Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Writing about Writing

Writing I suppose that any of us who write a blog fancy ourselves as some sort of writer. I mean, the very act of writing makes us writers, no?

I hold no illusions, though. I occasionally get compliments, and I have been told that I'm a good writer. I appreciate it every time I hear it, it but I don't delude myself into thinking that I'm brilliant at it. (And please, please do not take this as my wanting or needing you to leave comments saying that I'm good. I always enjoy a nice compliment, but now is not one of those times. Compliments are much sweeter and more meaningful when unsolicited, spontaneous, and sincere.) I think that I'm a good "conversational" writer. I remember a friend telling me once, shortly after we got out of high school, that getting a letter from me was like talking to me. So I think that I do have a pretty decent ability when it comes to that. I also do pretty well with spelling and grammar, although I am by no means an expert.

All my tiny little feelings of accomplishment are blown out of the water when I read certain authors and essayists. You know the read something so good that you're left with a mixture of awe, admiration, and envy. "Wow. That is really good. Man, I wish I could write like that, you bastard!" Of course, the epithet is meant with affection, because you truly do admire the way they can evoke emotional responses and paint such a vivid picture.

I think of Christopher Hitchens and his remarkable piece for Vanity Fair in which he learns that he has esophageal cancer. He writes with humor, pragmatism, and courage, including such lines as "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist," and "To the dumb question 'Why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?"

Or consider San Francisco columnist Mark Morford, as he contemplates teabagger candidates and the difficulties they face on the campaign trail:

I sip my wine and sigh. What deeply unhappy lives these people must lead, no? So small and cloistered, panicky and scripted, entirely cut off from anything resembling the hot thrum of raw, sticky, swear-worded life as you and I know it, as they shuffle like chilled meatpacks from air conditioned SUV to stuffy Holiday Inn conference room, threadbare high school auditorium to sparsely attended right-wing nutball Midwestern church, retirement home, cotton-candy fairground.

There they are, lurching around the podium, stroking that baby, trying to rally the troops, working like 10 flavors of desperate hell to mean something to someone, somewhere, knowing full well what they're selling is a show, a sham, as they dance and swagger like a doll on a string.

Writing man Man, that's good. "Shuffle like chilled meatpacks." That makes me want to clap my hands with delight!

Third Eye Blind sang that "the four right chords can make me cry." So true. So, also, can an amazingly constructed sentence, a beautiful turn of phrase, and a perfect use of an obscure word. I love it when an author makes me look up a word; I might think I know the meaning of it, but I want to make sure. But just throwing a bizarre word in there for the hell of it is annoying and makes it seem like you're trying too hard. (I'm talking to you, Dean Koontz. Stop using the word 'ziggurat.' You don't have to put it in every freakin' book, okay?) There have been times when something is worded just so, and it honestly does bring tears to my eyes, or makes me smile with how well it was said. When that happens, I make a little note on the page, and put the page number on the inside of the back cover. I don't think Stephen King is a brilliant writer (a very enjoyable one, though), but he really does have a way with words sometimes, and here are a couple of my book notations I found.

I guess it gets cold everywhere. I bet it even snows in hell, although I doubt if it sticks. (from Duma Key)

...he walked to the wall where the safe was with big soft steps of cartoon caution. (from Under the Dome)

Isn't that wonderful? Can't you just picture it, and maybe even hear the cartoon boop boop boop sounds? Ha!

A lackadaisical little breeze cat's-pawed their cheeks. (also from Under the Dome)

I've found that reading some of the classic novels in my book club has shown me some unexpected and pleasantly surprising writing of outstanding caliber.

Sounds like the splash of a duck landing on the water...came across miles with a clarity that was at first incredible—and then mysterious because, like a cry in an empty house, it seemed to make the silence, the peace, more intense. Almost as if sounds were there to distinguish the silence, and not the reverse. (from The Magus, by John Fowles)

Writing rules That is very evocative for me, because that is my experience in living out in the country. The silence is often shattered by sounds of vehicles (including loud farm equipment) going by on the road, but there are times when I can hear the subtlest of sounds, including squirrels chattering from the trees, and a sudden sound of deer bounding through the woods.

Salt is added to dried rose petals with the perfume and spices, when we stored them away in covered jars, the summers of our past. (from Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner)

A wandering dog of a night wind came in off the sagebrush mesa carrying a bar of band music, and laid it on her doorstep like a bone. (also from Angle of Repose)

...her white summer handbag like a white kitten in her lap... (Angle of Repose again)

Can you tell that I enjoyed Angle of Repose?

Okay, I think that is enough quotes. You get the idea. I read things like that and I'm hit upside the head just how remarkable some writers are. THAT is something to aspire to. I don't write fiction very often (although I might have to work on that), but I can only hope that once in a while I find that turn of phrase that is just right. I think I come close on rare occasions, and I feel okay about being a tiny bit proud of that and I hope that I can improve on it. I don't know how true the "tips for writers" graphic is, but everything I've read from actual writers has included the advice to keep reading. "Writers read." I think that IS important, because it shows you different ways of constructing your writing, different styles, teaches you about flow and grammar and usage. It also makes you understand your shortcomings and feel the humility that follows. Who knows? Maybe one day, I'll manage to leave someone in awe!

To all my writer friends, those famous and those who are not—yet—I salute you. You have a remarkable ability, you have a rare talent, and you have the potential to hit those four right chords that can make me cry. Keep at it. I will, too.


  1. Great post! I feel the same way about my (non)writing ability because when I read stuff that REALLY is written well, I feel put back in my place as less than a hack.

    I remember how I felt as my tastes segued from comic books (which make for impresive literature!) to more serious books, like Richard Wright, Salinger, and Orwell.

    Anywho, I think that Stephen King is underrated. Folks are very jealous that he can reach folks and bring their intellectual capcity up...

  2. Hi Beth...I've read quite a few of your entries and admire the way you put yourself over and its a pleasure to read what you write,What you write is so intelligent and some funny bits, both which draws me back to your blog
    Myself, i'm down the bottom of the pile when it comes to writting, i'm just your ordinary everyday blogger
    I know what you mean about reading articals or novels.I love a good book, i used to read Steven King books and think he is a great author, trouble is, i'm unable to read his books any more as they make me feel creepy as i'm getting older...Best wishes Astra!

  3. Sometimes I'll read something so simply and beautifully put by an author and think"why even bother trying anymore?"

  4. LOL. Love the writing poster Beth. I often have those moments where I am reading a book or essay and feel elated/inspired/in awe by the words on the page. As long as you enjoy writing and feel you have stories to tell Beth, write.

  5. Writing is about a message, when the "other" meaning the reader is not present. We convey messages all the time, only that the message when in writing have to transcend meaning of conviction, without facial expressions and enunciations. Bloging as such is a form of meaning conversion. Or at least I think so. You can actually emphasize a point with words, lyrics and with images to press your point. And my friend you do that very well even when you do not consider yourself a writer, your get your point across. I am dyslexic and a deplorable writer but I keep hoping that someone will listen to my voice.

  6. I feel the same way about speaking. I like to think that I do pretty well, but sometimes you hear someone make a presentation and it is like a symphony in the way it flows.

  7. Are you going to enter Nanowrimo this year? I mentioned it to you before I think have a go.


  8. Hi Beth, I can only agree with, well, pretty much all of this entry. I too, have been told, on occasion, (and by family so it doesn’t really count ;O) ) – that I should write a book because I write so well. The compliments and encouragement are lovely of course, but like you, I’m under no illusions. I like to write, I enjoy it immensely and, now and then, it all gels perfectly and I write something halfway to good, but a book? I don’t think so.

    But every time I read a good book or maybe find a new (to me) great author I feel inspired to pick up my pen and paper and emulate their achievements (In a non-plagiaristic way of course). Reading can be the fuel that feeds the urge to write and it would be nice to think that, even in our modest blog pages, we could achieve that same result, inspiring and encouraging others along the way.

    Loved this entry Beth. Oh, and I’m going to steal that graphic if you don’t mind.
    Thanks. B. x

  9. Hi Beth,
    Great entry ... the pen really can be mightier than the sword. I'm a pretty voracious reader but still wish I had more time to read!

  10. What a nice entry! I agree with you (as I think you must know) that a cleverly constructed sentence or beautiful turn of phrase can thrill. I have written professionally and have written just for myself. I have some talent, but will be the first to admit that I've been very lazy (and bashful) about developing it properly. It's good to realize my limits because otherwise I'd be so painfully brought down to Earth when I read certain other writers (my sister, Barbara, is one of them. You do have a nice conversational style of writing, and a very nice way with words. (Sincere, unsolicited compliment there.) And I loved the fiction story you did a while back about the old gas station, so should you feel the urge to bless us with some more of those....{hint, hint}


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?