by Dick Loftin.
Stephen King has sold over 300,000,000 books. Think about that number: 300,000,000. Astounding. So when a writer of his stature sits down and writes about his craft, it is wise, if you’re serious about your writing, to pay attention.
“On Writing,” is his book about his art, his craft, and his business. It was published in 2000, and he was working on it prior to his horrific 1999 accident, when he was struck and nearly killed by a man driving a blue van [The whole story is in the book in vivid detail.] It is also the book that – it could be said – brought him back to life, returning to finish it after he was able—and felt like—writing again: “The scariest moment is always just before you start,” he writes.
I enjoy reading and learning about writers and how their writing is done. What is it in us that makes us sit down at the computer, the typewriter, the notebook, and search for the words that bring about the poem, the story, the essay, the novel. The words are there—they are always there—we simply need to find them, and learning from the great craftsmen in the writing business, reading their interviews and books about how they write, can enlarge your vision and thinking about how to improve your own writing. It’s the ‘nuts and bolds’ of writing that I am most interested in.
Here are some gems from Stephen King, in “On Writing”:
Page 37: “Good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere,
sailing at you right out of the empty sky … Your job isn’t to
find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
Page 104: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
Page 131: “Writing is refined thinking.”
Page 145: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above
all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two
things that I’m aware of, no short cut.”
Page 147: “Reading is the creative center of the writer’s life.”
King reads whenever and wherever he can. Waiting rooms, check out lines, theatre lobbies. He says, “The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” I try to take advantage of commutes back and forth to work as ‘reading’ time, with a CD going in the car.
Page 152: King writes about volume, here. He writes about British novelist John Creasey, who has written 500 novels under 10 different names. He then writes of Harper Lee, who wrote only one book, “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A classic yes, but only one? King is puzzled by the slim output of some writers. He writes of other novelists who have written under five books: James Agee, Malcolm Lowry, Thomas Harris. He wonders what on earth they were doing during this time? Here’s the take away line for me: “If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”
As I said, I love the craft, the why, the how, of writing. I love the tools writers use, and where they write. I have a habit of buying a writer’s biography before I read one word of their work. I never read Richard Yates, John Cheever, or Robert Lowell before I read the biographies of their lives. I have never read any of Stephen King’s books before reading, “On Writing.” Now, I want to read King. This reverse approach works for me. I like to know the writer. I like to know how he writes, how and what he thinks about his craft, and it helps to know a little about his life. I feel like I know Stephen King now. When you get the opportunity to spend some time in the writing mind of someone like Stephen King—whether you read his books or not—it is time well spent.
Visit Stephen King’s website, Here.
There is a 10th Anniversary edition of On Writing, available on Amazon.com, Here.
I picked up my copy of On Writing in paperback at the Holland Hall Book Fair in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in February 2012. It was owned by a girl named Hannah. I know this because her name was on the front cover, the back of the front cover and on the top of the book on the pages. She only got as far as page 86. Too bad, Hannah. I paid one dollar for the book. In February 2013 at the book fair, I found it in hardcover for three dollars. Some of the best money I ever spent. This copy was clean–apparently it wasn’t owned by Hannah. You can read my post about the Holland Hall Book Fair in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Here.
by Dick Loftin.
Up until recently, I was seriously worried about the future of books. It seemed everyone was buy e-readers and the book as we know it was headed for certain doom, much like the vinyl 45 and LP. Not quite. Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, backed up by the rise of independent bookstores in a piece in the Writer’s Chronicle, support the book as we know it and love it–with covers and pages we can turn, dog-ear, highlight, and write our impressions in the margins. Books are here to stay according to “Don’t Burn Your Books–Print Is Here To Stay,” in the Wall Street Journal in its weekend edition of January 5-6, 2013.
I have been under the impression that everyone on earth had purchased an e-book. My wife bought one. I even bought one [but I barely use it]. The Journal piece says only 16% of Americans purchased an e-reader in 2012. And the article points out the strongest support for books vs. e-books: “The fact that an e-book can’t be sold or given away after it’s read also reduces the perceived value of the product!” This was my ah-ha! moment. People want to own things. The biggest problem with e-this and e-that, is you don’t own anything. You download it, there it is on your reader, but so what? There is no there, there. A book is a book. It is solid, with pages and binding and photos. You can touch and feel it. And when you read something in a book that is particularly moving, you can stop, take a moment, pull the book to your chest and explore the sensation of emotion that only books can bring. The book is right there with you. And when you’re done, you close the cover–maybe it creaks a little bit by this time–and you can put it on your shelf to rediscover again and again. The second time can be even more meaningful. Years later, you may find a passage you underlined, a section you high-lighted, a corner turned down, a marker inserted. Finding something you read that was important to you when you were 25, can mean quite a lot when you’re 55. This is the essence of a book. A book is a good, good friend that stays with you over the years and rejoices when you come back to visit it again. Try that with a thirty-year-old e-reader.
Books are truly making a comeback. In the May/Summer edition of The Writer’s Chronicle, in a piece called “Very Good News for Independent Booksellers,” the magazine says 2012 was the best year ever for independent booksellers. Apparently, karma works not only in life, but especially in the book business. The collapse of Borders and the on-going struggle of Barnes and Noble left tremendous holes in communities served by the corporate bookstores. Opportunity knocked for former managers and employees of Borders. While some of them found other jobs outside of the book business, others opened their own stores in the communities formerly served by stores like Borders. Sales are up and this is very good for books. People want to shop and support their own local book store. These independent stores are successful because the owners are smart book sellers, but I think the added ingredient of being book lovers makes for a better book store and a better shopping experience for customers. It makes all the difference in the world–the world of books.
Read “Don’t Burn Your Books–Print Is Here to Stay,” from the Wall Street Journal [January 5-6, 2013], Here.
Photo of the rows of books in ABC Books in Springfield, Mo., by Endpaper Review.
“You’ll never be alone with a poet in your pocket.”
– John Adams
By Dick Loftin.
I enjoy poetry. Some of my favorite poets are Billy Collins, John Updike, Langston Hughes and especially Robert Lowell, even though it took me decades to understand his work. But I hung in there. And maybe that is what is unique about poetry from any other form of writing. You have to give poetry time. Poetry is an “interior” form – give it enough time and it will get inside you.
I have tried to write poetry and many of the poems I have written read like I was “trying to write poetry.” I think good writing—the best, actually–has a way of dropping out of the sky. It kind of appears. Yes, you should work at it and set a time for it [if you ‘wait’ to be inspired, you may never be] but I do think some of the best writing “comes from the spirit,” as John Lennon once said.
After writing poems for a few years on a semi-regular basis [I would like to do a book someday – there’s always a book, isn’t there?] it is just in the last week where I thought I had written a poem that ‘appeared.’ One that arrived on the paper, legitimately as a poem. It wasn’t forced or ‘created,’ or even expected. It simply made itself known. It made itself alive. The best writing is ‘alive,’ isn’t it?
April is National Poetry Month. The one month out of the year when poetry is, or should be, at the top of everyone’s literary mind. Read some. Write some.
In the Wall Street Journal on April 1, 2013 [and I don’t think it was an April Fool’s joke], The Poetic Justice of April 1 was published. An interesting piece on the state of poetry by Joseph Epstein. Epstein seems to think that poetry is dead. Or dying. “When was the last time you bought a contemporary book of verse,” he asks? I bought some Billy Collins recently—a year or so back. And I picked up some Ogden Nash and some other poets at a book fair in February. But I don’t think he’s talking about me – or you. I think he’s talking about ‘them’ – the public. You know, those people with not-as-good taste in anything as you. Especially poetry. Absolutely poetry.
Epstein says poetry is finished: “This even though reams and reams of the stuff gets published, prizes awarded, poets laureate appointed to the resounding boredom of all but those who either write or teach poetry (usually one and the same people).” Harsh, I guess, but I have some theories.
I think many people do not buy poetry for one reason. The books are a lousy deal. Not the poems or the poets, but the next time you’re in the book store, check out the poetry section. The books are skinny little volumes, only about eighty pages or so—and they’re $18.00. Are you kidding me? Eighteen bucks for a book of under 100 pages. Sorry, I don’t care how good the poems are, that’s not a very good deal. And I’m not trying to be funny, it’s just that I think there needs to be more book there. Really, give me 200 pages. That’s fair for $18.00. Maybe $25.00 for hardcover. John Updike’s final book, a wonderful collection of poems, titled, Endpoint, is $25.00 for 96 pages in hardcover. Still kind of thin, but it was his last book and after all, it was Updike. I tend to shop for Collected volumes of poetry. There is more book there, and I like to get everything. I like to read the lines written from the poets very early years, say the 1940’s, 1950’s, up to the end of the collection, which could be fifty years later. I like to try to find the differences and the growth in the work. I enjoy reading Robert Lowell. His Life Studies [a great title, to begin with] was a book I read off and on from my mid-20’s onward. I am just now, over thirty years later, beginning to understand what Lowell was trying to say. I read Billy Collins because he is fun, interesting and easy to read. Langston Hughes has an unmatchable depth to his writing that goes right through me. His The Negro Speaks of Rivers, is a masterpiece. I bought Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems because it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1955, the year I was born. I admit that his poems are over my head. Maybe I should spend more time with them.
A poem I really like, one I just discovered, called, An Adventure, by Louise Gluck, was published just recently in the New Yorker [April 1, 2013]. It is a poem about the passages of life. I must be beginning to understand poetry, because I understood this one. Gluck’s most recent collection of poems is Poems 1962-2012. This is a collection I will probably buy because it meets my criteria for poetry. It’s a big book, just over 650 pages, and covers fifty years of poems—there is a lot to discover in a collection this big. I like that.
I think poetry is unlike any other kind of literature. I think poetry takes time. I think it requires a quiet place to read it and absolutely to write it. Poetry is demanding. Poetry will require a lot of its reader. It requires more of its writer. Poetry will sit you down when you want to run away. It will capture you and hold you still when you need it the most. Poetry is alive and it will speak to you, if you will only listen. Find a quiet spot and spend some time with a great mark of literature. Poetry.
Read An Adventure by Louise Gluck, from bookofjoe.com, Here.
Information about National Poetry Month, from poets.org, Here.
Read The Poetic Justice of April 1, by Joseph Epstein from the Wall Street Journal [April 1, 2013], Here.
Find some poetry on Amazon.com., Here, or better yet, visit your neighborhood bookstore.
by Dick Loftin.
Blake Bailey has quickly become one of my favorite writers. He has written compelling biographies of Richard Yates (a troubled guy, but seems to have been someone you could like) and John Cheever (a guy with so many issues, I wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him) and now he has written about Charles Jackson, a seemingly unlikely candidate for a book, but Bailey tends to go for interesting subjects with interesting lives and Jackson is a very interesting fellow. The new book is Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. Read a review of the book from the Wall Street Journal, Here. Next for Bailey will be the authorized biography of Philip Roth. Bailey’s books are intensely researched and well-written. By the end of each book, I felt as if I knew his subjects. This is what great biography should be. David McCullough said once that he doesn’t work on a book, he is working in it. Meaning, he is getting into the life of his subject and tries to walk in his subjects shoes. McCullough reads the books, visits the places and even eats the foods of his subjects. Bailey is very similar in that he digs and digs and digs, asking questions and letting the answers lead to more questions. This is where Bailey shines in his writing. He came to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2011 for a book signing. He is a very likable fellow, chatty and friendly. He signed my Yates and Cheever books.
I found Blake Bailey quite by accident. A Tragic Honesty, was on a table at Barnes and Noble and around the corner, a copy of Yates Collected Stories. I had never heard of Yates, but I’m attracted to the lives and stories of writers. With the book of Yates’s stories available too, I decided to buy them both. A Tragic Honesty is excellent and I became a fan of Blake Bailey.
A couple of pieces have appeared discussing Blake Bailey’s approach to writing, research and biography. Read the excellent 5 Writing Tips from Blake Bailey, from Publisher’s Weekly, Here. And from Reader’s Almanac, the Library of America blog, an interview with Bailey on the upcoming biography of Philip Roth. Read it Here. On March 29th, PBS will present Philip Roth Unmasked, part of their American Masters series. A link about the program is Here.
Image of Blake Bailey from BlakeBaileyOnline.com. Visit BlakeBaileyOnline, Here.
Read an excerpt of Bailey’s book on Charles Jackson, from Vanity Fair, Here.
Read my review of Blake Bailey’s, “Cheever: A Life,” Here.
by Dick Loftin.
There are few things I enjoy more than the book fair. One of the best is the Holland Hall Book Fair, held every year on the last Saturday of February. I make my annual pilgrimage to jostle among the equally excited book lovers and buyers, buying not just one or two books, but bags of books. It is just too easy. The books are moderately priced, few are more than five dollars, so if I come up on something that looks the least bit interesting–Six Existentialist Thinkers, by H.J. Blackman , for instance and for only a dollar–it goes right in my bag without a second thought. I may have set a record this year with 20 books purchased. Last year, I found Stephen Kings On Writing, in paperback for a couple of dollars. This year I found it in hardcover [always my preference] for three dollars. “Score!” I said to myself.
The beauty of the book fair is the unexpected–the books I have been looking for–to fill out my collection. There were two written by Robert F. Kennedy (To Seek A Newer World,  and The Enemy Within, ) and volumes of poetry by Ogden Nash and John Beecher. I had heard of Nash, of course, but Beecher was new to me. I put both volumes in my bag right away. So many of these books are long out of print and to find them at all–never mind in hardcover!–is a book lovers delight.
There is a personal, emotional aspect to the book fair. These books once belonged to someone. Poetry, essays, fiction, history, biography, every genre. They were in their personal library. They mattered. They were purchased years, decades ago, and they were loved. They were a part of their lives and now, most likely after they have passed on, are resting at a book fair in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But things are always better when they are handed down, and I know in buying these books they pass from one book lover’s hand to mine. And I will love them as much as they did. That, I promise to their former owners. Sometimes, the books will be inscribed, or notes will be left in the margins or somewhere else in the pages. I can’t bear to write on the pages of books myself, after years of reprimanding by my school teachers, but I enjoy discovering this marginalia in the books I buy. In the book of poems by Nash, on the inside was written, “From Amy, Mother’s Day, 1978.” Mother probably cherished the book from the moment it was given to her, and up to, most likely, the day she passed on. The book could have very well been discovered again by Amy while going through her mother’s things. She probably had a tearful moment. Or two.
After I bring them home, my wife amused by the great piles on the coffee table in the living room, I go through each one looking for something about them, a scrap of paper, a receipt, a book marker. I’ll reflect on the past owners of these books and appreciate that they are mine now.
This explains why I love books so much. They are so descriptive of our times, our tastes, the things we believe, the stories we enjoy, the life we have lived or wished to have lived. They are very much who we are.
So maybe the act of discarding the long held books of someone after they have loved them for so many years, in a noble, respected place like the book fair, sending them into the hands and lives of someone else who will love them just as much, and perhaps hand them down again one day, is a good thing. There were a lot of filled up bags at the Holland Hall Book Fair–and that is something to celebrate.
Learn more about Holland Hall School and the Holland Hall Book Fair, Here.
Tulsa World article on the Holland Hall Book Fair, Here.
Photo of the Holland Hall Book Fair on February 23, 2013 by Endpaper Review.
by Dick Loftin.
Bookish.com, is a new site backed by three publishers, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Group USA and Hachette Book Group. But don’t worry about falling under the influence of ‘Big Book.’ This is a site for book lovers.
On the home page, which announces, “We Know Books,” is a tempting piece: Elizabeth Gilbert takes on Philip Roth. Apparently, Mr. Roth has suggested to would be writers to “quit the ‘awful field’ of writing.” To which, I think, ‘Easy for you to say, Philip. You’ve already made your millions!’ I haven’t read it yet, but I’m already rooting Ms. Gilbert on.
Scrolling down, there is a search window. “It’s never been easier to find Books You Love.” I bite, and type in “John Adams.” The David McCullough biography of our second president is the example for biographical writing. I hit ‘enter’ and up pops six suggestions for books about Adams. Under “Subjects” at the top of the home page, I click and find “History and Politics.” Under “New and Noteworthy,” “Bookish on Books,” and “Featured Books,” recommendations are listed. A particularly helpful link is the “History and Politics Essentials.” Books on “World War II”, “Ancient and Classical History” and “Vietnam and Korea” are offered, considered “Essential” by Bookish. Click “World War II,” and on the left side of the page are books released from the last thirty, sixty and ninety days and books that are “Coming Soon.” Click the “Essentials” link (a different link from the link above) and a wealth of titles appear and you can read samples of the books you find interesting. If you want to buy a book, you can. Just click the link and online stores are offered, including Amazon, iBookstore, IndieBound, and Kobo, along with Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million. Quick and easy.
Bookish will be helpful when you want to find a great book to read or simply want to browse around in the book world. I searched “David McCullough,” and not only did the books he wrote come up, but books where he had made a contribution, being interviewed or wrote the forward. Here is where I became ‘sold’ on Bookish. We will be spending a lot of time together.
Visit Bookish, Here.
Read the Bookish article in the Wall Street Journal, Here.
Source: Bookish logo from their Facebook page.
By Dick Loftin.
It is somewhat of a miracle that this book even exists. Written from the more than one hundred year old diaries of her grandfather, Bryna Kranzler has captured an amazing story of survival, certain but somehow avoidable death, dire conditions of climate, hunger on the verge of starvation, all taken with humor and conviction.
Jacob Marateck’s story is of a difficult history. A Jew conscripted into the Russo-Japanese war of 1904, he avoids death three times, nearly freezes, witnesses the most horrible consequences of war imaginable, and somehow survives. All before he reaches the age of 25.
Entering the war, he begins a life of traveling from barge to train, loaded into boxcars like cattle, crowded decks, constant hunger, promised pay and food but receives neither. The ill treatment of the men, the filth and squalor they were forced to live in, they were treated more like prisoners than soldiers [Marateck would probably say they were prisoners].
Traveling in a caravan of 96 train cars, each packed with its cargo of men, with an enemy described as being small, barely human, with hands that resembled “paws for swinging in trees,” they may not have been considered so menacing. But Marateck and his fellow travelers soon discover the Japanese were a treacherous sort—determined and capable of being vicious, willing to fight to the very end without a blemish of hesitancy. They were fierce, relentless killers. Well trained and well equipped, they killed sixty-thousand men in one battle alone. A train full of food—intended for Marateck’s men—was blown up. Marateck and his men knew nothing about the train and its food, but somehow the Japanese knew.
Knowing the determination and will of their enemy, Marateck and his men, on the other hand, were commanded by extraordinary incompetence. In one march, their commander was reduced to asking the inhabitants of an area where they were, showing them their maps, seeking help in finding their location and its proximity to their destination. They had misplaced their battlefield.
When Marateck’s men were engaged in battle, the outcome could be of unspeakable grief and failure. In the book, Marateck describes one scene:
“I prayed for daylight, although that offered no guarantee that the shelling would stop. Suddenly my lieutenant screamed, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ and fell on top of me…. Unable to support his weight, I grew dizzy and, within a moment, found myself lying pinned to the bottom of the trench.”
Marateck, covered in blood, was checked by a comrade. It was all the lieutenant’s blood …
“The wounded man whimpered, ‘Mother, Mother!’ … Crawling on our bellies, we dragged our lieutenant toward the rear.”
After about an hour they find their way to a trench for cover …
“I struck a match to see how the lieutenant was doing. He was without a head, and probably had been for some time. Two of the soldiers began to cry.”
It was this scene in the book where I had to stop. I had to stop and ponder what war is. What it can do. What it can make of the men made to fight it, and how many of us never know what it is, what it can be and will never find out.
The impact of this book is extraordinary. It reads like fiction, but all of it is true. It happened. From the diaries of a man who took the time to write an impossible history, all true, exciting and devastating.
“The Accidental Anarchist,” is the winner of the International Book Award.
Wikipedia on the Russo-Japanese War, Here.
Bryna Kranzler’s website, Here.
Bryna Kranzler’s lecture on “The Art of Optimism,” presented in 2012, Here.
Happy New Year from Endpaper Review! May your 2013 be full of great reading and books!
Image from thebookcoop.wordpress.com. Photo taken by Kalyan Chakravarthy.