The Writing Mentor I Never Met

This is an essay by Noelle Sterne.

Sorting some old files recently, I discovered a letter written to me in my late teens by a high school English teacher. She wasn’t my teacher, and it wasn’t my high school. But as I read Miss Jacobs’ letter, I was struck by the truism that we rarely credit, much less remember, those who influenced us most in our early years. With shock and awe, I realized how her words have continued to shape my writing and writing life.

I never met Miss Jacobs in person. The only time I saw her was at a Saturday conference for aspiring writers in New York City, which I learned about from a notice in my suburban high school newspaper.

Through the haze of years, I felt again the excitement as I took the train into the city. In a vast auditorium full of noise, I slid low in the seat, a mouse in the ocean. The panelists, four or five, sat high up on the stage, but I can picture only Miss Jacobs. She was middle-aged and motherly, portly in her flowered dress, with a round face and black-gray hair pulled back in a soft bun.

What the others spoke about I don’t know, and at this distance, even Miss Jacobs’ exact words escape me. But they were strong enough to make me respond, at the close of her talk, to her invitation.

In those days, I was a poet first and prose writer second. I was also in the torments of adolescence—woefully lagging in social skills and obvious physical attributes and intellectually ahead of my peers. Two longings warred constantly: acceptance into the right social circle and recognition of my talent.

I wrote at that time as much for comfort as from compulsion. A few teachers had commented on my writing, and my mother praised it always. But I craved professional validation of what I hugged as my anguished, budding genius. So I jumped at Miss Jacobs’ offer to send work to her.

I sent four of what I thought were my best poems. Even after so many years, her reply astounded me. To appraise my poems was one thing, but Miss Jacobs went way beyond this task. Her passion for teaching glowed, as did her drive to bolster an adolescent girl whose major preoccupations were unattainable popularity, paltry physical progress, and writing.

The Letter’s Structure

Miss Jacobs’ letter was long—two full 8½ by 11 pages, lines tightly handwritten. She used her high school letterhead for the first page and on both wrote out to all edges of the paper, front and back, even squeezing in careted afterthoughts.

Her gusto still blazed from the now-discolored pages, with frequent all-cap enunciations, many underlinings, and liberal exclamation points. And she sustained the delicate balance between unflinching assessment of my poems and encouragement, perfectly handling the eggshell ego of a sixteen-year-old who had mailed in her soul.

The Letter’s Wisdom

The letter revealed how seriously she took her mission. It was a masterful model of the outline form she must have taught to countless English classes. Each of the letter’s four parts had distinct purpose and content. Rereading, I stopped often, marveling at how from every part Miss Jacobs’ presence reverberated down the years.

1. Introduction and Writing Principles

First, Miss Jacobs thanked me for my “flattering letter.” She then referred to my probable confession that I could only write in turmoil, responding with two all-capped principles:

I. DO NOT WRITE UNTIL YOU HAVE PASSED THROUGH THE   TURMOIL AND ARE OVER IT!!!

II. The creator must remain apart from the thing he creates.

ART IS NOT LIFE. IT is a RE-CREATION OF LIFE!!

Back then, as a poet, I had no idea of poetic forms, and my “art,” I see now, consisted only of cathartic journaling. The catharsis kept spilling out even when I changed focus to prose. I wrote long essays and hardly disguised stories about my emotional blocks, writing struggles, and envious eruptions of anyone about my age who looked like they’d reach writing fame. Now I cringe even to think of these pieces, much less exhume them from dusty cartons.

Not long ago, as I sketched out a spiritual-motivational essay on the synchronicity of our lives, I began writing about those past travails. But having passed through the turmoils, as Miss Jacobs would have said, I saw I was no longer wallowing but narrating. Her principle held: I’d passed through and was re-creating. Much later, validating her dictum, I published this essay.

2. Critique of My Poems 

Next Miss Jacobs reviewed the four poems I’d sent. Two were pubescent love poems (too many crushes in high school), one a rhymed narrative of a hanging (too many TV westerns), and the last an alternately morose and sunny discourse on Life (typical adolescent seesaw).

She first commented on the poems as a whole, noticing their “emotional sincerity and a natural musical expression.” Even at this distance, her words buoyed me. In her overview of the poems, she had sharp words for three: “honest but uncontrolled emotionally,” “undisciplined poetically, too prosy,” “Put this away for a year!” For only one she had outright praise: “It’s young but mature in handling.” Then, referring to specific stanzas and lines, she pointed out flaws in rhymes and rhythms.

I recall feeling disappointed but not destroyed, cushioned by her approving words. To my chagrin, I never revised these poems or sent them out. But Miss Jacobs’ editorial lessons keep surfacing. Today, in my professional roles as writing coach and consultant for clients’ manuscripts, I comment on their strengths, give generalized and forthright assessments, and fortify them with specifics.

3. Indispensable Writing Tools

In the letter’s third part, Miss Jacobs recommended specific writing tools. She suggested I obtain a certain rhyming dictionary, a book on poetic forms, and a thesaurus, a tool that at the time I’d never heard of.

A true coach, Miss Jacobs supplied models and practical resources. I bought all three books and fell in love with that first thesaurus. Now, my online thesaurus is constantly open and my collection of print editions always within reach.

4. The Summary

As in any good piece of writing, Miss Jacobs ended her letter with a summary. As in any good critique, she ended with support:

Keep writing verse. Who knows, with your ability in prose (I refer to your good letter) you may one day do a novel. They say lyric writers often turn into novelists.

Keep reading verse.

Above all, have faith in yourself.

Without inflated praise or damning dismissal, Miss Jacobs achieved the ideal blend: she recapped my poems’ weaknesses, reiterated strengths I could accept, and expressed confidence that shored me up me to keep writing.

Miss Jacobs’ Influence

I kept writing—during personal upheavals, loss of parents, job and location changes, business crises, long depressions, and painful phases when all I could manage for a year was a self-pitying poem on my birthday.

Eventually, though, I gained momentum, finished pieces, and submitted them. When the inevitable rejections flooded in, Miss Jacobs’ shadow urged me on, and I counterattacked by sending out more. “Above all, have faith in yourself.”

In my consulting work too, I’m astonished at how often I’ve used her model of bolstering, directness, and tangible advice. Inside all of us, she knew, hide fragile sixteen-year-olds, feeling like ugly, witless failures and breathless to have our genius recognized. Miss Jacobs showed me how to judge without smashing the self and cheer on without dripping syrup.

And she keeps surfacing. After I’d published a story in a small magazine, the editor asked for my opinion on a story he’d written. Highly autobiographical, the story suffered from the emotional extravagance Miss Jacobs had swooped on in my poems.

When the editor and I looked at the story, without knowing it I echoed Miss Jacobs’ twin principles. “Art Is Not Life,” I said, and reminded him he had indeed come through the turmoils he recounted. So I suggested he write like a stranger, detached. Several weeks later, he sent a thankful and exuberant note. He had revised the story and mailed it out.

Miss Jacobs’ image appeared again last year. A friend confided she wanted to write a book but felt fearful and could “never find the time.” I advised her to write something, anything, for fifteen minutes a day. Then I verbalized Miss Jacobs’ words whispering in my head, “Keep writing, and believe in yourself and your work.”

A week later, my friend called. “The first chapter’s already finished!” Since then, she often reminds me, “I’m doing what you said—fifteen minutes a day and believing in myself.” At the last call, she proudly announced her book was almost completed. Miss Jacobs must have been beaming.

Finding Miss Jacobs

Thinking about these incidents, I felt impelled to reach Miss Jacobs. I called the New York City high school number on her letterhead. The receptionist said the high school had been converted into six different schools. She transferred me to the personnel office. The clerk said, “We don’t keep those records. Try the City Superintendent’s office.” He transferred me to the man in the Superintendent’s office, who said it wasn’t his area. He transferred me to the woman in charge of microfiche records.

She was empathetic but businesslike. “That’s a long time ago, but please hold.” Hope flared. She returned to the line, sounding sincere. “I’m sorry. If the records still exist that far back, they’re probably downtown in the vaults. I bet the mayor can’t even get into them.” She laughed, but I didn’t.

I called New York City information. Of the three numbers, one was unlisted. The people who answered the other two said they’d never taught high school nor had any of their relatives.

A computer wizard colleague produced a printout of phone numbers for the last twenty-five years, with the forty-four current ones in bold. I called most of them but the story was the same: no high school, no English teaching, no luck.

Talking to Miss Jacobs

I gave up. Sitting at my desk and staring at the letter, I yielded to the belated grief—for never having responded to Miss Jacobs, never having thanked her, never having followed up on the poems she gave such attention to. I sobbed for what she had confirmed: a muddled youth of potential with faintly displayed promise, and the beginnings of a stumbling writing career. I wept for the small spurts of adult success, despite cliché bestseller dreams, and for continuing to slog away, no matter how much time had passed, unconsciously following her counsel.

Then I prayed. I prayed that, wherever she was, Miss Jacobs could hear me. I prayed that other students had given her the praise she deserved and that their tributes compensated for my dereliction.

And I talked to her. I told her about uncovering her letter after all these years and the reverent shock of its insights. I told her how amazingly correct her prophecy had been that “lyric writers often turn into novelists,” and that several novels were indeed in the works.

I told her I live by her principles and relentlessly troll my thesaurus. I told her I’m writing more than ever: stories, essays, writing how-tos, three self-help books, tw novels, and barely managing the constant bursts of new ideas. And I told her how I help other writers, following her inspiriting refrain: “Keep writing . . . have faith in yourself.”

Celebrating Miss Jacobs

Like many teachers and mentors, Miss Jacobs will never know all she did, the values she helped mold, or the sustenance she gave to a languishing teen at a critical moment. She’ll never know that her caring and wisdom remained alive, like a steadfast background chorus, in a writer’s thorny development. I’ll never be able to tell her any of this, but now, at least, I can remember her, honor her, and continue to celebrate her through my writing and my life.

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Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction and has published over 250 pieces in print and online venues. She has contributed many guest blogs and in July 2012 started a column in Coffeehouse for Writers, “Bloom Where You’re Writing.” With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, for over 28 years Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations. Her latest project-in-progress helps doctoral candidates specifically, a practical-psychological-spiritual handbook: Grad U: Complete Your Dissertation—Finally—and Ease the Trip for Yourself and Everyone Who Has to Live With You. In her book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books), with examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life, she uses “practical spirituality” to help readers let go of regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com

Photo: Some rights reserved by Boston Public Library.

Setting: Study it Like a Writer So You Can Read for Meaning

Do you want to know my reading shortcut? I skim setting. Do you know the problem with shortcuts? They get you lost. But sometimes the description carries on and I just want to know what the character is going to do next. The reality is, though, knowing what a character’s going to do without knowing where he’s doing it is a waste of good reading time. Skimming setting is a bad habit to get into for a couple of reasons:

Setting = Character = Plot or at the very least Setting + Character = Plot (Formula taken from Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich)

I didn’t give setting enough credit until I thought about that formula. Everything that a character is and can be comes from setting. Where they were raised, how they interact with the world, what choices they make are all influenced by setting. Let’s look at one extreme example to make the point. In “To Build a Fire” by Jack London we hear the story of one man’s struggle with nature. Take away the setting, the frozen Yukon, and the story doesn’t exist. Granted, not all examples of a setting’s impact will be as extreme as London’s tale, but you’ll get more out of your reading if you take your time and read setting as slowly and carefully as you read anything else.

In novels, we often see how the character was born of a particular setting and how it influenced the individual. If we’re lucky enough to follow them from childhood to adulthood we may see subtle ways the places they grew up made the characters into real people. In short stories, we sometimes don’t have the luxury of an in depth backdrop, but we should at least see instances where the character interacts with the present setting and hints about what made the character the way he/she is.

So, what’s the difference between the two formulas? Part of a character may be individual genetic makeup. This is the old nature v. nurture debate. Characters may have something that makes them who they are that exists irregardless of setting, but even that is going to interact with setting to make a story. The second formula accounts for that. I think either formula is a good way to think about setting.

Setting is a Story Enhancer

In addition to providing a back drop for character development, setting makes the events more dramatic, more intense, and packs them with more emotional punch. If the Great Depression wasn’t the back drop of The Grapes of Wrath we’d wonder why the Joads were living the way they did. We’re immediately more sympathetic to them once we know their going through one of the great struggles in our nation’s history.

How does setting accomplish that? Let’s look at some questions you can ask about setting to understand how it works. All of these questions key us in to what the author might be trying to do with their description of setting.

Questions to Ask Yourself as You Read Setting

1. Is the setting real or imagined?

2. Is the setting the Antagonist? Are we dealing with a Man v. Setting style story like London’s “To Build a Fire?”

3. Is setting being used to set the mood?

4. Is setting being used to foreshadow an event of the story.

5. Is setting keeping us aligned with the time of day, why or why not?

6. Has the author used setting to tell us something about character?

7. Can you imagine the story set in another place? Would it work as well?

8. Are the choices the author made about setting realistic? Do they make sense?

9. Has the author gone overboard? Used too much or too little setting?

10. How does the choice of the setting effect the pace of the story?

11. How does the setting relate to the theme?

12. Can you look at the setting through the eyes of the character(s)?

13. Has the writer invoked all of your senses to create the setting?

It’s the overall effect of the answers to these questions that makes setting work.

An Example of Setting from The Pale King

Gabriel Sistare reminded me of this beautiful piece of setting from The Pale King the other day on her blog:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through them on the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the a.m. heat: shattercane, lamb’s‑quarter, cutgrass, sawbrier, nutgrass, jimsonweed, wild mint, dandelion, foxtail, muscadine, spinecabbage, goldenrod, creeping charlie, butter-print, nightshade, ragweed, wild oat, vetch, butcher grass, invaginate volunteer beans, all heads gently nodding in a morning breeze like a mother’s soft hand on your cheek.

Gabriel’s analysis of this paragraph is beautiful and you should read it, but I want to look at it in a little different way.

First, let me point out that these are all grains native to Illinois. You might or might not know that, but by the second page you know the story is about Illinois and all of a sudden you’re taken back to these grains. Just for fun, I entered the address of the Peoria Illinois IRS office on google maps and switched to satellite view. You can actually see the river and the trees and the fields that Wallace must have been thinking of when he wrote this paragraph. In this first paragraph, we know we’re in the agrarian heartland of America.

We also know from this paragraph that the characters will need to exhibit signs of being from that heartland. Not all must be completely swallowed by it, but some may be. In the above example of setting, on the very first page, in the very first paragraph Wallace decides he wants us to know where this story will take place. Authors as talented as Wallace don’t take decisions like that lightly. Your job, as a reader, is to try to figure out why the author did what he/she did and, then, whether those choices led to an impactful story. Studying setting is part of being an active reader.

Get Involved with Setting: Additional Resources

For some interesting exercises in exploring setting check out:

Infinite Atlas which is one man’s two year journey to plot the real life settings mentioned in Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

JoyceWays is an app designed by students from Boston College which has you walk the path Bloom walked in Ulysses by James Joyce.

What are your favorite examples of setting? How did setting impact the story you were reading or maybe even one you wrote?

The 6 Mistakes of Reading

This is an essay by T. Lloyd Reilly.

The great Roman Philosopher Cicero once postulated an idea that mankind, as a species, has historically made mistakes.  There were six specific mistakes and, after 2000 years still seem to be relevant.  He related the following six mistakes as the most heinous of behaviors:

  1. The delusion that individual advancement is made by crushing others.
  2. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.
  3. The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed.
  4. Refusing to set aside trivial preferences.
  5. Neglecting development and refinement of mind and not acquiring the habit of reading and study.
  6. Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.

After reading and contemplating these mistakes it came to me that we, as a species, make mistakes like these in our day to day lives and never consider the implications.  It has taken some time, but I find it relevant to adapt these mistakes of man to that world within our world where precious few consider the written word as, potentate, companion, and savior all balled up into one tight package.

The First Mistake of Reading

One of the more irksome mistakes society has made is the systematic devaluing of the art of reading.  In a world abounding with possibilities for fantastic opportunities we have surrendered to the images blasted at us through electronic medium and thereby making the first mistake of reading:

1.       The delusion that all there is to know can be received in the most simple of manners by simply turning on the television of surfing the Internet.  Anyone finding solace in anything other than these mediums is both misinformed and ignorant.

We all know people who keep paper libraries and refuse to have internet access or cable television. Most times, this realization elicits comments or thoughts about the relative intelligence of the person refusing to “Get with the times.”  We find it irksome to have to deal with people who are not as electronically enlightened as the rest of humanity.  We tend to negate their value to us, and find others of like ilk to ourselves.  I might remind those guilty of this kind of prejudice that Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and the Wright Brothers never had access to the Internet or cable television.  They owned, wrote, and read books.

The Second Mistake of Reading

2.       The insistence that an idea or dream is not possible to achieve without the resources the current world offers.

I have been approached, or applied to a number of companies that wanted me to write on a number of topics, and provide these articles/pieces in return for monetary gain.  With one of these companies I was tasked to write a critique of the remade film “True Grit” in comparison to the original film.  Written originally in novel form by Charles Portis in 1968 it is a classic western story about justice, determination, and ultimately the struggle between right and wrong.

The original film is heralded as the finest performance by the consummate American Western Hero, John Wayne (he won an Oscar for it).  Both films were fine examples of cinematography and excellent in delivery. The paper I was tasked to write turned out to be for a college sophomore who was taking a film appreciation class and did not have time to watch either the new version (on cable at the time) or search for the original.  He also did not have time to do his own homework.

What the young gentleman missed was the opportunity to know this work in any fashion.  I enjoyed both films, but the book trumped both films combined.  I did not pass this information on, and I have found it unethical to do someone’s homework for them.

What was impossible in this situation is that the young man insisted that he could not write a book report or a film critique without engaging an internet company to provide him with papers instead of allowing him the opportunity to feel the magic of the story told.

The Third Mistake of Reading

3.       The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed despite the evidence that education and hard work can elicit the needed change.

It is quite possible to get an education today without ever reading a book.  I know – I was a school teacher, and literacy coach.  There are many people in this world who do not read or write because of a number of reasons: learning disabilities, environment, or fear prevent them from realizing the full life that reading can give them.  They wish change but resist the tasks that would erase this worry.  This mistake keeps us in the dark and out of the light that reading can bring in our lives

The Fourth Mistake of Reading

4.       Refusing to set aside trivial preferences to read.

“Anti-intellectualism in American Life” by Richard Hofstadter a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner detailed the struggle that intellectuals face with the majority of the population.  People mostly want to be left alone and not have to engage in anything other than the day to day struggle/joy of life in our world today.  We do not want to give up the Sunday Football game because of the simplicity of the act of watching the ball game.  We want to armchair coach professional athletes and coaches, and boo them when they do not act appropriately by winning.  Maybe it might be different if they knew how much reading a Super Bowl winning quarterback has to read along the way to the big game.

The Fifth Mistake of Reading

5.       Neglecting development and refinement of mind and not acquiring the habit of reading and study.

I did not have to adapt this one.  Cicero said it most eloquently.

The Sixth Mistake of Reading

6.       Attempting to compel others to read as we do.

If you are reading this, than it is most probably not a chore to get you to read.  There is something to be said for jamming a book or idea down someone’s throat.  That something is…do not do it!!  Most of the problem I find in the field of reading is that it is something jammed down our throats and there is but one method to learning how to read and that is in school.

I personally learned how to read by the use of my cousin’s personal library.  My sister and I would spend nights at our Aunt Nancy’s house because my mother worked a graveyard shift.  As a young precocious child (AKA pain in the butt) I was never satisfied to sit quietly and always had to have something to do.  My cousin had a collection of comic books which he let me “read” and that kept me quiet.  I am proud of the start I received into the reading world.  I, unlike others using that medium, did not enjoy the pictures as much as the scribbling’s on the pages.  When told they were words, I wanted to know more and ended up teaching myself the ABC’s well enough to read the “Call of the Wild” by Jack London when I was four years old.

Others were not gifted in the same manner as I had been.  Getting my friends to read once I got old enough to go to school was an uphill battle.  Until, that is, I got a copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Dumas and read it to them.  Then everyone wanted to swordfight and get revenge on the teacher for giving them a bad grade.  When it came time to do a book report, everyone did the “Count of Monte Cristo” and would have gotten away with it but for the keen eye of the nun teaching the literature class.  She reassigned the class different books and told us there would be no more kidnapping or mysteriousdisappearances.  I got a C on the book report when I argued that I had originated the interest in the story.  I also got a rap across the knuckles for insubordination.

In conclusion, I find it an easier life if I have rules to follow.  John Donne wrote, “No man is an island” and this implies that if I want what is coming to me in this world. I should be aware of life’s consequences and rewards.  The consequence of not reading only serves to perpetrate the ideal I must read! Often!

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T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.

Photo: Some rights reserved by MetalPhoeniX.

Presidential Reading

I try to stay comprehensively apolitical on this site. I know we all come from different backgrounds and even different parts of the world. I don’t plan to change and join the fray in the political process here, but I was reading an article at 99u about President Obama’s productivity habits and that got me thinking about his reading habits.

What is the President Reading, or What Has he Read?

On April 18, 2010 President Obama was cited in the Washington Post as having read:

  • Joseph O’Neill’s post-Sept. 11 novel “Netherland,” which had recently won the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award; and

Probably the most convenient tool I found to track the President’s reading is a page Barnes and Noble compiled where they sell the books the President’s been reading. Handy.

Of course, not everyone agrees with Obama’s reading of fiction, or at least saw the opportunity to throw a sharp barb his way. Ann Coulter has specifically criticized the President for his fiction reading habit on Twitter. What do you think? Should a president read fiction?

On January 25, 2010, The Economist tapped into the President’s habit of reading magazines voraciously while talking with David Axelrod. The message is a bit self-serving since they mention their own magazine, but they do list a few others like the New Yorker.

On August 20, 2010, CBS News reported President Obama had been given an advance copy of Freedom, by Jonthan Franzen and bought some other books before a vacation. It’s less than clear from the article whether he found the time on vacation to finish them.

The same article included a photo of him leaving Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Martha’s Vineyard, too. I’ve never been there, but it’d be neat to visit now that I know it has supplied a president.

What Should the President be Reading?

Now, there are a few articles which have suggested what the president should be reading, and those may get a little political and I apologize in advance.

On July 3, 2012, Ross Douthat, writing for the NY Times suggested the following to President Obama:

  •  Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working”
  • Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America,” by Richard White; and
  • American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” by the sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell.

On August 14, 2012 the LA Times “the Times’ book staff asked writers, historians and cultural observers for their suggestions on books that could help Romney or Obama govern effectively over the next four years” and went on to recommend a slew of works including:

  • “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens
    What could be more appropriate for these two candidates during this time of class warfare than a story about the journey from the 99% to the 1% (and back) told by one of the greatest English novelists of all time? I think both the president and Romney could find a lot to relate to in the misadventures of Pip. President Obama could relate to Pip’s jump from nothing to master of the universe in no time at all. And Mitt Romney — well he can relate to being rich.
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
    Romney can view the ugliness of veiled racism and the importance of moral courage. Obama can note that dignity and class in the face of outrageous insult wins admiration — and maybe votes.
  • “Bulfinch’s Greek and Roman Mythology”
    A Harvard man who moved back with his parents, Bulfinch never married and became a bank clerk so he could focus on his true passion: giving the world classic tales of myth. The Greeks believed their kingdom was the actual center of the earth, and all other nations were only considered in relation to them. Their major and minor gods and goddesses have fantastic, fanatical confrontations with themselves and with humans over land and love, etc., etc. And reading — or rereading — these will help the candidates remember how unimaginative and neurotic these battles continue to be when self-absorption rules.

Not a bad set of recommendations for us all to consider.

Photographic Evidence of President Obama Reading

Finally, if you need photographic evidence of the President’s enthusiasm for books, you can see photos of him reading “Where the Wild Things Are.” I particularly liked the photos because that’s one of my favorite books of all time. I enjoyed the Dave Eggers adaptation, as well.

Historically, Presidents Read

I’m not historically inclined enough to know who first started the habit, but I do know Lincoln read and memorized large portions of the Leaves of Grass.

If you’re into audio you can listen to an interview with Presidential biographerEdmund Morris, about the reading habits of the 26th president (Theodore Roosevelt) and how an appreciation of fiction is a sign of a rich mind. While it’s not informative of Obama’s reading habits, it does give you an idea of the rich tradition of reading in the presidency.

One of the roles of the president is to to be a role model for the citizens. He attempts to influence the people, inside and outside of government. I’d say by the way the media follows his every move he’s in the public eye daily. Personally, I like to see a President engage with books on occasion. Not because I have a political agenda, but because I think reading is worth supporting.

What do you think? What should President Obama be reading? What has he read that I missed? Is he doing his part to spread the reading “bug?”

Photo: Some rights reserved by USDAgov.

How to Read Like a Writer: Five Easy Lessons

This is an essay by Erika Dreifus.

If you’re a writer—or want to be one—you must also be a reader. There’s ample support for that point of view. (Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe StephenKing. Or maybe one of these 14 reasons will persuade you.)

There’s a special quality to the reading that many writers do. It’s something that is perhaps best described as “reading like a writer.” The five resources that follow provide some background and tools to help better understand the term, and learn how, exactly, to practice it efficiently.

1. “How to Read Like a Writer”

College professor Mike Bunn states it simply in his chapter for Writing Spaces: “When you Read Like a Writer (RLW) you work to identify some of the choices the author made so that you can better understand how such choices might arise in your own writing. The idea is to carefully examine the things you read, looking at the writerly techniques in the text in order to decide if you might want to adopt similar (or the same) techniques in your own writing.” Download the chapter for further explanation and useful illustrations.

2. “Reading Like Writers”

Bunn’s chapter focuses on reading-as-a-writer on the college level. But it’s never too soon to learn these skills. “Reading Like Writers” is a chapter from Katie Wood Ray’s influential book, Wondrous Words, which focuses on teaching writing to younger students. But the lesson is similar: “Writing well involves learning to attend to the craft of writing, learning to do the sophisticated work of separating what it’s about from how it is written.” (Ray’s emphasis) Again, you can download the chapter for more explication and examples.

3. “10 Ways to Read Like a Writer”

If you’re in a hurry right now—no time to read one of the full chapters cited above—consult author and professor Crystal Wilkinson’s blog. There, Wilkinson has described a course she taught for the Indiana University Writers’ Conference titled “Gathering Magic: How to Read Like a Writer.” No, you won’t find all of the course material in the blog post. But as you read it, you will find Wilkinson’s list of “10 Ways to Read Like a Writer.” My favorites include the suggestion to quite literally “circle the verbs” so as to “follow the movement of the story” and to “dissect the writer’s attention to SCENE.” (Wilkinson’s emphasis.)

4. “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide to Annotations”

Annotations are a staple in several master of fine arts programs in creative writing, including the famed program at Warren Wilson College, which Peter Turchi directed for many years. On his website, Turchi provides a discussion adapted from a presentation given at Warren Wilson. Key to understand here: Written annotations compel the writer-who-is-reading to do more than simply think about how a piece of writing works. They require that writer to write about it. Turchi shows how to do so.

5. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them

By now, author Francine Prose’s 2006 book is something of a bible for those of us who are drawn to the idea and practice of reading like a writer. I can’t point you to the full text online, but I can direct you to my review of the book for The Writer magazine. A snippet: “Other writers and writing instructors may talk about ‘close reading,’ but Prose actually shows us how it’s done. Again and again, she provides excerpts from published work followed by her own analysis. She looks at words; she looks at sentences; she looks at the language within the dialogue. For Prose, these are the concepts that really matter. “[T]to talk about sentences,” she notes “is to have a conversation about something far more meaningful and personal to most authors than the questions they’re more often asked, such as, Do you have a work schedule? Do you have a computer? Where do you get your ideas?”

Meaningful and personal. Perfect words to describe the practice of reading like a writer.

What does “reading like a writer” mean to you? Which other resources do you recommend to help others develop this skill?

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Erika Dreifus (Ed.M., M.F.A., Ph.D.) lives in New York City, where she reads like the writer of fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews that she is. Erika is the author of Quiet Americans, which has been recognized as an American Library Association Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding Jewish literature. Follow her on Twitter @erikadreifus.

Photo: Some rights reserved by moriza.

In Defense of E-Books: Why Loving Your Kindle Doesn’t Make you a Paperback Killer

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

When it comes to e-books and e-book readers, too many people tend to extremes. At one extreme, loyal e-readers have abandoned all things paper for digital texts and sniff at the idea of purchasing a leather-bound classic for a few bucks (e-versions of classics are usually free). At the other end of the spectrum, members of the non-digital-reading-public often consider themselves traditionalists and eschew reading on a screen of any type, wrestling with unwieldy newspapers and stressing their wrists holding open massive tomes by Tolstoy and Joyce.

As a compulsive reader, myself, I will read pretty much anything, in whatever form or format I can get my hands on and see certain advantages and disadvantages to both of the afore-mentioned reading alternatives. So here’s a brief explanation of why you shouldn’t feel guilty if you routinely e-read, and why print books still warrant a time and place in all readers’ lives.

Electric experiences with the written word: e-books and e-book readers

There’s no arguing it, e-books are ideal for readers on the go. Instead of weighing down your handbag, backpack or carry-on luggage with paperbacks newspapers, and magazines, you now have the option of carrying an electronic device that crams thousands upon thousands of words into a package smaller than many paperbacks—not to mention lighter weight—trust me, your no-longer-aching reader’s back will thank you.

An added bonus is how easy it is to devour books on an e-reader. Unlike computer screens, most e-readers are designed to be easy on the eyes, and unlike your average newspaper, e-readers allow you to change the text to a size that you can decipher without reading glasses or a magnifying glass.

Besides, you know how with a standard paperback it’s difficult to turn the pages without losing your place or even just hold the book open except in the very middle of the book? This is a non-issue with an e-reader. Two of my favorite things about my kindle are not getting hand-cramps from holding the book open, and always opening the book to where I last left-off, no dog-earing or fancy facial-tissue bookmarks required.

Are you reading for work or for school or just so scholarly that you analyze everything you read, anyway? Taking notes with most e-readers is a snap. With a kindle, you electronically highlight the text you’re interested in, key in your notes and then access it online at Amazon.com, or Findings.com.

A con that might not be a con for other readers that don’t have serious self-control problems when it comes to books is how easy it is to buy the next book in a series, and how impossible it is to run out of things to read on an e-reader. Because when I’m dying to know what happens next, and I can get another book with a click of my finger, my finger gets a little trigger-happy, and then I’ve spent money and time I planned to use otherwise.

Another negative aspect of e-books is how many e-readers make it difficult or impossible to lend friends titles. For example, on Amazon, some of Janet Evanovich’s books can’t be loaned, and those that can be, can only be loaned once, for a set number of days. Which is a bummer when you want to share a book with a friend so that they can try out a new author at no risk before investing in a new book.

And while classic titles are usually free and there are sometimes really affordable sales on new titles, on an e-reader, there is no such thing as a second-hand book. Also, free titles (especially classics) are often poorly formatted for e-readers, and replace the maps and illustrations that enrich print versions with pages of unintelligible gibberish (failed html code, perhaps?).

Yet another inconvenience is that the device is electronic. So if you’re camping, scaling Everest, or have limited access to electricity for whatever reason, your kindle, nook, or whatever will eventually die, and you’ll be without reading material. And if you get it too hot, too cold, drop it from great heights or soak it in river water, you’ll be out the purchase price of an e-reader, which is typically much higher than that of a mass market paperback. Since e-readers are by definition electronic, that also means that during take-off and landing on an airplane when all electronic devices must be switched off, you can’t read (unless of course, you’ve brought back-up reading material).

Finally, basic black-and-white e-readers aren’t ideal for illustrated or photo books. But then there’s always the option of color e-readers like the Kindle Fire, and tablet computers like the iPad that do double duty as e-readers.

On Paperbacks, hardbacks, and printed media, oh my!

While they may not be glamorous, or fashionable, and rarely come with extra bells and whistles, there is something to be said for the simplicity and portability of traditional print media. Most of us can read a trashy paperback by the pool, get it wet, break the spine, or even leave it behind without any real economic remorse. Since the book was an affordable initial investment of $8ish, and you don’t have to keep it to read other books, it’s almost disposable. Also, if you’re traveling in places where petty theft is rampant, pickpockets and other ne’er-do-wells will likely leave your weathered copy of Nora Roberts’ “The Last Boyfriend” alone. An iPad, is another matter entirely.

Losing a paperback may be upsetting (especially if you haven’t finished it yet), but it’s not the same as losing an e-reader that will cost you $100 plus to replace, and had all of the other books you’re currently reading in it, too. So while paperbacks and print magazines are heavier, and less convenient, for some types of travel (safari, camping, hanging out on a busy public beach) they are ideal.

For some types of stories, print trumps digital every time. Good examples are the photo books that people keep on coffee tables. Yes, photo resolution on many tablets and monitors is as good or better than print, but looking at the large scale photographs in a book form that covers your entire lap is somehow more satisfying, don’t you agree? Ditto on art books, picture books, and illustrated editions of novels and literary classics. When it comes to recipe books, and DIY books, I could use my kindle, but I just want a physical book with big (huge) pictures to refer to that I can gum up with my sticky fingers without stressing overly much.

Besides, printed books never have to be charged or plugged in, or turned off on the plane.

At garage sales and thrift shops, I can usually pick up a recent paperback for pocket change and a beautiful leather-bound edition for $5 whereas on Amazon, e-versions of recent releases cost fractionally less than print editions.

Of course the disadvantages of printed books and texts abound as well. Paper is fragile, it rips and tears, and much like an e-reader, is not waterproof.  Paper bound into books is heavy, and will weigh your bags (and you) down. Beautiful leather-bound volumes sometimes have tiny, faded text that causes migraine headaches and premature crow’s feet (from squinting).

But books are books, no matter the medium

At any rate, both mediums offer certain pluses and pitfalls; the key is to use them to your advantage. E-readers are my preference for long trips and city breaks. If I’m camping, or hanging out by a pool, or lake, I prefer a less-expensive paperback or magazine. In my home, I like to use books as art and occasional furniture (a stack of books easily becomes a table). Beautiful old editions, children’s stories, and photo books are a great thing to drag out and bore dinner guests with.

What about you? Do you read exclusively on paper or on screen? Or do you mix it up? When do you prefer which medium, and why?

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Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at ChrisCiolli.com, read about her travels at Midwesternerabroad.com, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by goXunuReviews.

A Reader’s Guide to Irony

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

Irony, the art of saying one thing but meaning something else. There are times in our reading where we are active participants, and irony is one example. We search for truth undaunted by faux attempts to throw us off track. We are not dunces that take everything at face value. Irony is a writing tool that shows us just how engaged we are with the author in an exercise where we will come to a true understanding of what he wrote. His mind works on our mind toward some planned effect.

Robert A. Harris’ Take on Irony

According to Harris in Writing with Clarity and Style, irony “involves a statement whose hidden meaning is different from its surface or apparent meaning.” He goes on to say, “often, the ironic or implied meaning is the opposite of the literal meaning.” Another form of irony occurs when a statement reflects the opposite of what the reader might reasonably expect under the circumstances. Here’s an example from Harris’ book: “The food here is terrible, and the portions are so small.” Why do we care how small the portions are if the food is terrible? The writer has emphasized his point, simply because we’re asking that question.

Why Do Writers Use Irony?

The writer wants to take us on this ironic journey because in doing so he gets to make his point more forcefully. As readers, we want to be able to grasp the author’s true meaning, but we also want to be included in the crowd that gets the joke. Irony can be traced to Greek tragedy. In Greek tragedies, words or actions are clear to the audience or reader, but may be unknown to the character. In this way, the audience actually knows more about the scene than the character does.

The author emphasizes his point by making us work for a predetermined result. When we have that eureka moment, the moment when we see the through the surface meaning, we feel proud of ourselves and we’re more willing to accept the point the author’s made. We feel smart.

Why Do Readers Welcome the Deception?

This gap, between what the reader knows and what the character knows, or between what the author intends and what he actually wrote is where a discerning reader can shine. It’s where a reader can practice getting at meaning without taking everything at face value. Readers welcome challenges.

Irony is also welcome because it is entertaining. We feel as though we know more than a character or than a reader that takes things at face value. Irony is rarely bland writing and is often more akin to metaphor in that it is writing that says one thing but means another, although it reaches that dual meaning through a negative assertion and not a positive one.

The Dangers of Irony

1. It is dangerous to believe that all instances of hidden meaning will be obvious. With irony, the writer wants us to get the real meaning because he wants to emphasize his point. There will be times, however, when the author wants us to struggle with what he intends so that, in the struggle, we can ask ourselves questions we might not ever ask. One danger, therefore, is that we miss the irony because it was too subtle, too hidden.

2. Overuse of irony can result in over emphasis, like a book that has too much highlighted material. Overuse can also result in our senses being dulled to more subtle, more ambiguous writing tools. Irony makes us lazy and has us assume that all deception by the author will be laid out on a platter for our feasting. Some deception is not so intentional or so blatant and we must, as readers, keep our guard up for other kinds of mild deception as well.

3. David Foster Wallace once criticized irony, “entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing….[I]rony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.” Wallace saw irony as an exclusively destructive force that doesn’t offer an alternative, doesn’t bother to build anything up to stand in the place of the idea it criticized.

For examples of irony galore you can visit isitironic.com. They even give allow you to submit your own “ironic” situation to have it tested against an audience that will vote on whether you’ve found true irony.

Here’s one of my favorite examples from the site:  “Is it ironic that…if you have a phobia of longs words you have to tell people that you have Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia?” User votes rank this one as 91% ironic.

What are some examples of irony you’ve seen in your reading? Are you a fan of ironic writing?

Photo credit: By istolethetv.

From Unicorns and Pearl Earrings to Squashed Beetles: 6 Top Reads that Make Art History Exciting

This is an essay by Penny Tristram.

Aged about 20 I taught myself how to remember long strings of useless information. I became extremely annoying to certain friends on car trips as I would often challenge them to, and always win, the suitcase game. I didn’t have some kind of naturally amazing memory; rather, I’d just read an article on how memory champions remember long strings of words, that is, by creating highly memorable visualized connections between these unconnected words. For example, to remember the words “telephone” and “sausage” in sequence, I’d imagine trying to dial a telephone with a sausage.

But what has this got to do with art history?

Well, after reading Tracy Chevalier’s “The Lady and the Unicorn”, I was struck by how much knowledge about 16th century European tapestry making that I had suddenly and effortlessly retained. I had also learned how to creatively interpret a tapestry’s story in order to draw meaning from it. I was suddenly interested in medieval tapestries, which I had previously perceived as quite literally dry and dusty. This is because Chevalier is an expert at entwining historical fact with juicy, imagined fiction. In the course of a sensual historical romp that felt like it only took a few hours to read, I had learned some important basics in a great chapter in the history of art.

 Image: The Lady and the Unicorn: A mon seul desir (Musee de Cluny, Paris)

Source: Wikipedia.

Of course, The Lady and the Unicorn is a fiction, but Chevalier makes the distinctions between fact and imagination clear to us. So little is known about the actual provenance of the Unicorn Tapestries that the story and characters are largely fictional. However, descriptions of tapestry design and production processes are based in the historical fact that Chevalier has carefully researched, as are the fraught negotiations between client, artist, and craftsman.  More famously, Chevalier’s Girl with  Pearl Earring teaches us in a similar way, about the artist/patron relationship in 17th century Holland, and about how valuable  pigments, some as expensive by weight as precious metals, were painstakingly ground and mixed into paints by the artist and their assistant before a painting could even begin.

Colour me interested.

While we’re talking about pigments, the history of colour and the way it’s used in art is a fascinating one. We take an easily accessible proliferation of bright colours for granted now, but just a few hundred years ago such hues were reserved for only the very rich. Books like Victoria Finlay’s Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox (also titled Color: A Natural History of the Palette), show us why this is, and explain the individual stories behind each pigment, from lapis lazuli, which at one point in history was even more expensive than gold, to cochineal, a bright red made from crushed insects, which is still used nowadays, as a food dye. In a similar way to Chevalier, Finlay introduces us to this spectrum of knowledge via storytelling. Although it’s a set of factual recollections, the book is part adventure travel and part exploration of the art and science of colour.  Finlay travels through Afghanistan, hardly the most forgiving of destinations, to bring us the tale of lapis lazuli. A juicy read, Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox, which I first read around 8 years ago, remains one of my favourite books.

 

Image: Cover of “Colour: travels through the paintbox” by Victoria Finlay

Copyright: Sceptre Publishing

In “Bright Earth, The Invention of Colour” Philip Ball goes even further into colour’s inevitable influence on the history of art. For anyone with a little knowledge of European art, the book is extremely compelling, with lots of exciting factoids. If you’re new to the topic, however, it may not be the best read to start with.  This is because it references probably hundreds of artworks, and without the visual memory to bring the facts to life, the information is going to be somewhat dry. I recommend two of Chevalier’s books (The Lady and the Unicorn, and Girl with  a Pearl Earring, discussed earlier) to the someone new to art history, as they deal with just one artwork each, which is illustrated in the printed editions. “A Perfect Red” by Amy Butler Greenfield continues the colour history theme, but returns us to the format of the historical tale. A Perfect Red is not a fiction, but rather a weaving together of strands of the story of how Europeans sought conquest over the knowledge of production of cochineal – the aforementioned crushed bug pigment. It was, in comparison to the dull plant dyes available in Europe in the 1500s, “a perfect red”.

Sticking with narrative but bringing us much closer to the current day, “Life with Picasso” is an autobiography by painter Francoise Gilot. She was Picasso’s partner for 13 years, and mother to Paloma and Claude. Knowing Picasso’s reputation for mistreating his female partners, I didn’t exactly approach the story with relish. However, Gilot writes clearly and compellingly. As a painter herself, Gilot teaches us everything we could want to know about Paris’ bohemian artistic circles during and after the time of the Occupation and French Resistance during the Second World War.

The One That Got Away?

I have, of course, left out the most ubiquitous historical art fiction, and indeed one of the most read books, of the last couple decades, and that is the Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, Dan Brown’s epic just didn’t do it for me, and I gave up a few chapters in, dismayed by what, to me, felt like a rather dumbed-down, Hollywood-audience-appropriate writing style. However, I hope that, of course, if you haven’t read the Da Vinci Code,  that you’ll at least borrow it and give it a go. As for the suitcase game, I think I’ll start with a postcard of the Mona Lisa.

How about you? What did you think of the Da Vinci Code? And do you have any favourite historical or art-related novels to recommend?

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Penny Tristram is an artist and writer based in Bristol, UK. She runs Represent, a blog about contemporary figurative art, along with working as a freelance copywriter, blogger, and sometime journalist for a number of art galleries, artists, and businesses. Penny has a BA in drawing from University of the Arts, London, and continues to paint and draw the human figure at her Bristol studio. She’s @artsandwriting on Twitter.