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.
“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.
While reading the New York Review of Books this morning, I found a piece called “Study the Panther!” by John Banville. It is a review of the book, “Letters to a Young Poet,” by Rainer Maria Rilke. In the review is this gem on writing from Rilke:
“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There’s only one way to proceed. Go inside yourself. Explore the reason that compels you to write; test whether it stretches its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if the opportunity to write were withheld from you. Above all, ask yourself at your most silent hour of night: must I write?”
Read a portion of “Study the Panther!” in the New York Review of Books [January 10, 2013] Here. A subscription is required to read the full piece. The New York Review of Books is highly recommended by Endpaper Review.
Image of Rainer Maria Rilke from newtravelingshoes.blogspot.com
by Dick Loftin.
For those of us who love words, the pleasure in books is immeasurable. What I particularly enjoy is reading about writing. Reading what writers have to say about their craft inspires me and makes me practically run to the typewriter [yes, I'm old school.] This leads us to quotes about writing and reading. There are books galore, and websites with thousands of quotes attributed to the writerly mind. One of history’s greatest writers has to be Thomas Jefferson. He is often quoted from his works, including his greatest, The Declaration of Independence. But a recent Wall Street Journal article shows that while he is often quoted, he is more often misquoted. Lovers of words and writing will find the piece very interesting as I did. I have added a link below. Enjoy. And you can quote me.
Read the piece from the Friday, December 7, 2012, Wall Street Journal, Here.
Image of the recently released biography “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power,” by Jon Meacham. Photo by Patricia Wall of the New York Times. The book was reviewed by Janet Maslin in the New York Times, November 20, 2012. Read the review Here.
“Many people love good bookstores, but writers? We completely lose our heads over them.”
- Richard Russo, in the introduction of ‘My Bookstore.’
by Dick Loftin.
After several months of some pretty heavy reading, including a big biography of John Cheever, I decided to read something a little lighter over the Christmas holiday. “My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop,” is perfect late in the year/winter holiday reading. The book is a collection of essays from writers telling about their favorite experiences in bookstores and how they influenced their reading life. I have just started the book, reading the first few pieces. It is extremely enjoyable, relaxing reading. Being a book lover, it is very easy to identify with the writers’ passion for books and reading. And how much joy can be found in simply looking around the shelves in bookstores.
Source Material and Information:
The ‘My Bookstore’ page from the publisher,Black Dog and Leventhal, Here. It also has a link to their Facebook page.
by Dick Loftin.
Did you ever get an idea for short story, and you let it pass because, well, you don’t write short stories? You’re a poet, an essayist, you’re a reviewer, a novelist. You don’t write short stories.
This is the Writing Trap. It is so easy to let a great idea for a poem slip away because we don’t see ourselves as poets. We write novels. Or, we let a great idea for a movie drift into the ether because we are not screenwriters. I think this is something important to remember: Don’t let an idea escape. It is good to experiment in other forms of writing. And that is the key; to be a writer, you have to write, so write any time something strikes. Turn the computer on, roll a piece of clean white paper in the typewriter and let it fly. See what happens. I wouldn’t call myself a short story writer, but I’ve written a few. I don’t know how good they are, they seem OK, but I wanted the exercise. I wanted the practice. I wanted to write. I wanted to get something on paper. When the poems do not come, when an essay or book review will simply not land on the page, write something else. Try another form of writing. You wouldn’t eat the same food over and over or drink the same drink, so why stick to one voice or form of writing?
Writing in its simplest form is the capturing of an idea. Ideas have no discipline and no rules. And sometimes, they have no manners. They can come at any time. In the shower, first thing after waking up, driving home from work, in the grocery store, at the gas pump. They come at awkward places and times because ideas live in the realm of the unexpected. The unplanned. They are not a routine event, they are ideas. Get the idea down on a piece of paper. If you don’t it cheats you as a writer, and it cheats the idea. Ideas are a blessing, a gift, a cure. Ideas are productive and helpful. They are building blocks. They are another chapter, another poem, another essay and could be the launching pad for the book you’ve been waiting on. There it is in the feather of the idea. An idea can change your life. It can turn you from wanting to be a writer into becoming one.
When the idea comes, pounce on it! Let it go. Let the words fly out of your fingers. Get as artsy or clumsy as you can be. Leave in the misspelled words, the bad punctuation, awkward sentences that do not make sense. Leave the words that don’t fit, the lines that don’t work, the idea that at first glance is just horrible. Leave it all in there. This is writing time. Write. Pound away. Let it go. Throw as many words down as you can. Shoot for 500 and then 1000, just get them down. The beauty of it all is whether you use a computer or a typewriter (I’ll use a typewriter for the first draft; I like the noise. A typewriter is noisy, like a factory, a word factory!) don’t think of writing as being hard, or having to be in the right mood, or whether it’s raining or sunny, or having writer’s block. That’s bunk. Think of it as being fun. It is, if you’ll let it. Toss out all of the old excuses. Just sit down and write. Writing is a joy, and when you get on a roll, when the words are coming to you faster than you can type them, when that wonderful moment of not being able to write enough comes to you, then you have struck gold. Then comes the sonic boom of words. This is the moment you started writing for in the first place. The high jump, the leap off the mountain, the sky dive, the joy. Of writing.