I gave a presentation a few days ago entitled ‘research hints for writers’ that includes many resources for those who want to do research to aid their writing projects. It was a lot of fun! I thought I’d post it here in the hope that it might be useful to others. While the presentation discusses resources from local entities such as the Los Angeles County Library system, understand that the books and databases available there are the same or very similar to those available at public libraries everywhere. Using any of them will make you familiar with a great number of them, particularly those from major providers such as ProQuest and Gale Research.
The resources and approaches I discussed include:
Stay open to following strange paths.
Don’t forget books–many were written precisely for your task.
Be familiar with databases that are available to you free.
The presentation has many links to valuable resources such as Harvard Sociology’s interview hints, various collections at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, books written specifically for writers who want to include historically accurate details in their writing, books dedicated to the local histories of many communities all over the United States, and common databases and newspaper indexes available free at public libraries.
Since I’m here, I want to mention that if you are writing memoir in the form of essays, we at Inlandia Literary Journal would enjoy the chance to read your work. We’re nice, and we post about your work on social media. 🙂 Currently, we are working on our teen issue—teen editors are selecting the pieces that will make up our next issue in early May. But we will reopen to adults later in the summer. In the meantime, get your pieces publication ready. If you subscribe to this blog, you will receive the post (as you will all posts from this site) that announces Inlandia’s call for the fall issue.
Another place to submit short nonfiction that reflects on childhood from an adult point of view is the Longridge Review. My experience with them is that they are very nice and supportive of their authors. (Here’s my Longridge piece.) They include artwork to complement your piece. Post-publication, they tweet out news of your work. Overall, a great experience.
Happy researching with these hints and resources! Happy writing!
Last week I wrote about the three keynote addresses at the Ontario Teen Book Fest on March 9, 2019. (See that post here). The day continued with more advice from and fun with multiple YA authors in breakout sessions as well as speed dates with the authors. The following is a potpourri of publishing advice, publishing experiences, and elevator pitches–a task all authors are required to complete and that most emerging writers dread.
Advice and Hints for Character Development.
While most of the authors whose sessions I attended said that their protagonists’ lives have elements from their own, none claimed to write autofiction. They found it funny that interviewers sometimes mixed them up with their characters and called them the characters’ names rather than their own.
Developing Personal Identity and Life Transition Points
In a session entitled “I Contain Multitudes,” authors answered questions about the transition points in their characters lives as well as in their novels. Isabel Quintero’s protagonist Gabi in her novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces is afraid of the same things that Quintero feared as a young girl, primarily that her dad would die of his addiction. Quintero asked audience members to think of the adults in their lives and to consider their faults and struggles. “They are all you know” when you are young. Considering how you can become something else is a way to engage the writing imagination. In her earliest ventures to find her voice, Quintero read a lot of poetry and learned the weight of words in her writing, to be able to cut them and not feel terrible about it. Gabi, too, is a poet.
Quintero claims that she was not as brave as her character. “She’ll talk to a boy. I used to hide in the bathroom.” She finds it difficult to write some of the emotional things in her work. Her advice to teens: Do whatever works for you. You can’t escape how terrible life can be sometimes, so find your passion, something that fulfills you; within that lousy life, grab hold.
You Can’t Always be Who They Want (But if You Try Sometimes, You’ll be Who You Need)
Amy Spaulding, the author of The Summer of Jordi Perez also has some character traits (size, sexuality, and fashion sense) in common with her protagonist, Abby. Here, too, is a parent who makes life difficult for her daughter. Mom is a nutritionist and Abby is her “fat, gay daughter”—which makes Abby’s life difficult. Spaulding reminded audience members that while nuclear families might try to do their best, teens may never get their parents’ full acceptance. Abby’s journey helps readers to move beyond their parents’ visions for them and to become the center of their own stories for the first time. (Note: I was happy to learn about The Summer of Jordi Perez since, in my role of teacher librarian, girls would often ask for a f/f romance. Once, when I was giving a presentation on the history of LGBT YA literature during LGBT History Month [October], a girl who was attending threw up her hands and in mock-lamentation wailed, “Where are the girls?” There were girls; there just weren’t enough of them.)
The Kids Are Not Alright (Even if the Parents Are)
Kayla Cagan’s eponymous protagonist Piper Perish has a supportive family, good friends, and a helpful art teacher. But the issues of her domineering, mentally-ill sister are ruining her life. Rather than having to come to terms with flawed parents, Piper comes to realize that she can have a life without her sibling dominating it. She also explores her need to understand the world outside of art. Cagan’s personal connection to the story is in her own life with a mentally ill brother. Her advice to teens: Follow your passion; make sure what matters to you is central.
More Experiences from the Authors’ Own Lives
Nicole Maggi: People read the character Lise in What They Don’t Know and said, “Oh, she’s you” because of her strong feminism. She continued to work to make Lise a three-dimensional character rather than one that existed only to express a point of view. The reader learns that you can’t judge someone until walk in their shoes.
Demetra Brodsky: The novel Dive Smack is a love letter to her male friendships when she was growing up. The setting and some character habits are from her life. The church, the quarry, and the haunted areas are places she knows from youth. Her advice to teens: Keep your circle tight and small; be careful who you trust.
Speed Date the Author
Authors have only a few minutes to talk up their books in speed dating sessions. A few had great elevator pitches:
Jeff Sweat, author of Mayfly –Lord of the Flies meets Mad Max
Cindy Pon, author of the Want series –An Oceans 11 heist crossed with Blade Runner
Some Publication Paths that Confirm a Need for Endurance
Mary Weber, author of To Best the Boys: Her first book was rejected eighty-seven times. Weber rewrote over and over and got better rejections. Finally, an agent told her that they couldn’t sell the book, but to send her next project.
Nicole Maggi, author of Forgetting met agents through a conference and queried one–who is still her agent fourteen years later. However, that first book never sold. It took ten more years to get published. Her second book sold, but went through contract cancellation. She advises writers to go to conferences. She has learned to get work done much faster through outlining.
Stephanie Garber, author of the Caraval series had no requests on first book that she queried. She did get requests on her second book, but no agent; her third book found an agent, but didn’t sell (the agent left the business). Caraval got offers from eight agents (!) and is a New York Times bestseller. Garber recommends making contacts through friends and conferences– to “put yourself out there.”
Kayla Cagan, author of Piper Perish and Art Boss. (Forgive me if this is a bit off–the story took a few funny digressions including the fact that Cagan grew up in a funeral home that her grandparents owned.) Cagan had a theater/editor friend was looking for a book, so she got her idea for her novel. She found an agent who was a gambler and later chased out of New York City. So many people who worked on her book were fired that the book wasn’t published. She recommends that writers write consistently. By writing thirty minutes a day, she had a draft at the end of the year. She queried five favorite agents. She also recommends following protocol–an agent tweeted negatively about her when she didn’t understand ‘the rules’ and pulled her submission. It’s also important to know what the agent represents and only query those who represent your genre.
Cindy Pon, author of the Want series received 121 rejections. She queried her work as adult fiction first, but later as YA when it was suggested to her. She recommends a willingness to accept rejection. “Your writing will get better and better. Every journey is a surprise.” It’s best to be able to roll with it.”
OK, It’s Not All that Bad
Jeff Sweat, author of Mayfly had a published friend who took his book to her agent. The agent didn’t want to read it because there were already so many dystopian works on the market, but finally did, loved it, and signed him. He recommends having contact with authors and people in the community.
Mary Weber, author of To Best the Boys, recommends supporting others on social media because they will then recognize you and support you when you’re ready.
What Makes a Good Story–More Advice
Write for yourself, care about writing rather than publishing. Get into writing to find yourself.
Create a character who is trying to make the world better.
Think about how we pull ourselves back together, about what’s worth saving.
Write about something that helps readers understand that they’re not the only person in the world with their feelings (good and bad)—that they are not alone.
Write what reminds you of why it’s good to be alive.
Advice on the Synopsis
Look up Susan Dennard and sign up for her newsletters. (Note: this advice came from everyone!)
Advice on Using a Pen Name
If you are putting out something that you don’t own (the company owns the name and the series).
I just want to pass along this email message from Submittable about a new digital class “How to Get Published.” If you are writing short work (short stories, creative nonfiction, essays) and actively submitting, you’ve used Submittable. Inlandia: A Literary Journey Journal, where I volunteer, uses Submittable as their submission platform. Most literary journals do. Of course, this free class is available in the hope that you will buy other classes on Skillshare. But what not try it? If you like it, you can look into other classes. If you don’t . . .
How to Get Published Email Message
Yesterday Submittable launched a free digital class with Skillshare, a large online learning community. The class, titled “How to Get Published: A Step-by-Step Guide to Submitting Your Writing,” demystifies the submission process and gives writers, at all stages in their writing career, tips to get their work published. It’s taught by Rachel Mindell, a talented poet and marketing and product writer here at Submittable.
Submittable got its start working with publishers and literary journals, and while we’ve expanded to include numerous other industries, many of our customers still come from that space. We hope you’ll find the class a useful resource to share with your writers.
Many cities now have teen book fests. If you haven’t been to one, you should try the nearest available. This is particularly true for anyone who is writing YA fiction, but, considering that authors speak about craft and their own experiences with finding agents and publishers, all writers can seek advice and fun.
This Saturday, I attended the Ontario Teen Book Fest, which is an annual event organized by the Ontario City Library. Because they have several sponsors, they are able to provide lunch in addition to a great day that includes keynote speakers, author sessions, and ‘speed date the author.’ Each year Once Upon a Time Bookstore sells titles available from each book fest author, giving everyone the opportunity to have books in hand at the end of the day for the book signing.
Teen Book Fest Keynote Speakers
This year, rather than have a panel discussion, the book fest featured three keynote speakers.
Keynote Speaker Stephanie Garber
Stephanie Garber discussed her belief that dreams come true when people are the heroes of their own stories. She described the four parts of every story (which appear to have some basis in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey):
The Call to Adventure: the protagonists are faced with choices that will turn their lives into stories or propel them forward. (Sometimes people don’t accept the call, moving the story in another direction.) The Midpoint: the point of no return, the point where a lot of people quit or believe, incorrectly, that they have completed their journey The Darkest Moment: Exactly that and close to the end of the journey/story The End
Garber’s Own Four Part Adventure
Garber discussed her own life in terms of these four parts. Although she had wanted a job with steady paychecks and insurance, when she was almost thirty years old, she was at the end of one career. She felt the call to adventure—to become an author—and decided to stay with her parents to write for six months. To do so required a “tiny leap of faith.”
She wrote for six months, but success came slowly. Garber says the midpoint brings a sense of being finished with the adventure, but she was far from done. In fact, her first five books didn’t sell. “I attended a lot of family functions where people questioned my life choices,” she reflected.
The thing that kept her writing was her own questioning of what was real and what was not. Her novel Caraval found an agent on New Years Eve, 2014. Yet that agent left the business immediately afterward.
She came to her darkest moment and said of that time, “My dream from childhood did not love me back the way I loved it. I was experiencing the worst sort of unrequited love.” Finally, her mother suggested she would not make it in writing/publishing and was worried about her daughter being rejected, wanting to stop seeing her in pain.
Advice for Writers
Garber found the courage to keep going and Caravel became a New York Times bestseller. She left the audience with something her sister would tell her: “Everything is all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it isn’t the end.”
Keynote Speaker Isabel Quintero
Isabel Quintero is the author of the William C Morris Award-winning Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. She discussed families and the value of imagining different realities. She talked of the importance of seeing dysfunctional families in novels because many people come from just such families. To paraphrase her: we all have those fears and those realities—the Nana who religious and reminds you that you are going to hell; the uncle fresh out of jail who has found Jesus and wants you to, the violent relative, the relative who embarrasses us in public. No family is perfect.
Families, Dysfunction, and Imagining New Possibilities
While Quintero is very proud that her parents worked hard (her dad as cabinet installer, her mom as a cook in the convalescent home), she credits her mom for holding it all together as her dad was an alcoholic. They weren’t allowed to talk about addiction in their home. To escape, she would spend the night in others’ homes, both friends and family. But she also escaped in books. Imagining different realities was a favorite pastime. “As a Mexican, we are always waiting for things to get worse.”
Quintero’s mom pushed literacy even though she had to stop school in third grade. She was a poet in her own youth, but lost her poetry when she immigrated from Mexico. Quintero’s father who couldn’t read or write, so she saw what the cost of illiteracy was to the family. “You have to give up your voice and rely on others. His voice was taken from him at a young age.”
Creating is a Lifelong Matter
It didn’t matter that she didn’t write her stories down when she was young, only that she was creating them. Poetry first called her—poems about trees and the grass—as she wrote what she thought poets should write. Later her subjects became the things she cared about—culture, family, questioning sexuality, and white supremacy among them. In grad school, Quintero became an editor for a literary journal and started writing prose.
Advice for Writers
“Your voice is the thing that is yours an anchor in an otherwise chaotic existence. . . . You matter, we matter . . . Our homes matters . . . I can’t wait to hear what you all come up with.”
Keynote Speaker Suzanne Young
Suzanne Young is the author of the newly released Girls with Sharp Sticks. She’s also a high school English teacher whose students don’t think about her being an author except when seeing reviews. She told a funny story about a student in her creative writing class who proclaimed that if she could become a writer, surely he could, too. Students and the school are supportive. Her school has a marketing class and her students have made trailers for her books. When she hit the New York Times bestseller list, fellow teachers celebrated, the principal announced it on the intercom, and Young’s student aide said, “We did it.” 🙂
Fan Fiction Beginnings
Young wrote what she thought of as fan fiction, but it was really murder mysteries about her friends, who loved it. (“Can you kill me next?”) However, an older girl read her stories and asked “What are you going to be famous or something?” She was so embarrassed that she hid her desire to write until college. She thought writing would be easy. (This got the biggest laugh of the morning.) Family members except grandmother didn’t believe in her chances, which Young understands. But her grandmother told her, “Susie, do whatever the hell you want.” When her grandmother was was sick and Young visited her, her asked that the first published work be dedicated to her. All of Young’s books are dedicated to her grandmother.
Another Difficult Publishing Journey
Young’s publishing journey was as difficult as Garber’s. She didn’t know how to publish or how to get an agent. She received 125 rejections over five books. When she finally found an agent, they dropped her four months later. Her first publisher cancelled her contract half way through; she then sold another series that was canceled. Now successful in her writing, she’s Published ten books with Simon and Schuster.
Advice for Writers
Young’s advice: “Write everything, write all the time.”
I’ll write next week about the breakout sessions and the ‘speed date the author,’ where authors had more good advice on craft, agents, and publishers. Meanwhile, have a look at my interview of YA novelist Gabrielle Prendergast for her take on her writing journey.
There are many excellent reviews of The Mars Room, plus its a bestseller, so I don’t see a need to go on too long about it. Except–if you’ve somehow missed this book about the lives of imprisoned women (and one prison educator), you should get a copy and get reading. Despite being an avid reader, I haven’t often experienced the emotional resonance I did with its characters. Now that I’m always in a hurry to consume books, if they are so-so, I don’t even remember the plot, much less the emotionality of the characters. The Mars Room sticks, comes back in quiet moments, enters your thoughts over and over. Finding writing inspiration from The Mar Room is easy.
Writing Inspiration from Good Books
I have been thinking of how, at the sentence level, good books drive me to reflect on incidents in my own life. The sentences that bring back memories or engender ideas for stories are not necessarily the most beautifully crafted sentences in these good books. They also don’t have to have anything to do with the overarching theme, though many times they do. They just manage to take hold because they act as either reminders of deeply-buried events or they stir simmering ideas. I’ve become a big fan of using quotes from my reading as starters for writing sessions. With this in mind, I’m sharing some sentences from the first 50ish pages of The Mars Room. (Well, and one quote from much further in.) Pick a few to use as brainstorm starter. Then go read the book!
Writing Inspiration from The Mars Room
All she did was drive the car.
My life was over and I knew it was over.
You start outward, some prick had said to me once about silverware. It wasn’t a thing I’d ever learned, or been taught. He was paying me for the date with him, and in exchange he felt he didn’t get his money’s worth unless he found small ways to try to humiliate me over the course of the evening.
Sometimes what other people want is wantable, briefly, before dissolving in the face of your own wants.
People say it’s beautiful, but the beauty is only visible to newcomers, and invisible to those who had to grow up there.
If none of that had happened, I would not be on a bus heading for a life in a concrete slot.
O pepper trees, lacy branches and pink peppercorns, without dirty old mattresses leaned up against their puzzle-bark trunks. All good bound to bad, and made bad. All bad.
Some parents raise their children in silence. Silence, irritation, disapproval.
But maybe it was me who pushed him away.
When I was growing up, they all said I had potential.
I don’t consider it an achievement, it was more that I averted a disaster.
For some people, reality is just too thin. For some people the light shines right through, a certain kind of people, a crazy kind of person, a person with mental illness and I know about that.
I could never have a future in that city, only a past.
When I was little I saw a cover of an old magazine that showed the robes and feet of people who had drunk the Kool-Aid Jim Jones handed out in Guyana. My entire childhood I would think of that image and feel bad. I once told Jimmy Darling and he said it wasn’t actually Kool-Aid. It was Hi-C.
What kind of a person would want to clarify such a thing?
That was before we started going to Anton LaVey’s house, where everyone worshipped Satan as a group.
Everything got converted by money and I started to miss these grim places that offered no happy memories, but I wanted them back.
There were days when it seemed like the real meaning of this work he was doing was to destroy his own life by trying to teach people who wanted to burn each other’s face off.
Thoreau’s image of a spiritual molting season, of a new man, the fateful concept of an American Adam an idea Gordon was fond of because of its precipitous arrangance and who doesn’t want to change his life?
It was strange to Gordon how sometimes beauty was magnificent and other times it was nothing and did not move him.
Most people talked to fill the silence and didn’t know the damage they reaped.
The lie of regret and of life gone off the rails. What rails. The life is the rails. It is its own rails and goes where it goes. It cuts its own path. My path took me here.
I’ve never read anything by Ron Carlson that I didn’t enjoy. I began with his short stories and later read two novels, “Return to Oakpine” and “The Signal.” Later I read “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” an open-minded tutorial for authors of short fiction. How wonderful when a much-loved writer puts out a helping hand.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story–“The Governor’s Ball“
In “Ron Carlson Writes a Story,” the author deconstructs for the reader (and fellow writing hopeful) how he writes and edits one of his most famous stories “The Governor’s Ball.” Carlson reassures us that allowing the story to advance in a surprising direction indicates that things are going well. Rather than be prescriptive, he intersperses advice and insights between sections of “The Governor’s Ball” and uses his experience as a loose guide for the reader.
I recently returned to Carlson because I was writing about nature as a reflection of the inner life, and no one does that better than he does. While I come from a different place than Carlson (he has so many quiet men as main characters—something I am not—living or working in rural areas—places I am not), I feel connected and engaged by his characters’ lives and troubles. To again immerse myself in a Carlson’s natural world, I chose “Five Skies,” set in remote southern Idaho.
Writing Lessons in Five Skies
“Five Skies” is the story of two mature men, who have experienced deep loss, and a teen, on the verge of becoming a man. They are working together to build a staging area for an Evel Knievel-type motorcycle jump across a gorge. Arthur Keys is running from a betrayal and his ensuing guilt. Darwin Gallegos has fueled his grief with rage and seems to have lost faith in people and in God. Ronnie Panelli is a shiftless youth, trying to turn his life around through connections and meaningful work.
The three men are isolated as they work and cook over a camp stove, living in a tent. The spectacle of nature mirrors the depth and beauty of their journey. The book cover blurb compares Carlson’s writing to Hemingway, and that’s partly true, though only in the earliest Hemingway, such as the Nick stories. I’m afraid such a description might be a turn off to many readers, particularly female, who loath Hemingway’s macho men—and the grace under pressure which is only available to them. However, Carlson’s men are more realistic. “Five Skies” (published in 2007) is in the company of the best stories of people wandering out into a desert (physical, mental, spiritual, or a combination) to seek a renewed spirit and redemption.
Carlson’s Writing Style
While critics compare the writing here to Hemingway, much of it is more fluid in keeping with the connections of the men to the environment. So there are short, staccato sentences. A few that did remind me of Hemingway: “He didn’t like having his boots on without socks. He would get some clean socks and get properly dressed and put the coffee on. It was early, but he would start the coffee.” Out of context, that’s a little description to poke fun at.
Yet, contrast this to the novel’s opening sentence: “It was a cold May in all of Idaho, and as the month began there were only a few short stacks of lumber and construction gear on the plateau above the remote river gorge, along with all the game trails and the manifold signs of rabbits who were native to the place and who now move cautiously around the three men sleeping on the ground.”
Carlson Captures the Natural World
For writers, Carlson’s ability to capture the environment is a continual lesson. “They had woken to the sky a perfect trick, a magnified color well beyond cobalt. Tangible and tender, the air and the earth after the rain seemed minted, some rare promise in the leverage of the early sunshine. Rags of mist stood twisting in the atmosphere.”
Or: “The soil was oddly like snow, packed but loose, blown in a speckled sheet for years without end, and each footstep made a three-inch-deep boot impression. They had to lift their feet, walking awkwardly in the bright windy day as rabbits were released in every direction, but it felt good to walk after the hot truck.” The description of the soil reminded me of my backpacking days, when I had left just such boot prints. But there is also the use of the verb “released” which is so perfect to describe the scattering of the rabbits, pulling together the larger landscape.
A Lonesome Project with a Satisfying Conclusion
I don’t mean to suggest that the entire novel is just lovely description of the environment. These characters are working hard and find themselves in some surprising trouble more than once—and manage to get through it without seeking the violence I was expecting. Nevertheless, trouble does find them out on their lonesome project, bringing the book to a sad and satisfying conclusion. And that is the beauty of Ron Carlson–everything works. Apprentice yourself.
Note: An authors I know saw this and pointed out that Carlson has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
A Loose Connection: Folsom Untold and Rise of the Machines
I took a long walk while listening to Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album. I wanted to listen to Folsom because I’d recently read Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room (great stuff!) a novel about women in prison. Strangely though, the story of Johnny Cash, Glen Sherley, and music in Folsom connected to the book I’d just finished, Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World by Kristen Lamb. Rise helps authors create their brands through social media.
Folsom appeared to me to have good examples of Lamb’s assertion that creatives will find connectors in unexpected places. These connectors can change the course of their careers.
Johnny Cash and Glen Sherley at Folsom Prison
In 1968, when Johnny Cash played and recorded live the concert that became the album At Folsom Prison, his career was waning. It was his idea to do concerts in prisons. Generally, his handlers thought that would be a disaster. One music producer, Bob Johnston (famous for working with Bob Dylan), decided to go ahead with it.
Fortunately for Cash, one of his best friends was the minister Floyd Gressett, who also worked at Folsom. Gressett knew a prisoner in Folsom, Glen Sherley, who had written the song “Greystone Chapel” about the chapel at Folsom. Gressett smuggled out a copy of the song and played it for Cash. Cash practiced it that night and played it as the last song of his Folsom double concert the next day. It was a hit with the prisoners and one of the popular songs from the album.
Four Loose Connections Restart a Career
This unexpected turn of events—that required someone in the music business who could get Cash a concert gig in Folsom, a prisoner there who was writing songs, and a minister who knew this and could get the music to Cash—depended on the sort of loose connections that Lamb suggests we all have whether we realize it or not.
Johnny Cash asked the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to work to have Glen Sherley released. How did Cash know Reagan? He didn’t know him well, but before the Folsom Prison concerts, Reagan heard that Cash was rehearsing outside Sacramento and went to have pictures taken with him. Another loose connection. That was enough. Sherley was released, but with the stipulation that he had to live with Cash. He did.
Sherley later became a member of Cash’s band and had success in the country music business in his own right. This is not a perfect fairytale. Sherley died by suicide in 1978. HIs Wikipedia entry is just a short paragraph stating that he was unable to adjust to life outside of prison. According to Folsom Untold, Sherley’s drug addiction was insurmountable and may have been the reason for his suicide.
Seizing the Day
Digression: I also just happened to finish reading The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison. If you’ve been a pretty straight arrow all your life and worry that you have no drug or alcohol induced creativity, read it. Jamison discusses how deeply creative people (John Berryman being a significant example) have been stunted by addiction, much as it seems Glen Sherley was.
Think of the loose connections that returned Cash to stardom in the country music scene and that gave Glen Sherley the opportunity to leave prison and become a singer/songwriter. The right music executive, the minister who worked in prisons, the prisoner who happened to have written a song, the governor who happened to have taken photos with Cash. These are not deep connections. And yet, they worked together to create At Folsom Prison, Cash’s greatest achievement.
A Few Notes on Sources
Note: Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album is an Audible Original, so if you want to listen to it, go here. It’s less than two-and-a-half hours long. I was able to listen to it in a single long walk. It happens to be a February pick, so if you are an Audible subscriber, you can get it for free if you download it in the next ten days.
Kristen Lamb’s discussion of salespeople, mavens, and connectors and is based on Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion in The Tipping Point. I’m a fan of Gladwell’s work and discuss it here and here.
If you are looking for writing inspiration, read The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. It’s about writers, how they relate to one another, and how they engage with the larger world. It’s a great read for anyone who is writing just now.
The narrator of The Friend is grief stricken over the suicide of her friend and fellow author, a man who was her mentor and writing teaching decades earlier. Though she lives in a tiny apartment, and is not particularly a dog person, she is talked into adopting the dead man’s Great Dane.
Writing Inspiration from Dogs and Men
While the presence of the dog influences how she reflects on the death (Great Danes do not live long and this one, Apollo, is already middle aged), most of what she reflects on is the value of writing, whether authors are valued in society, and many of the current ethical issues surrounding authors and college professors. Is it OK for people to write outside their own experience? What of male writing teachers who have relationships with their students? Are they predators? Are they bad writers? Is it OK to use the lives of friends in your writing? (Reminding the reader of Anne Lamott’s famous words: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”) There are no answers given, but the ruminations on these subjects will be familiar, and it’s nice to engage without screaming or being screamed at.
Writing Inspiration from Quotes
Another reason for writers to read this novel is that it is full of quotations from authors, as well as some discussion of the lives of famous writers. If you are stuck for new ideas, you might find some of these stories and quotes inspirational.
If you happen to love dogs, that’s a bonus. I was looking through reviews of The Friend on GoodReads. It seemed that people who aren’t writers thought the novel was OK, but had too much rumination by the narrator. Some complained that they’d been led to understand The Friend was a book about dogs, and there wasn’t enough about dogs, that Apollo rarely appears in the book. Honestly, there’s a lot of discussion of the dog, who does appear quite frequently (but he is not anthropomorphized, so maybe that was their real issue).
I think these responses point to the reality that the people who will give The Friend five of five stars are writers, readers of serious fiction, and literary hopefuls. That’s you. And those who awarded it the National Book Award this year.
The Friend is such a lovely work. Read it.
For more literature based writing inspiration, check my post on The Buried Giant.
I’ve come to think that some of the best writing prompts are the things we underline in the books we read. I’ve decided to periodically post some of my underlining here. The nice thing about using quotes from books is that you don’t need to have read the book in order to use the quote as a prompt—the point is to just let your own imagination take the thought forward. SO—I’m starting with my most recent read—The Buried Giant.
I had the good fortune to receive The Buried Giant as a Christmas gift from my son. I missed it when it was published three years ago, but I’m so glad I got to read it now. If you haven’t read it, check the link for my review.
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Perhaps there had been a time when they lived closer to the fire.
It was just such an idea that would drift into Axl’s mind as he lay in his bed during the empty hours before dawn, his wife soundly asleep beside him, and then a sense of some unnamed loss would gnaw at his heart, preventing him from returning to sleep.
A part of him felt sure that if, at this moment, she were awake and talking to him, whatever last barriers remained between him and his decision would finally crumble.
On a sunny day, provided the wind was not strong, it was a pleasant place to pass the time.
When I was outside just now, doing my best to remember all that I could in the stillness, many things came back to me.
No light thing to leave a place you’ve known all your life.
Our memories aren’t gone for ever, just mislaid somewhere on account of this wretched mist.
The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?
I would the boy witness all that unfolds, just as I was often made to do at his age.
Or was it just that his memory had become coloured by subsequent events?
Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?
I don’t forget the beast, sir. I merely consider this gateway before us.
This circle of hate is hardly broken, sir, but forged instead in iron by what’s done today.
He climbed the side of the boat and let himself fall into the water. It was deeper than he had anticipated, coming above his waist, but the shock of it took his breath only for an instant, before he let out a warrior’s bellow that came to him as if from a distant memory.
The emotion it provoked, even before he could hold it down, surprised and shocked him, for mingled with the overwhelming desire to go to her now and shelter her, were distinct shadows of anger and bitterness.
I do! I like it, take a look! And I would read books in a boat. And I would read them with a goat… And I will read them, in the rain. And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car. And in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see! So I will read them in a box. And I will read them with a fox. And I will read them in a house. And I will read them with a mouse. And I will read them here and there. Say! I will read them anywhere! I do so like to read good books! Join me, join me, take a look.
(With apologies to Dr. Seuss)
It’s lucky for me that someone had the idea to give herself the online moniker ‘book slut’ before I thought of it. It wouldn’t fit my teacherly imagine. But it’s a pretty good description. Better, though, that I imagine myself a character from Dr, Seuss, one who, when he finds out how great something is, he just can’t keep himself from it.
Books are that addiction for me. And because of this, I’m no purist about where I find them. If I have a sudden desire to have a book
immediately, I order it on Amazon. If I am shopping in a mall—a very rare occurrence as there’s little that I hate so much as shopping—I stop by the Barnes and Noble and pick up a book in order to make the trip worthwhile. I was a teacher librarian for over two decades, and it was convenient to put books on hold and have them come to me. I’m a big fan of audiobooks because I walk, sometimes for hours a day, and think that’s as good a time as any to be ‘reading.’ I like the narrators’ interpretations of the works. I like listening to poetry read by the author, an experience that I might not otherwise have had. So I have an Audible account.
But when it comes to finding a good book, landing my imagination in unmapped territory, my favorite place to buy is at an independent bookstore. The fact that I have to go out of my way to find one makes the experience feel purposeful, an anticipated pleasure. So I was saddened to read recently that a bookstore I have often gone out of my way to visit—Cellar Door Books in Riverside—had a children’s program disrupted by people who didn’t think it should have been taking place.
Independent bookstore visits can culminate in connections. I have two friends that live in Northern California, and we meet up once or twice a year. Often, we end up in Santa Cruz because—well, who doesn’t want to be in Santa Cruz? Before beginning our adventure, we always stop first at Bookshop Santa Cruz. I once had a wonderful conversation there with a stranger. I had just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and was recommending it to my friend. She was deciding whether she should get the 900-page book in a single volume, or go for the box set of three paperback sections. (She got the box of paperback sections.) While I was telling her what a strange and wonderful book it was, a woman standing near us excused herself and said she had overheard our conversation. Did I like Murakami? Other than 1Q84, I had only read the much shorter Norwegian Wood. However, I knew he was famous for another very long work, TheWind-up Bird Chronicle. The woman pulled the book from the shelf. “If you liked 1Q84, you have to read it too.” She talked about her own experience with Wind-up Bird. I don’t remember what she said. It was her palpable passion for the work that made me add it to my purchases. An online recommendation for the tome wouldn’t have made me put it in my shopping cart.
Used Books from Independent Bookstores
I’m sorry that there’s no independent bookstore close to me. My sons are
grown and when they are visiting, we frequent the wonderful Claremont Forum Bookstore, which sells used books to raise money for the Prison Library Project. Since it’s located next to a number of restaurants, we always go book shopping there while we wait to be seated for dinner on busy evenings. And we always find something to buy. I usually try to find books that are out of print or whose author is deceased. Because, while I love supporting a good cause like the Prison Library Project, I also love supporting living authors—who almost never make a living wage from their writing. So buying their books new matters.
Independent Bookstores: Events Worth the Drive
The independent bookstore I have the chance to visit most frequently these days—one where I can purchase new books and support their authors—is Cellar Door Books. I can’t really call it local. It’s thirty miles away and, on weekdays, the traffic between me and it is horrendous. But I find myself in Riverside periodically because I volunteer with the Inlandia Institute, a nonprofit that supports and promotes literary activity in the Inland Empire area of Southern California.
When I am nearby, I go over to Cellar Door to get a book. I’m not personally known to the staff. But every time I have been there, someone has helped me to find a worthwhile read. I’ve talked about the sort of books I like, about what I’ve read lately to give the bookseller an idea of my reading tastes. Sometimes they recommend something I’ve read, an experience that tells me they’re listening, that they are homing in on what I’m looking for. When I tell them why I liked the particular book they are recommending, the next recommendation is usually the one I go home with.
The recent tragic murder of eleven people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh brought to mind books I’d purchased last spring at a ‘think tank’ event I attended at Cellar Door. Authors Jo Scott Coe and Larry Behrendt were there in conversation about their books, respectively Mass: A Sniper, a Father, and A Priest and Sacred Dissonance.
Mass is about the 1966 University of Texas (Austin) mass murder, including the story of the murderer’s history of domestic abuse and Catholic upbringing. As a Catholic who left the church for the final time (it was a long, complex breakup) over the sexual abuse coverup, I wanted to hear the authors converse about it. I arrived early and bought Mass. The event began, and as the evening continued, I heard more about Sacred Dissonance. Behrendt wrote it with co-author Anthony Le Donne as a series of back and forth essays discussing the religious identities and cultural boundaries of Jews and Christians. The goal of the two authors was to provide a model for addressing the past and challenging the present. I realized I needed to purchase it as well.
Fight for the Opportunity
Having the opportunity to thoughtfully engage with the ‘other’ is a way through thinking of people as just that. So it’s a shame that the event recently disrupted by a few community members was a drag queen story hour for children. (Here’s a quick report on what took place.) These are popular across the country, in both bookshops and libraries.
Before I was a teacher librarian, defending the right to stock edgy YA fiction, I was a high school English teacher. Every once in awhile, a parent would object to a class reading assignment. I had no problem with that as parents do make decisions for their children. I reasoned that it wasn’t the end of the world if a teen didn’t get to read The Catcher in the Rye. It was pretty much a good YA novel before YA was a thing, and so it appealed to teens. I wasn’t even big into making students read something like Fahrenheit 451 if their parents objected to a book—that was a bit too smug for me. Instead, I’d talk to the librarian about a similar book with no foul language (innocent days, those!).
What did surprise me, however, is that parents always objected to content they hadn’t read. My son can’t read The Crucible because it encourages witchcraft. My daughter can’t read [the Washington Irving short story] “The Devil and Tom Walker” because it’s Satanic.
Yeah—promoting Satan in the classroom is what got me up and out the door on those early mornings.
I often wondered if they might have had another opinion if they had perused
the work before making a judgment. When I heard about the disruption of the drag queen story hour, I wondered what the protesters would have thought if they had just sat down to quietly and respectfully listen.
Maybe they wouldn’t have changed their minds. To them, it was a moral issue. And like store owner Linda Sherman-Nurick, I agree that if they do object, they don’t have to come. It was the same with parents of my students—I didn’t mind if they wanted another book for their own child; it was when they started thinking that they could usurp the authority of other parents to raise their children and choose their books and experiences that we’d get into it.
So from experience, I know that books and discussions about them are worth fighting for, as is working to understand people in all their variety. Independent bookstores are integral to these experiences. I’m glad that Cellar Door will continue to have drag queen story hour. My kids are grown, but I might have to show up anyway.
Treat Yourself to Independent Bookstores Everywhere
Don’t go to an independent bookstore just because it’s a good thing to do. Go to treat yourself, to indulge more completely in your bibliophilia. Check the schedule and attend a special event, be a part of the community of literary conversation. If there is an independent bookstore close enough to you—lucky, lucky you!—join one of their book clubs and connect with other readers in deep discussion.
Yes, I’d read a book anywhere and with anyone—fox, goat, mouse, acquaintances, best friends, colleagues, drag queens. If a drag queen happens to enjoy the same book I do, that’s exactly the person I want to sit down and discuss it with.