How to be, as a writer

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is part of my reading books about writing, even though it’s not a book about craft. It’s more about how to live as a writer, finding the time to write and read in every nook and cranny of your day, how to live passionately for the things you believe in, and possibly how to incorporate those things into your writing. And how writing can be therapy and how therapy sometimes needs to happen before you can write about what you most need to.

The thing from this book that I can’t get out my head is an image of him writing on the subway, on the way to his cater-waiter job that paid for his life for so long. It’s not about having the perfect space to write, it’s about doing the writing wherever and however you can.

I’m going to be thinking about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel for a long time to come.

Nothing gets written without actually writing

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve got an idea for a story, maybe even a book-length story. It wasn’t going anywhere, so I checked out a bunch of how-to-write books out of the library. Bird by Bird is one of the original.

I didn’t learn specific methods, not really. A couple of good tips, like start somewhere, take it step by step (the origin of the bird by bird title), and the shitty first draft, sure. But my main takeaways from Bird by Bird were: nothing gets written without actually sitting down and writing, and, a writer needs to get out in the world.

Sitting down and writing means prioritizing writing, which is something I’m not necessarily good at. I’m a working mom, so there’s always something else that needs doing. (The current state of my desk is not pretty.) I have tried writing on my phone, using the cloud to store the document, a thing I know works for some people. It’s not for me. To get this story written, I’m going to need to spend more time with my butt in my chair, typing away.

The opposite, though, is also true. Writing is lonely, just you at your computer. And you need to know things for your books, specific details like what’s the name of that street, what did it feel like when you and your first significant other broke up, what the wire thing on the top of the champagne bottle is called. So when the loneliness gets to be too much, make a phone call. Have coffee with a friend. Do some research. You, as a writer, also need to get out in the world. Go into the world.

Bird by Bird didn’t necessarily give me a new way to tackle my story, not in the same way that Story Genius did. But it did remind me that writing doesn’t magically happen, and in the writing, don’t forget to live.

Reading about writing

I have started writing a number of books. Usually, I run out of steam while writing them, finding I don’t care as much about the idea as I thought I did. This last time, though, I care about this story and it’s not working. It’s not a matter of getting through the shitty first draft. Something in the story isn’t working, and I have faith in the idea. I wasn’t sure what it was, though. What was worse was that I didn’t know what to do other than start over. And then start over again.

So when Jasmine Guillory’s newsletter from a few weeks ago, titled “Secrets from the Deadline Cave,” came out, I put every single book about writing that she recommended on hold at the library. Story Genius was the one that came in first.

There’s a lot in the Story Genius about cognitive psychology and why we like reading, which is like catnip to me. But the real effective part of the book is the: now to satisfy this trait of the human mind, go do this thing about your story. The assignments range from “write three specific scenes from your characters childhood that affect who he/she is at the beginning of the story” to “look at your basic story structure and figure out where every single place of conflict could exist and put it in there.”

My story idea has new life, and I’m probably going to end up buying this book so I can keep it around to help keep me going. Is it this specific method? I don’t know. What I do know is that the method in Story Genius has given me a new angle to work on my particular idea. So yes, I’m recommending it.

Finally calling time on a book

I have been reading Alexander Hamilton since 2016 – three years ago. That’s when I added it to Goodreads, anyway. It was more than an idea in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s head, but not the full-on sensation it’s since become.

Hamilton first showed up in Chernow’s biography of George Washington, and Chernow was clearly taken with him. I wanted a follow-up biography about him after I read that one, so I was glad to discover that it had already been written.

So have I finished Alexander Hamilton? Sadly, no. It’s been pushed aside by other books in my to-read pile (I usually have more than one going at a time) and it’s been long enough that I’m finally calling time on it. I may go back to it some day, after all, it’s not like the book is bad. It just got overwhelmed by other things.

I would definitely recommend it if you see the musical and want to know more.

Grace Coddington seems like a fun person

A very sun-faded copy. I’m pretty sure the cover should be a uniform shade of orange.

Grace is, as advertised, Grace Coddington’s memoir. She is a hoot, and this is a fun story of a person who loves clothes and fashion and art practicing her craft throughout the mid- to late- twentieth century. She certainly sounds like a lively person to be around and being in the fashion world during that time seems like a hoot.

Unfortunately, I only got through about half of this book because, while she seems like a great person who is full of enthusiasm, the story got a bit repetitive (she’s in London! no Paris! now London again!) and it was more name-droppy than I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong, she’s just talking about her friends, but a little bit less of making sure we know she knows these people and more about fashion in the 1960s and beyond would have been better. It was eventually tiresome.

A moment in time captured

I love Paris to the Moon, I loved it the first time I read it in the early 2000s. It captures a particular moment in Paris, one that I suspect is no longer relevant. For example, it is true that in the late 1990s bistro food was not good. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t anything to write home about. And for a place where many, many people had written home about the food? That wasn’t good. Now, I suspect, the daily food scene is better.

I re-read the essays this time, surprised at how much I remembered from a book I haven’t read in probably a decade. In no particular order: the caramelized tomatoes, how watching too much soccer makes it impossible to find the puck in a hockey game, the way you choose the place where you will give birth in a different country – re-reading these essays was like visiting an old friend.

Mostly, I love the overall vibe that he shows Paris having, not an overly romantic or easy one, but one of enjoying a life well-lived. A life where care is taken over the details like food or the park, and the way philosophy can invade the most basic of questions.

If you’re looking for a set of essays that show Paris as a place where you can actually live rather than as a romantic image of itself? Paris to the Moon is your book.

Sometimes more is just more

I was trying to describe the plot of Gingerbread to a friend last night, failed completely, and ended with, “it’s good, but it’s weird.”

Helen Oyeyemi writes modern books that take fairy tales as their starting point, but then go off in entirely their own direction. This one has a bit of the Gingerbread Man (“can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!”) and Hansel and Gretel. The character who is literally named Gretel is supposed to be The Gingerbread Man. It’s also full of magic: there’s a magical land and talking dolls, but also social media, FaceTime, over involved PTAs, and modern London.

The actual gist of the story is: Harriet and her daughter Perdita live in London. They’re basically outcasts from their worlds, and people find it hard to remember them. It’s unclear how much they actually want to fit in. Perdita goes off on her own one day, and comes back in a coma. That’s the first third of the book. The second third of the book is Perdita waking up and Harriet describing her own life back in the magical land that she comes from and how she escaped and came to London to Perdita and the talking dolls. The last third is all of the fallout from that.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Maybe too much.

I enjoyed Boy, Snow, Bird enough to keep going on Gingerbread when it started dragging a bit about 75% of the way through, but I’m not sure I would read this as my first Helen Oyeyemi novel.

Recommended, but with reservations.

How many books about Paris are there in the world, anyway?

Look y’all, I love Paris. I hated it the first time I went, but the follow-up was what it took. But I have kind of a low tolerance for books and writing and movies about Paris. Part of the reason I hated it the first time was because of the hype. There was no way any place could live up to all of the expectations that had been put on it in my head.

Not to mention that people’s experience of Paris is necessarily personal. What I loved about it – the joy of discovering that beauty matters and can co-exist with the realness of everyday living, and that everyday living is worth making beautiful – isn’t what someone else likes about it. Books and stories and television shows and movies and instagram photos will communicate either a generic beauty (tiresome) or what someone else loves about the city (more interesting).

A Year in Paris is falters when it falls into the overdone Paris tropes, but is interesting when it’s talking about things that John Baxter, writer, finds interesting – the food, the Republican calendar, the respect for seasons and how life changes due to the seasons in a way it doesn’t in other places.

Overall, I enjoyed the book – it gave me a sliver of that joy of discovery from the trip where I fell in love with it. And I discovered something else to enjoy about it. That’s maybe the most you can ask of a book about a place you love.

Treat women better

A screenshot of the audiobook version of Seduction by Karina Longworth

Seduction isn’t about Howard Hughes. I mean, it is, in that he’s the framing device to talk about twentieth century Hollywood, but Seduction is really about all the ways that women were screwed over in the Hollywood machine, from the Silent Era of the 1920s, into the beginnings of television in the 1950s.

At the beginning, it’s about how women started with more equality in Hollywood than you might think, both behind and in front of the camera, but men edged them out of the business. It’s about how women were seen only as vehicles for men’s emotional arcs or as prizes to be won in the stories that Hollywood was telling. It’s about how men would limit actresses’ availability or undermine them or keep them as actresses when they really wanted to be something else.

If you’re a fan of You Must Remember This (a podcast which is on potentially permanent hiatus), I would highly recommend Seduction, especially in audiobook form. It was like listening to a very long podcast episode (or one of her series of episodes), and I enjoyed it. Even as it was making me angry.

Reminders of my youth

This is a well-loved and much read copy of Generation X from my local library.

It seems a waste to review a book published in 1991, one that cemented the name of an entire generation in place. And yet, here I go.

Generation X is both timeless (e.g. diagnosing all kinds of late capitalism problems like the pain of not having health insurance, the despair at a lack of a coherent future, the inevitability that we’re killing the planet) and very, very much of its time (e.g. it centers mainly white men and revolves around the idea that somehow falling into depression and doing your best to leave late capitalism behind will somehow fix the problems inherent to late capitalism).

I have an incredible soft spot for this book. It is problematic and dropping out of society just means that those who are left can run it into the ground (a thing that the book does passingly comment on); but it reminds me so solidly of a time when I was young, when I was trying to figure out who I was, of a time before the internet when it was so much easier to be aimless. I can’t not love it.