots. Not themes. Just Stories. King believes that if you have a good story, the rest – character development, plot, theme- will take care of itself. King presents his advice with such clarity and conviction that you believe it’s all possible.

I have to contrast this concise set of advice with another masterful work on the art of storytelling: Robert McKee’s Story. McKee’s guide is 466 pages. I took a couple of months to read Story and used a ream of post-its to mark the meaningful passages. McKee’s approach is the antithesis of King’s. He advocates careful plotting and sub-plotting, character studies, outlines, and a tried-and-true structure that respects the desires of the audience. True, McKee writes about the craft of scriptwriting, but his directives are relevant to literary stories, as well.

As different as these two approaches are- King’s organic, McKee’s structured- their bottom line is identical: Write stories that people want to read.

King loathes adverbs. This hits home because I am decidedly guilty (see!) of using adverbs copiously (see!!). I’ve just finished reading James Joyce’s The Dead, which is often cited as the best short story ever written (and lauded by King). Here is its last sentence:

“His soul swooned softly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Delicious irony. Well, to adverb or not to adverb? Only one way to find out…

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