We’ve been doing a bit of reading on these snowy days. Here’s what I read (or am still pecking at) in January.
The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere, Pico Iyer – This was a great little book, total impulse buy for me. Turns out it is based on this fifteen minute TED talk, which I didn’t know about before buying the book. The essence of this very short book is the importance of taking time to be still and pay attention, and that what you really need (to understand, write, feel, etc.) is right there if you do just that. I underlined many passages (he quotes Emily Dickinson a few times in the book, which made me happy), and will return to the book again when feeling overwhelmed or distracted in this age of connectedness and technology. Here is but one of my favorite passages, directed toward writers:
Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning these impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. Sitting still is our workplace, sometimes our battlefield.
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater, Sarah Ruhl – I dogeared about 20 essays in this book as my favorites to return to. It’s a lovely little book. Ruhl writes keenly on a variety of topics, often with a good dose of dry wit. She aptly describes the feelings or profound observations I often also have during seemingly mundane moments, particularly through a mother’s lens. But I’ll be honest: I skimmed some essays pretty quickly, particularly those that were very focused on the theater world/plays/playwrights (Ruhl is a playwright, after all) and that was due to my own ignorance and lack of interest in that world more than anything else.
Monday or Tuesday: Eight Stories, Virginia Woolf – The eight stories in this thin book offer a short burst of the kind of prose Woolf is known for. I was meh about half of the stories. My favorite was “A Society” which was a lovely feminist rant about the male intellect, written almost 100 years ago. I was surprised to see how much the modern era feminist sounds so familiar today.
Garden Voices: Stories of Women and Their Gardens, Carolyn Freas Rapp – If you are a woman who gardens, or know one, I cannot recommend this book enough. It was given to me by my mother for my birthday. I read it in one sitting. There really are a million reasons why any one of us who gardens decides to dedicate a portion of our life to growing something. I was truly moved by the varied stories written by the different women in this book. Before each gardener’s essay, Rapp offers a brief snapshot of how she came to know that gardener in her personal life or some insight about their personality. At the end of the book there are also a few pages where each gardener offers their best advice for gardening and/or life. Highly recommend.
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel – Everyone is raving about this book. You can add me to the list. Great story and great storytelling. She weaves beauty and hope throughout a storyline (post-apocalpytic world) that could otherwise seem bleak. I think what also kept my attention was how the story was not told in a linear fashion. I like books that tie back to points in the past, and the way she does it here gives the book the feel of a mystery novel because, at least for me, I was constantly wondering how all of the characters and plot points would be tied together at the end. I will be thinking about this one for a while.
I am usually a multi-tasker when it comes to books. Here are the others that I am actively pecking at or poking through in bursts right now (reviews to come once I’m finished)
Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio (I must give a brief review even though I’m only half done: the writing is stellar)
Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol (it’s been a while since I’ve read a biography and since I’m seeing him in concert this weekend, it felt right to pick it up; apparently it’s not ghostwritten and so has the kind of badass, tell all writing I expected, and am enjoying, from Idol)
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (1960)
What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Jon Young (I had a false start with this book last year and wanted to pick it up anew because I REALLY miss spring right now)
Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar (I’m listening to this as an audiobook—my first ever—and I’m enjoying it so far, but it took me a while to get used to paying attention)
What are you reading this weekend?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
“I like to come in from chores and find the early dark in the rooms, when the only gleam is a single lamp over an amaryllis bulb on which my wife is practicing some sort of deception.”
- “A Report in January” by E. B. White (January 30, 1958)
January, especially in New England, has the capacity to be defined by just one word: bleak. It is usually quite cold, and the colors outside fall solely within a tight spectrum of greys, with tired looking cedar fences, twitchy squirrel tails, bare maple branches, and salted asphalt providing the limited range. January arrives on the heels of endless weeks of what feels like (to me) a Bacchanalian festival and orgy of overconsumption. It renders one tired and ready for some serious hunkering down—or is it hiding? It’s probably why I feel so blasé about my birthday each year, and often just wave it off with a “yeah, yeah, thanks” of the hand.
In January, I read more than perhaps any other time of year. I can’t garden and it’s too early to start seeds indoors. I can’t lay down in the grass under my maple tree and pass the time measuring the breezes across my brow. This year, snow shoveling has been at an all time minimum so reasons to be outdoors are few. Even the ice cream shop is closed for the season, cutting my usual destination distractions down by a solid half. So I read. Correction: I hoard books, and I read.
I’ve got a bit of a thing for essays lately. Right now, I’m really, really enjoying Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering. But I mix and mingle others too—that’s the beauty of essays and short stories. You can lean in whole hog, or just dabble from day to day. This morning I opened up The Essays of E. B. White, which I had picked up last week at one of my favorite bookstores. Admission: I’ve never read the full length versions of Charlotte’s Web or Stuart Little. I will, someday. Yet I was intrigued by his having an essay collection so I snagged it. Simmering on my shelf for more than a week now, I was dying to dig in, just a little. I chose “A Report in January,” skipping ahead to it simply because the title seemed apt given where we are on the calendar.
At first pass, it doesn’t seem like much of a deep rumination of thoughts. Over nine pages, he eloquently (yet matter of factly) covers seemingly mundane topics: the backyard fox that eludes him, deer hunting in his state of Maine, the ills of development in Florida, dredging up his farm pond, the wet winter, the state of work/jobs in the region, school lunch programs, chopping wood, a neighbor’s new house and White’s distaste for the amount of artificial light it will have (remember: this was written some 57 years ago), and chickens and eggs. That’s it.
But here’s the beauty of essays and essayists—the good ones, at least. They create a thesis, or at least explore the outer edges of one, and often subtly so. It can be hard to appreciate why someone bothered to take the time to put all of those disjointed thoughts onto paper—wood chopping, buying chicks, and school lunch programs? Who really cares? But then you go back to the beginning of this essay, and remember what he’s trying to illuminate:
Margaret Mitchell once made a remark I have treasured. Someone asked her what she was “doing,” and she replied, “Doing? It’s a full-time job to be the author of Gone With the Wind.” I remembered this cheerful statement this morning as I lay in bed, before daylight, marshaling in my head the problems and projects and arrangements of the day and wondering when I would again get a chance to “do” something—like sit at a typewriter. I felt a kinship with Miss Mitchell and comforted myself with the pleasing thought that just to live in New England in winter is a full-time job; you don’t have to “do” anything. The idle pursuit of making a-living is pushed to one side, where it belongs, in favor of living itself, a task of such immediacy, variety, beauty, and excitement that one is powerless to resist its wild embrace.
I especially love that last line. I think it’s tough to remember sometimes, but I strive to.
The hallmark of a good essay is that moment when you realize that you do care, even if briefly, about what that writer set down into words. You care because you empathize with and understand what he is trying to convey.
Perhaps it is a bit premature to file my own January report. But in a sense, that’s what this blog and the other writing I do is. I’ll add to that the photos I take too because I think they often better capture the moment and emotions I am trying to remember. Maybe my words won’t end up in a book, waiting for some stranger in a college town to pluck it off the shelf, but they are somewhere and not much different than what Mr. White was trying to do. If you write, you’re simply trying to tease out the essence and connectedness of what’s noteworthy among our days, even the shortest and bleakest ones in January.
What’s in your January report so far?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
First, a little housekeeping.* A week ago, I wrote this post, Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. The reaction was unprecedented, particularly given my usual low readership/commenter-ship. I’m pretty small potatoes and quite honestly am so touched by the response. In fact, I still have not had enough time to respond to some of the comments, for which I apologize. I have been volunteering at my daughter’s school quite a bit this week, and last night was sidelined with a crushing migraine. I promise to respond to each comment on that blog post in due course.
That post then lead to others answering the same questions on their own blogs, and I strongly encourage all of you to read those and their respective comments. So far, FIFTEEN (!) other writers/bloggers have each written a post: Nina Badzin, Lindsey Mead (A Design So Vast), Lara Anderson (Joy, Lovely Joy), Justine Uhlenbrock (Heirloom Mothering), Andrea Jarrell, Stacey Loscalzo, Tricia Mirchandani (Raising Humans), Rivki Silver (Life in the Married Lane), Rudri Bhatt Patel (Being Rudri), Sarah Brentyn (Lemon Shark), Rebecca Klempner, Angelique Marcom, Dana Schwartz, Evelyn A. Lauer, and Zsofia McMullin (Hunglish Girl). If there are others I missed, please leave a comment and I’ll add you here too.
All of the responses, wherever they might appear, have been very insightful, helpful, and, if nothing else, make certain doubts and/or hesitations (of mine) feel normal. This is why I recommend reading those other posts and the comments to my original post.
BUT! I thought it might be helpful, to aggregate the recommended “must have/must read” writing craft books mentioned in all the various posts/comments in one spot (as of 12/22/14), so that is what this post is meant to do. As a reminder, I specifically asked people to leave off books by Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, Dani Shapiro, and Natalie Goldberg (because I have those). I am presently time-pressed, so I’m going to skip hyperlinks at the moment, figuring that we all know where that certain jungle of a book buying website can be found, or at least our local bookseller or library.
On Writing, Stephen King (by FAR the most recommended)
Steering the Craft, Ursula Leguin (for fiction)
How Fiction Works, James Wood
From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler (for fiction)
Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter (for fiction)
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Burroway & Stuckey-French eds.
The Getaway Car, Anne Patchett
The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, Ted Kooser
Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like A Motherf*cker“ (in her Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus)
Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brande
The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield
Writing Begins With the Breath, Laraine Herring
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
Writing Motherhood, Lisa Garrigues
***(EDITED 12/22/14 to add additional blog posts and books, and 1/5/15 to add more blog posts)***
If there are other must have/must read writing craft books that you think warrant inclusion, leave the title/author in a comment and I’ll add them to the list.
*Another bit of housekeeping: (1) A few folks (I think because of either Nina’s or Lindsey’s mention of my post on their Facebook pages) have requested to become friends with me on Facebook. I do have a personal FB account, but I keep it very private and limited to just my closest family and friends, so if you try to connect via that one, I am not likely to accept, sorry. I do this more for my family’s privacy than mine. But I do have a “Kristen Ploetz, Writer” page that you can search for on there and “like,” and I hope that you do. (2) I’ve recently switched my Instagram account (@littlelodestar) to private. It won’t affect existing followers, but anyone else new I will have to approve first. I’m doing this to cut down on the spam I was receiving, but also because I like to know who’s looking of photos of my personal life, that I’m more or less happy to share, but within reason. (For instance, I was getting a few private accounts following me that wouldn’t reciprocate. Sorry. Dealbreaker. That kind of one-sidedness creeps me out.)
Thanks for your understanding.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
We’re going to need a bigger house. No, not a new baby. It’s the books. Specifically, my daughter’s books. I cannot seem to edit her bedroom bookshelves to make room for new books (other than maybe to pay forward those pesky mass market paperback equivalents known as “easy readers”—you buy one and suddenly there are ten in the same spot the next morning). She has literally hundreds of books, of all kinds, collected since she was a wee lass.
I’m emotionally tied to virtually all of them for one reason or another. Part of it is the actual financial investment of buying books. We buy books far more than toys (family and birthday parties usually pick up the slack when it comes to toys). It’s not only because books retain their value (and usability) longer term, but I like to support authors and illustrators, and, when possible, independent bookstores or places like Better World Books. Yes, we certainly make good use of our library on a very regular basis, but I’m also committed to investing in books of our own too.
Some small part is also wanting to hang on to something from her childhood for her to share with her own children someday. I certainly see myself making storage sacrifices for Frog and Toad more than Elsa or Fluttershy. Some of it is not wanting to rush gifts from friends and family out the door too soon. But mostly, I just really love books and find comfort in being surrounded by them.
I’m not the only one. She also has a really hard time letting go of books. Certainly, there are some books that are easy to move along. The board books are long gone to cousins or Goodwill. Topics or characters that she simply wasn’t into are now residing in her former Kindergarten and current first grade classrooms, maybe to ignite the reading fire of another child. But the rest? She wants to keep them. So for now, we shift, stack, and start second rows.
It got me to thinking about the picture books on her shelf that I would give to other children as gifts, either because they have compelling stories or messages, interesting illustrations, or because M has shown us that they are the kinds of books that can be returned to time and again, each time revealing another layer that her younger self might not have seen. They are equally suitable for boys and girls and do not have (in my opinion) any questionable content.* These are the “workhorses” who’ve been with us for a while now (with one exception**), and aren’t going anywhere either.
I’m sure there’s a few more gift worthy books I could cull from her stack, but these were the ones that jumped out to me right away. And when I stacked them in the living room as a reminder to write this post, this is what happened, another type of gift altogether:
What picture books are on your child’s shelves that you think would make good gift books for children 12 and younger? Is there one “go to” book that you give over and over again? What book has your child received that has become a “keeper”?
* Near the end of Where Do Balloons Go? (a story about the mystery of where a balloon that’s accidentally let go might end up) there is a reference to “that place up above” the stars, which for some might mean heaven; as an atheist, I think it’s worded vaguely enough to be comfortable interpreting it as just more outer space beyond the stars we can see.
** Rosie Revere Engineer is a very recent addition to our collection, but already I can see that it has sparked her imagination and definitely is the kind of book I think so many children would enjoy as a gift.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Do you do your best thinking in the shower? I do. Sometimes I wonder if the puzzles of world peace or missing socks would best be solved if we all bathed together. On second thought…
This weekend I had another one of my water logged revelations. Or maybe they are epiphanies. It was about the theme of several of the books I’ve read lately.
Three of the books I’ve read over the past several months deal with the notion of being lost. I didn’t intentionally choose the books for this theme, but hindsight suggests that maybe I was (subconsciously) leaning toward books that might explain, commiserate, or even guide me through what I am seemingly experiencing right now, which is a sense of being lost. I think I’m feeling this way primarily about various forks along my vocational road, both the ones at my feet right now and the ones I sense ahead. The forks well behind me certainly come into all of this too, though for entirely different reasons.
I feel like I’m feeling my way in the dark so much of the time, aimlessly wandering down a path toward an unknown, uncharted destination.
The sensation of feeling a bit lost also seems to be tied to “where I see myself in the next ten years” (to use a job interview phrase) around the time when I will turn fifty and my daughter will be close to embarking out on her own. I am more of a planner by nature than a free-spirited wanderer, so the past three years in particular have really cut against the grain of who I am (though, surprisingly, in profoundly good ways). Still, I think about how the choices I make right now play into all that is yet to come. I’m constantly thinking about all of this, on some level, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got to make some choices soon. No more wasting time. I’ve got to “find” myself and get back on the map.
The books, you ask?
Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding by Lynn Darling,
Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and most recently,
A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.
There was even a poem that I found serendipitously last week in my copy of Good Poems, selected by Garrison Keillor: Lost by David Wagoner. How apt.
I’ve liked each book for very different reasons—indeed they each involve entirely different circumstances and writing styles. I found myself underlining passages quite frequently in Out of the Woods (which I reviewed briefly here) and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
At minimum, they’ve shown me that I’m not unique in the experience of feeling or getting lost, even at this age. In fact, I venture to guess that, for many of us, more of us feel this way around the age of 40 than other ages, though no one seems to talk about it. Does this feeling ever subside down the road? I’m going to have to get back to you on that, but I can say that for myself, the feeling right now is more palpable than it has been since I was about 25 or so. It is unexpected, to say the least. Aren’t we supposed to be sure of ourselves four decades in? I’m not so sure anymore.
But there’s a passage in Solnit’s book that seems to help me think about it all with fresh eyes:
…the real difficulties, the real arts of survival, seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next. These captives lay out in a stark and dramatic way what goes on in every day life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were. Seldom is it as dramatic, but nevertheless, something of this journey between the near and the far goes on in every life. Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment. And some people travel far more than others.
She goes on for another few pages talking about butterflies and metamorphosis, with the chrysalis and instar stages, an example so completely perfect and written so compellingly that I highly recommend you seek it out sometime (it is just too long to put down here). But she gets to the nub, I think, of where I currently am, which is maybe not lost after all.
Do you seem to read books in clusters of a particular theme? Is it intentional or do you only realize it after the fact? Do you think it matters if you are choosing fiction or nonfiction as the source? Is one more of an escape and the other a how-to manual?
HOUSEKEEPING: For any non-Twitter, non-Bloglovin’ (or other similar kind of feed) folks out there, I want to let you know that I have created a Facebook Page where you can follow all of my writing, not just what appears on my blog. It’s called “Kristen Ploetz, Writer”. Hope to see you there.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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