We’re Just Drawn That Way

 

Earlier this year, I decided to stretch my literary ligaments by reading books outside of my regular go-to genre. So it’s been novels instead of my usual steady diet of essay collections and literary memoirs.

I really enjoyed Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng.) I loved The Friend (Sigrid Nunez.) And I’m really enjoying Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. But I wanted to like Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng), Commonwealth (Ann Patchett) and City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert) more. I started two or three other novels that I just couldn’t finish.

All of which brings me to: We like what we like.

An eloquent essay elevates me.

A meaningful memoir mesmerizes me.

It all began for me in the early 90s when personal essays were showing up in women’s magazines, the Sunday papers and on public radio. It was the era of the New York Times Hers column. Later it was the Lives column. There was Anna Quindlen’s “Life in the Thirties” column and Marion Winik’s radio essays on NPR and then, Modern Love. The essays explored work, motherhood, family, relationships, life, death and health in layered and honest ways.

I moved from essays to memoirs: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions and Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club.These writers showed me how to make art from life with a willingness to go deep, choosing well-chosen words and metaphor. Then I discovered  Joan Didion, Jo Ann Beard, Brenda Miller, Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Roiphe, Abigail Thomas, Alison Bechdel and Dani Shapiro. There were male writers, too, of course: Jean Dominique-Bauby. David Sedaris. Brian Doyle. Phillip Lopate. James McBride. Darin Straus. Augusten Burroughs. Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But among the writers who wrote in all genres, what I leaned toward were the stories they wrote from their lives.

Friends – literary and otherwise – recommend, give or loan me their favorite fiction, insisting that I’ll love it. I do try them. If a writer doesn’t grab me in 50 pages, I simply have to move on. I have a life to lead. But rarely, if ever, did I fall in love with a novel like I have with a memoir or essay collection.

I take that back. I can think of one: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. It’s one of the rare books – novel or memoir – that I actually read twice.

It’s the job of a writer to take her reader by the head, hand or heart, I tell my writing students, to keep that reader engaged.

Too much to ask? Maybe.

But in this current attention-challenged climate, I think it’s even more important for writers to ensure that their readers get lost in their words.

I tend to like concise, thoughtful, spare and honest writing. Writing that’s funny and self-aware. I know there are plenty of novels and short story collections with these qualities. But for me, it’s more about the approach to the subject matter, the lens through which the writer is looking. I am pulled toward material that explores the psychological and the mysterious. Pieces that rely on curiosity about human nature with a hunger for insight and wisdom. Stories that invite the writer and reader to journey together to make meaning from them.

I’d like to think of myself as reader-curious. I often wish I was more genre-fluid. But I do think it’s worthwhile to be able to name the kind of work we like best. It tells us something about ourselves. For those of us who write, it’s valuable information that may help identify the form we want to explore with our own words.

Our choices are, after all, a miniature mirror. They are a small reflection of our authentic selves.

Whatever you are reading this summer, may it be full of exploration, escapism and self discovery.

 

Thinking ahead to Fall? Check out my selection of day and evenings workshops here.

 

 

 

 

On Not Writing. Part Three.

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 So I’m eight months into my year of not writing (see My Inhale Year and On Not Writing for the back story) and no surprise really: I’m reading more.

But what I didn’t expect is how much more deeply I’m taking writer’s words in. Without my own ongoing churning, there’s more space for concentration, as if I’ve put sound reduction headphones on and the voices, including my own, have been dialed down. There’s simply less noise.

Rather than freaking me out, I’m finding it rather liberating. I’m drinking the words in, swirling them around, allowing them to activate my tastebuds. Swallowing what tastes good and letting the rest go. I did, after all, designate this as my inhale year.

All of this ingesting has, however, made me more selective. It’s allowed me to take note of the writing I like best: work that stimulates my intellect, touches my heart or makes me laugh. I am identifying how my voice is similiar and different and what ingredients I might add or take away to access more of my own.

All in the hope that when I release them, my words will offer readers the tastiest version.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

Sensational Sentences, Part Three

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There’s nothing like being swallowed up in a writer’s words. When something we read has us nodding, shouting, “Amen,” or marking in the margins, a writer’s work has been done.

The reader has been moved.

But being moved doesn’t mean that we remember every single word. It’s the whole work that moves us, and moves each of us differently. If we’re lucky, we can recall a phrase. With a decent memory, we may remember an entire sentence.

When I read a student’s work-in-progress or a submission to Thread, I’m absorbing an enormous amount of stimuli: I’m hearing the writer’s voice, visualizing her scenes, feeling his sensory details, absorbing the language, emotion, pace and theme.

But what stops and suspends me, urging me to hang there for a moment, is one beautiful, true sentence. And that’s usually the moment I fall in love with the work, even a work still under construction.

There’s just no arguing with a sensational sentence.

To illustrate my point, I offer eight very different examples taken from the pages of Thread. Some are the very sentences that sold me on the piece. Some I came to love later. But each stand out in their own way, like each of us does as human beings, highlighting something thoughtful, funny or just, human, and beckoning you to read on, or perhaps, write one yourself.

It was just some dog, the victim of a hit-and-run, lying in the middle of the street on a humid summer night in Detroit, not yet dead, panting shallow gasps, no visible sign of injury except for the small pool of sticky blood below its snout.

From “Rescue,” by Tom McGohey (forthcoming Spring 2016)

During my travels across America, I’m always looking at other cities and asking, “Could we grow old together?”

From “I’m Not From Here,” by Eileen Dougharty (Summer 2015)

This counterfeit ski photo of me sitting dumbfounded on top of a grimy snowbank represented exactly where I was in life: Stuck on the Bunny Hill of a career that was on a slow downhill slide.

From “The Paper Trail” by Tom Wolferman (Spring 2015)

I wanted to write stunning poems and make my friend David, a classical guitarist with green, basset hound eyes, fall in love with me.

From “Should I Feel Anything Yet?” Ona Gritz (Fall 2015)

Others looked where he looked, not seeing what he saw.

From “Seaside Bohemia,” by Randy Osborne (Fall 2015)

It was also the summer my brown baby boy learned to battle the blue jays.

From “First Day of School,” by Gay Pasley (Fall 2015)

Imagine the nerve: My dealer had gone out of town without informing me beforehand.

From “Smoke Screen,” by Timothy Parfitt (Spring 2015)

All I wanted was Barbie’s Dream House and a decent set of Shabbat candle sticks.

From “A Piece of Sky,” by Jeremy Owens ( Summer 2015)
Want to read “Sensational Sentences,” parts one and two? Here is One and here is Two.

Sensational Sentences

What a Stitch! Sensational Sentences, Part Two

 

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2016.

Swaddled By the Words

Waterlogue

I just purchased a replacement hammock for the cord-frayed, bird-pooped one that we inadvertently left out all winter, then put it up and positioned myself into it.

Most summers, I get into it once, twice.

But this summer is already different. I can barely keep myself away from it. It’s an improved model – less scratchy and set up higher – and even has a little pocket to keep my cell phone handy. It’s my go-to spot for reading and it has been keeping me there longer.

While I was in it the other day with my book – covered by a light blanket for the cool breeze – my periodic jiggling prompted the hammock to sway just a little and I was overcome with an incredible feeling of serenity. Of being swaddled and read to at the same time. It was a very pleasing thought which may have come out of a memory. A muscle memory? A wish?

It was a reminder that reading, so pleasureable in and of itself, can be made all the more delightful when you are comfortable. It was a reminder that there is a physicality to reading, just as there is to writing. Where we are sitting, and on what, and how we are holding the book, the pages or sleek metal rectangular devices, matters.

I urge you to find a great reading spot this summer, for your reading and your writing. Stimulation, escape, inspiration are likely to swing out from that, from your spot in the sun or under the trees or lounging on that chair, supporting you in your efforts, literary and otherwise.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2014.