Just Read!

Just Read!

  • Carry a magazine with you at all times.
  • Keep a book in your car.
  • Tuck a paperback into your messenger bag.
  • Load a library onto your Kindle – and fire it up instead of checking your phone!

Too much screen time!

Just Read!

I’m not the only one checking my cell phone like a nervous tic.

I’m trying this technique myself, because I find myself checking my phone like a nervous tic, and if I see a new email or a new headline, I fall into the black hole of cyberspace. Poof! My time to read evaporates, and it’s time for bed.

Instead of reading print on a page in a chair by the fire before retiring, I pollute myself with screen time. Even if there’s no new message from a friend or no new headline to upset me, the light itself is known to disrupt sleep. In my case, I’m also cranky for having squandered the time I’d planned to read, and for not reading.

Advice to writers: “Just read!”

As writers, we’re told, “Just read!” as a way to learn craft, study style, examine structure, and gather facts. Reading other people’s stories helps us tell our own, whether our stories are invented, factual, remembered, retold, or some combination thereof.

Technology changes, but our human need for stories does not.

Humans are a narrative species. We used to tell stories around a fire; then we heard them in the marketplace and in the cathedrals. Eventually, we learned to write and read. Drama, film and TV tell stories through acting. These days, stories are lost in email and stunted in social media. Our time to read at length grows short.

I love to read; I have to plan time to do it.

As a writer, I’m a glutton for words, most of which I get from print on a page. So I’m starting a new campaign to increase my reading time. I’m going to keep prose on hand wherever I go, so when I have a moment of “downtime,” I can “Just Read!” instead of reflexively checking my phone.

How do you make time to read?

Deborah Lee LuskinDeborah Lee Luskin reads and writes in southern Vermont, where Into the Wilderness, her critically acclaimed story of love in middle age, is set.

September: The End is Where We Start From

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.   ~T.S. Eliot

The end is where we start from

September’s first task was to clean my desk.

September: Summer ends, and we begin the push to the end of the year. Summer ends and work resumes in earnest.

September: the first thing I did was clean my desk.

The very act of sorting books, papers and projects has helped me choose what to place front and center of my attention and which to shelve for the time being. This simple act has given me focus, structure and deadlines.

September is full of promise and hope. So are a clean desk and the deadline of a year’s end just over the horizon. I’m feeling hopeful and focused to be back at my desk after a summer of grief.

This September: I’m adjusting to the memory of loving parents who are not longer alive. I’m peering through the murky fog of mourning and see hope and promise in the slow death of the garden as it gives up its bounty. I hear the crickets singing summer’s end and know the silence of winter is coming. I welcome the gradually shortening days as the earth tilts away from the extended daylight that makes summer so luxurious. And I welcome the shift that allows me to sit at my desk with focus and energy to blog, to teach, and to advance a novel that’s starting to sing in me.

September is like taking a breath: I inhale cool air of intention and exhale the warm air of summer’s ease.

September is a time to focus and write.

What does September mean to you?

www.deborahleeluskin.comDeborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont and blogs at Living in Place. She is a freelance educator, a radio commentator, and an avid hiker. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com.

 

 

The Story of the Books that Change Our Lives

A friend recently tagged me on Facebook to participate in one of those modern-age chain letter-type things where you’re tasked with sharing a series of something-or-others within a specific theme. For instance, you might be asked to post seven black-and-white photos or six baby pictures or ten favorite poems.

The mission of this particular challenge was to post—without comment—covers of books that have meant something to me and/or influenced my life. This was exceedingly difficult. Not only did it require me to whittle down my list of influential books to only seven, it also demanded that I refrain from sharing any thoughts or wistful reminisces about my relationship with each book. I’m sure, as fellow bibliophiles, you can see my dilemma.

Still, I was moved to play along, because—you know—BOOKS.

But now, I am breaking the rules by re-sharing my seven selections along with brief commentary that provides a little of the back story for each book—how I discovered it, when I read it, why it matters in the overall scope of my reading life. I hope you enjoy this peek into my love affair with books, and I’d love for you to share something about your favorite reads in the comments.

 

1807 book galapagos

I made my first selection based on instinct and whim. I do love Kurt Vonnegut, and Galápagos is one of my favorites, but I was a little surprised at the way this one jumped to the front of my mind as my initial response to the question about books that have influenced my life. While you can probably tell by the battered nature of this mass media paperback, I’ve had this book in my collection for quite a while. I honestly can’t recall when I first read it, but the copyright on my edition is 1985, with a cover price of only $4.50. You do the math.

This book has stuck with me over the years because its commentary on the human condition and our role on planet Earth is somehow both sublimely ridiculous and deeply tragic. There are passages that are laugh-out-loud funny, but themes that make me worry for the fate of our species (not to mention all the other species with whom we share the planet). And yet, through it all, there is a thread of hope that runs through with a quick smile and a reassuring sense of the absurd. It’s marvelous, really.

1807b book wolves

My second pick took me in a completely different direction. Women Who Run With the Wolves is the seminal work of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.. As the subtitle explains, this is a book about the myths and stories of the Wild Woman archetype. It is a book full of deep wisdom and revelation, comfort and challenge, mystery and insight.

Like Galápagos, I have had this copy for a pretty long time. Not a lifetime, but long enough. I chose it for my list of seven even though, truth be told, I have never finished reading it all the way through. It is a book that I have returned to at different times throughout my life, visiting its pantheon of wise and wild women as I need them. Many of the pages are heavily underlined and annotated (in pencil, of course), bearing witness to prior visits. I always find it interesting to see which lines and ideas called to me at different times in my life. My attention has shifted over the years.

I know that one day I will have read this book all the way through, probably multiple times; but—for now—I count it among my favorites and most influential despite having not yet discovered all its stories. Sometimes, leaving some of a book’s secrets unopened is a good thing. It’s nice to have something to look forward to, and I have no doubt I will unwrap each remaining story at exactly the right time.

1807 book want to write

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland is the only book on writing craft that I included in my list. As I have shared previously on this blog, this slim tome is aptly and, I think, beautifully sub-titled: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.

There is hardly a page of my copy that isn’t criss-crossed with pencil underlinings from previous readings. In some places, I’ve actually drawn hearts and stars in the margins. Originally published in 1938, this book is surprisingly relevant. With a gentle, but no-nonsense voice, Ueland quietly transforms the often overwhelming task of writing into a simple magic that feels simultaneously accessible and miraculous.

If you have ever felt daunted by writing or doubtful about your right to write, please read this book. I promise you that it will warm your heart, ease your mind, and stoke your creative fires. It has certainly done so for me over the years. In fact, I think it might be time for yet another re-read of this old favorite.

1807 book fantasy

Here again, the age of this old friend is hinted at by the copyright (1977) and the retail price ($2.25). Given that I was born in 1969 and my vague recollection of having purchased this book while on a cross-country family road trip that took place the summer after I graduated the sixth grade, I would estimate that I was eleven or twelve when I first read this book. The Fantastic Imagination—An Anthology of High Fantasy— is a marvelous collection of “Adventures in Myth and Mystical Enchantment” from writers like George McDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, and many others.

I remember buying this book at a small, independent bookstore somewhere on the west coast. It may even have been an old-fashioned newsstand kind of establishment, like the one we used to have in my home town (but which, sadly, burned down and was never rebuilt). I have a vague recollection of the scent of pipe tobacco and of dingy shelves, tourist postcards and maybe a selection of snacks. I don’t really have any other concrete memories of the sights and sounds of that place, but I do remember clearly the feeling of choosing that book for my own. I remember the sense of anticipation for all the magic to come, a tingle of excitement, and the delicious warmth of book ownership. Even today, this book still inspires that feeling. Even after all these years.

1807 book earthsea

When I learned of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing, it was the first time I shed a tear over the loss of a beloved author. I grew up reading her stories of Earthsea. I practiced speaking to dragons and tried to learn her runic languages. In her stories, I felt I could see clearly the contrast of light and shadow and their eternal struggle and dance. I loved the way her stories connected so deeply to the natural world, helping me to see magic and wonder in even the most mundane of settings. She taught patience and loyalty while also kindling the young flames of courage and fierceness in my heart.

I recently reread A Wizard of Earthsea and was impressed by the way Le Guin’s story has stood the test of time. Soon, I will journey to the Tombs of Atuan and the Farthest Shore as well. I’ve been away too long. There are old friends I need to see and old lessons I need to relearn.

1807 book LOTR

My mother has told me that I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy when I was only in the third grade. While I cannot myself pinpoint exactly how old I was when I first picked up J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece works, I do remember checking them out of our public library. They were hard copy editions that were shelved not in the children’s room, but in the grown-up upstairs of the library. In fact, they were kept just to the left of the circulation desk, at a height that caused me to tip toe up to reach them. I remember embossed covers with bits of gold ink and worn bindings secured with librarian’s tape. I know I borrowed them multiple times before eventually acquiring my own copies.

LOTR became a staple for my whole family. We bootlegged the 1981 BBC dramatization, which was broadcast in the U.S. by NPR radio. I listened to those cassettes so many times, I wore them out. Happily, many years later, all twelve episodes were released on CD. And now, I also own digital copies via Audible. I listened to that adaptation so many times that I can recite various passages by heart, which is to say that I can recite passages from the book because the script for the BBC production was very faithful to Tolkien’s original works.

When Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, my whole family went to the theatre together, and then to dinner where we expressed great relief that Jackson had done such an admirable job of adapting the stories to screen. (We didn’t want to have to hunt him down and give him what for.) To this day, I often turn to LOTR when I need some comfort, or when I need to be reminded of the power each of us has to make a positive change in the world.

1807 book board books

Finally, for my last selection, I cheated again (as I’d done by combining The Hobbit and LOTR into one pick), and included several books as a single selection. In the case of Tolkien’s works, they are all part of one long story. But in the case of this collection of children’s board books, they are each a unique facet of my daughter’s young childhood, linked only by the number of times we read each of them. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Snow Bears, Big Red Barn, Let’s Go Visiting, I Love Animals, Carl’s Afternoon in the Park, and Jamberry … oh, how I adore these books!

The original challenge was to share books that had meant something to me and/or influenced my life. These books, though I only discovered them when my daughter was born and I was thirty-four years old, most definitely fit the bill on both counts. These books are a treasure, each one capturing the warmth and joy and wonder and love shared between mother and daughter during some of my daughter’s most formative years. I cannot even count the hours we spent with these books. How many bedtimes and naptimes and every other time between?

Though their cardboard pages are worn and even peeling, their colors are still bright and the stories they tell are still vibrant and full of the exuberance of a child’s heart and mind. I hope that they will serve, forever, as an anchor for my daughter’s heart. I know they will be that for me until the day I die.

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Reading Outside Your Usual Cultural Space

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A book can take you anywhere—a different place, time, planet, or reality. A book can transform you into someone else, dropping you into other people’s lives so that you see the world through their eyes, understand what makes them tick, and feel their hurts and their triumphs.

In fact, studies have shown that the neurological activity of readers mirrors the neurological activity of the characters about which they are reading. In addition, reading novels is widely believed to increase empathy, primarily by letting us share someone else’s experience.

We need to encourage this kind of armchair adventure more than ever these days.

1807 caged birdThis is one reason I was glad to see Maya Angelou’s debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, on my daughter’s freshman year summer reading list. I have quoted Angelou many times, but I knew next to nothing about her life until I happened to catch the episode “And Still I Rise” on the PBS series, American Masters. I had no idea what this woman went through or the strength and grace she embodied throughout her unspeakably tragic life until then.

I will be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings this summer along with my daughter, and I have also been making intentional choices about other books on my never-ending and always growing TBR (to be read) list.

1807 hate u giveFor instance, I recently read the debut novel of another woman of color, Angie Thomas. Her breakaway young adult hit, The Hate U Give, was inspired by a real-life shooting in which an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white transit police officer. I listened to this story as an audio book, and it was the first time in a while that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to put down whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.

I was fortunate to be able to later participate in a book group discussion with Action Together North Shore, a local activist group of which I am a member. We had so many more people show up to discuss the book than we expected. The conversation was generously led by a black woman who is a professor of African American studies at Salem State University, but the rest of our group was white. A lot of learning took place.

1807 blood and boneSince then, I have read a very different story by another woman of color, Nigerian-American writer, Tomi Adeyemi. Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy novel that tells the story of two races—one with magic, one without—who are pitted in a generations-long battle for power. The racial metaphor is clear, but the vehicle for the message could not be more different from Thomas’ super realistic storytelling in The Hate U Give.

1807 freshwaterAnother book I picked up at our local library is a wildly dark novel by another writer who hails from Nigeria. Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer whose narrative in Freshwater often feels more like poetry than a linear story. Her themes are difficult and frightening, and her tale is interwoven with the mythology of gods that are so different from the Judeo-Christian one most of us are familiar with; but it’s these challenging aspects of the work that make it so fascinating and so valuable.

1807 born a crimeOn the other end of the spectrum is Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime. This insightful, touching, and funny look into his life growing up in South Africa during apartheid as the child of a mixed-race couple was eye opening for me. I recommend this one as an audio book, read by the author.

1807 homegoingMy most recent read was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s an epic story that covers three hundred years in the lives of two Ghana-born half sisters and several generations of their kin. I won’t lie—it was a challenging read in terms of the material, but it was so worth it. I learned a lot. Gyasi succeeds in drawing her reader in so that they not only begin to understand the stories of her characters, they feel them. That’s the power of story. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: o_teuerle Flickr via Compfight cc

How To Write An Obit

How to Write An Obit

My Dad. 7/23/1925 – 7/19/2018

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer and never plan to write for publication, chances are you will someday have to write an obituary for someone you’ve loved and lost.

How to Write An Obit

Mom, circa 1940.

I know this, because last week I wrote an obit for my dad. Six years earlier, I wrote one for my mom.

While I included the usual details of where they each were born, what they did for their livings, and where and when they died, their lives were a great deal richer than a collection of biographical facts.

Collect the Facts

Since it’s entirely possibly that you’ll be a blubbery mess when the time comes, you’ll want to collect all the facts about your subject before you start writing. Professional obit writers keep files on famous people for when the time comes. You might want to start a file now on those for whom you expect to write an obituary. You also might want to create a document with such details about yourself and file it along with your Advance Care Plan, your Last Will and Testament, the key to your Safe Deposit Box, and a list of your passwords, to make it easier for your survivors to tie up lose ends.

Consider Your Audience

Next, just as in writing anything else, you must consider your audience. The obit you write for the local paper may emphasize someone’s community service, whereas the one you send to a professional organization’s publication will narrate the arc of the person’s career. Make it easy on yourself: write a master obit with a paragraph for each section. This makes it easy to cut and paste shorter versions to the different places where an obit is likely to appear.

Make it Meaningful

Then consider what made this person’s life worth living. For most of us, our obituary will appear in the local paper one day and line the litter box the next, but readers will always remember a story. Tell stories about this  person’s one wild and precious life.

Links to Worksheets

Here’s a link to three examples, each for the same fictional person. I wrote these examples for a workshop I taught on obituary writing. The first is just the bare minimum: Who died, where, when and how (optional). The second is Standard Vanilla, with the usual details and not a whole lot more. The third gives you more detail and more flavor of the person who didn’t just die, but who lived – and how.

And here’s a link to a worksheet to help you gather the facts you’ll want to have on hand.

Having the Last Word

How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary – one draft if you died today and another if you live to be one hundred. Then figure out how to make the second one come true.

Blessings to you all, ~Deborah.

Write an Obit

Family Photo, circa 1962

Write an Obit

Family Photo, August 2005

Write An Obit

Family Photo, June 2018

 

 

 

Reposting: The Singular They

The Elements of StyleLanguage changes with the times, even grammar.

I attended college during the second wave of feminism, when incorporating non-sexist terms into every day usage was an important demonstration of inclusiveness. In addition to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, we consulted Miller and Swift’s The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and we learned to replace the word man with the word human when we meant all people.

This was the era when the honorific Ms. entered the language. The thinking was that women should be able to be in the world without reference to their marital status. I didn’t see what business my marital status was back then, when I wasn’t married, and I still don’t now that I am. I use the name I was born with, and smoke comes out my ears when people who know better call me by my husband’s last name.

English is quite liberal in accepting neologisms, and new words enter the language all the time: localvore, texting and twerking are three examples. Grammar is harder to change.

Back in 1980, when The Handbook of Non-Sexist Language was first published, Miller and Swift confronted the pronoun problem in English, which offers only gendered singular pronouns: she/her/hers and he/him/his.

Handbook of Nonsexist WritingIn attempts to be inclusive, many writers used the awkward pronoun construction he/her – sometimes shortened to s/he – which is cumbersome, but works. Miller and Swift’s suggestion to use the non-gendered plural they/them/theirs instead of she/he, him/her, hers/his, has gradually been adopted. In both speech and writing, many people combine a singular noun with the plural pronoun, as in Everyone cheered when they saw the balloons.

I confess that the English teacher in me resisted this apparently ungrammatical usage at first. But as a woman who bristles at the male bias in our culture and language, I’m sensitive to inclusion. I’m dismayed when a white, straight, male professional, such as a physician, politician, professor or writer, for example, is referred to by their profession only, but all others are modified according to their otherness, be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else.

Resistance to change is human, especially when change threatens tradition, be it traditional power structures, religious beliefs, knowledge or accepted standards of behavior. But change still happens, just as knowledge expands.

During the second wave of feminism, we understood gender to be binary, and the feminist impulse was to create equality between men and women. A generation later, our understanding of gender has grown, making the change in pronoun usage even more pressing. With our new understanding of gender fluidity that includes men, women, transgender, transsexual and genderqueer, we need new pronouns in order to be inclusive and fair.

Trans*Ally WorkbookSeveral new pronouns have been introduced to achieve inclusiveness: ne/nir, ze/zir, per/pers are a few examples. You can learn about these and others in Davey Shlasko’s Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right & What It Teaches Us about Gender. While one or more of the new constructions may eventually take hold, I think the adoption of the singular they is most likely to succeed now. After all, it’s already in use, and as the ancient Roman poet Horace observed millennia ago, Use is the judge, and rule, and law, of speech.

 

I believe that language matters, and have been doing my small part to advance issues through narrative by telling stories to create change. I blog weekly at  Living in Place.

This essay originally posted in May 25, 2015. I’ve scheduled more reruns while I’m on summer vacation. Look for replies to your comments in mid-July.

No, You can’t have too many books.

cranky book cat

Library cat says, “Don’t judge me.”

Over the course of his life, Umberto Eco amassed a collection of some thirty thousand books. The twentieth-century Italian novelist, philosopher, and medievalist housed his personal library in a labyrinthine expanse of long, bookcase-lined hallways that led to and through dozens of rooms, each of which was filled with rows of heavily laden shelves. Nestled here and there were large tables stacked high with more books and piles of manuscript pages. It was the kind of place you could easily—and if you were a bibliophile, happily—get lost in.

While my own library is immeasurably more modest than Signor Eco’s, the two do have something in common: both include a number of books never read by their owner.

I used to feel guilty about all the unread books on my shelves, but that was before I read about the “antilibrary.” The term was coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American essayist and scholar who studies randomness, probability, and uncertainty. In his book, The Black Swan, Taleb used Eco’s unique relationship with his books to illustrate the concept of the antilibrary—a collection of books that, because the owner has not yet read them, represent the unknown and a potential for learning.

Taleb described how Eco separated visitors to his library into two categories: those who wanted to know how many of the books he had read, and those who understood that the library was a valuable research tool.

Read books are far less valuable than unread ones,” Taleb wrote. “The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there.”

I find this concept very reassuring, given my penchant for continuing to buy new books even though I already have dozens of still-unread ones sitting patiently on my shelves.

Too often, people think of a personal library as a kind of literary trophy case, showing off all the books the owner has read. While I enjoy being surrounded by my favorite books (and do, quite often, reread them), I now realize there is something to be said for balancing your collection with a healthy number of unread volumes.

Taleb’s idea of the antilibrary helps us refocus our attention from the known (books we have read) to the unknown (everything else). It gently reminds us that we should neither hoard knowledge nor lord it over other people in an attempt to ascend some imaginary ladder of hierarchy. By reminding us of everything we don’t know, the antilibrary restores our humility while simultaneously inspiring our curiosity.

Yes, once I felt remorseful about all my unread books, but not so much anymore. Now, I’m actually kind of excited. Each unread book feels like an adventure just waiting to begin. Each one holds untold possibilities. What lessons might be learned? What secrets might be revealed? What inspiration might strike? What tears might fall? What intrigue and drama might erupt off the page to sweep me off my feet and into another reality?

It is comforting to have so many reading options available at my fingertips, and having so many books in my to-be-read pile means that my home library feels a little like a bookstore in that it maintains a subtle yet powerfully alluring air of discovery.

And isn’t that perhaps the most appealing thing about a book—the possibility that it will help us discover something new about the world, about life, or about ourselves? How much nicer it is to imagine each unread book on our shelves not as an unfulfilled task or a neglected obligation, but as an as yet unwrapped gift that may give us the opportunity to unlock some new knowledge, attain a new insight, or capture a new experience? Yes, that’s much better. Let’s go with that.

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What’s in your antilibrary? Do you collect books on the writing craft, novels, poetry? How do you feel about having those unread tomes on your shelf? When do you dip into that reservoir of yet-to-be-consumed stories and wisdom?

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: Dany_Sternfeld Flickr via Compfight cc