Quick Lit

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It’s that time again when I participate in Quick Lit, a down-and-dirty review of the books I’m reading, for better or worse.  I’m on a binge these days, which is how my reading life seems to go half the time.  During the other half I realize I’m reading nothing longer than an article or, heaven help me, a blog post.  Happily, I have a list going just in time for the link-up.  On my nightstand are

Beyond the First Draft, John Casey.  This is a writing craft book but it reads like a memoir and, well, I loved it.  Some craft books are so technical I feel like I’m inside a Swiss clock when I’m reading them.  Others are so woo-woo I might as well be watching Oprah.  This book is a collection of essays and it’s both beautifully written and informative.  Yes, please.

Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin.  This book is helpful for deciding on and implementing useful daily habits.  Padded out with research and plenty of anecdotes, it’s both a practical and breezy read.  Rubin posits that habits make us who we are and that we can and should develop ones that propel us toward living according to our values.  While the author comes across a little heavy-handed at times, her writing style allows the reader to clearly “hear” her voice.  A good thing.

Woe is I, Patricia O’Conner.  OK, it’s a funny book on brushing up on grammar that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  But I’m a writer and I have to remind myself how to use the tools of the trade.  Did I mention it’s funny?

The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis.  This one’s for my kids and it’s the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia, a beloved series I started reading to them at the end of last school year.  Fast-paced and layered with meaning, it may be my favorite of all the books in the series and seems especially apropos in dark times such as these.

That’s all for now.  Well, not really.  I’m skimming Decoding Your Dog and already feeling guilty about making my dogs kiss me when they’d (apparently, according to the authors) rather not.  But, you know, I’m trying to get better.  And that’s my list for now.  What’s on yours?

 

 

 

So You Call Yourself a Professional?

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about the difference between being a dilettante and a professional in a given field.  I’m not convinced that what separates the two is primarily whether a person’s making money or not, but that it has to do with a state of mind.

I started writing regularly when I lived overseas.  During those years it was a sanity saver, a way to let some emotional air out of a too-tight balloon.  When I came back to the U.S. it was a way to make sense of a painful re-entry into a life that no longer seemed to fit.  Writing was a means to achieving emotional health.

But something happened along the way.  I starting feeling better.  I began mapping out my days, automatically protecting blocks of time for writing not because I was battling another stout cycle of depression, but because I wanted to.  And then, eventually, I wrote because I couldn’t imagine not doing it.

That led to the blind creation of a confused, bleeding novel I couldn’t bear to re-read or throw away.

So I locked it up and wrote another one.

In the meantime, I consumed all I could about the craft of writing.  I checked out books from the library on plot and structure.  I read agent blogs and followed publishing houses on Twitter.  I explained character arcs to my desperately bored children at the dinner table, and polled my husband on whether certain plot points seemed believable.

I got published and got my first paycheck.  But the majority of my time is still spent in my bedroom with the laptop, writing words I don’t know if anyone will ever read.  And yet I’ve left behind the idea that I’m writing as a dilettante or for the sake of therapy.

I now consider myself a professional, though I haven’t quit my day job.  I think of myself that way because I’ve put myself on a trajectory–albeit a difficult one–and I’m living now the way I hope to be living when.  Which is to say, I’m educating and disciplining myself as if I’ve already arrived at my writing destination, though I haven’t yet.

This is the heart of professionalism, I think, this idea that we work with diligence and excellence when no one is looking because we’re deeply dedicated to the thing we’re doing.  And we continue to move toward attainable goals, one at a time, even if the money isn’t rolling in and no one is patting us on the back.

I write these words to remind myself because it’s easy to forget.

What I’m Reading (Quick Lit)

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Over at Modern Mrs. Darcy, people are talking about what they’re reading this month in a lighthearted series called Quick Lit.  I decided to join in the fun since I’m always reading something or other.

This month I happen to be tackling

Crime and Punishment by Fyoder Dostoyevsky.  I’m not far into this book yet but I’m already hooked.  I read The Brothers Karamazov while living in India and I found it to be both deep and morally compelling (if dense to the point of being turgid, sometimes).  This book promises to be a faster read than that one, but no less moving.  What can I say?  I can’t stay away from the Russians.

All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth.  This collection is utterly delightful.  The poems are meant for children but they aren’t sappy, silly, or stupid, as (forgive me) so many things written for children these days are.  They’re written with insight and beautiful attention to craft.  Ms. Worth must be of the same mind as C.S. Lewis, who said,

“A children’s story that can only

be enjoyed by children is not a

good children’s story in the

slightest.”

Valerie Worth writes poems anyone can enjoy.  I highly recommend it.

Onward:  Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore.  So far, so good.  Beyond the practical advice and the encouragement to look more closely at our cultural assumptions as Christians, Moore offers…wait for it…good writing.  Every fourth sentence hits the reader between her eyes and demands a re-read.  I’m going slowly through this one and feeling both challenged and heartened.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.  It’s a re-read many times over, but the kids and I return to the Narnia series whenever we need to feel a certain something.  This book is one of our favorites, though, strictly speaking, The Horse and His Boy is number one for me.  Lewis’ writing is clear and straightforward.  He never wastes words, never tries to be clever, never obfuscates while reveling in his own literary talent.  This is saying something, folks, because it’s rare.  Lewis is one of the modern greats for a reason.

I’m interested to know what you’re reading this month.

Chekhov and the Art of Slow Reading

I’m reading an enormous anthology of Anton Chekhov’s short stories on my Kindle before bed each night.  It’s taking me forever to get through.  The little percentage icon on the bottom right of the Kindle screen only bumps one percent higher every few stories, and it feels like I’ll never get finished.  Meanwhile, other books languish in my to-read queue.images-3

But something wonderful happens when I stick with a mammoth chunk of writing over a long time.  I become absorbed in it.  I develop a genuine sense of the author’s style, language, and aesthetic sensibilities.  I start to understand his quieter ideas because I’m moving slowly enough to notice them.images-2

Chekhov’s short stories aren’t characterized by big plot twists or literary fireworks.  They’re about everyday provoking situations that bring out people’s true selves.  Chekhov writes about a time we don’t remember, about people with whom we may not share a background, but his words strike clear and true.  We see ourselves in his Russian peasants and landed gentry because they are, after all, just people.

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I know that if I were able to blitz through his writing, I would miss things worth savoring.  So, for now at least, I’m content to read slowly, one story at a time, for as long as it takes.  The other books will have to wait.

On My Nightstand (and in my purse, and on the table…)

I’m a feast or famine kind of girl when it comes to reading.  Seems like I’m either in binge mode, staying up far past my bedtime with an un-put-down-able something or other, or I’m not reading much of anything (except those books I read aloud to my kids).

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This year I decided to change all that by putting myself on a bit of a reading plan.  I say ‘a bit of a reading plan’ because I follow it somewhat loosely.  If, say, I come across a book at the library that looks especially interesting, and it’s not on the plan, I end up grabbing it anyway.  Still, having the plan in place means that I’m never looking for a new book.  It saves me time and means that I’m reading more consistently than I have in the past.

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Historically I’ve read one book at a time because I don’t enjoy having myriad plots and premises floating around in my head.  But this year, for one reason or another, I’ve broken my own rule and am currently working through several books at once.

They are:

Age of Opportunity, by Paul David Tripp (non-fiction, on parenting teens)

New Collected Poems, by Wendell Berry (with the kids)

Cousin Betty, by Honore de Balzac (on my own)

The First 50 Pages, by Jeff Gerke (writing craft book, on my own)

Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo (with the kids)

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, by Eugene O’Neill (play, on my own)

What about you?  Do you read as the mood strikes, or do you have a list you’re working through?  Do you have any good book recommendations?  Feel free to share them in the comments.

The Beautiful Ache

We are back in the swing of things.  Once again we sit at the table and complete math pages.  We make our beds, conjugate verbs, fill up the dog bowls.  The arrhythmia of Fall break has corrected itself and our daily heartbeats are steady now.

My favorite time of the day is something I call Morning Time.  I bummed it off of Cindy Rawlins, who’s done things I haven’t, better things, with more kids.  Morning Time in our house consists of a short Bible reading, followed by discussion, memory work, and prayer.  From there we move on to poetry readings.  I love a good, solid line from a poem about something.  I love it so much that I think I’ve made my kids love it, too.  Or they’re  faking to hurry things along.  It could be that.

After poetry I read to them a chapter from a work of fiction.  Sometimes it’s a collection of short stories (I recently read some of Canterbury Tales to them but left out a few, er, things).  But mostly it’s a novel.  We finished Old Yeller the other day, barely.  I say this because I started choke-crying during the first half of the second-to-last-chapter.  Travis hadn’t even shot his dog yet.  I sat on my bed, blotchy-skinned, hair in pillow clumps, and gagged out story words from behind a balled up fist for fourteen pages.

Even as it happened (because I float above my body and observe myself now and again) I knew it was probably unnerving for my kids to see me crying as if my heart would break, crying like I did when I was twelve and grief was its own sort of pleasure.  Still, I could not stop.

In due time each one of my children began crying, too, including the thirteen-year-old boy.  They wiped their eyes and buried their heads in my bedspread as Travis ended the life of the dog who had saved his.  When it was over we sat in silence.  We were Travis, and we couldn’t believe we’d erased our old friend like he was nothing.

“Are you going to be OK, Mom?” my middle son asked after a while.

“No,” I replied.  “I mean, in the long run, yes.  Short term, no.”

“I feel bad,” he said, “even though I knew how it was going to end.”

“Isn’t that just the way death is?”  I rubbed my right eye with my ring finger so as to not further discourage the skin around it.

“I guess.”

“But, you know what?” I said, straightening, “it was worth it.  That was a beautiful story, well-told.  It truly hurt, and I’m impressed by that.  It’s worth the ache in our chests, isn’t it?” I rested my hand on his bony shoulder.

“Yeah.  I guess you’re right,” he muttered and stood up from his place on my bed.

I watched him leave the room.  I thought about how I meant what I said.  It was worth it.  Is worth it.  I’ve already accumulated a list of regrets in my life, things not done, words spoken in haste.  But sharing these stories with my children, these exquisite labyrinths, is not one of them.  I’ll never regret the fleeting moments when we sobbed and laughed at the written word in the quiet of my bedroom.

I trust they won’t, either.