On Reading Books about Writing

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As we’ve all been told, perspective employers, customers, and friends skulk around our digital profiles to determine if we have pre-existing conditions like “bad spelling-itis” or “incorrect word usage addictions”. However, for me, life is too short to spend time thumbing through The Chicago Manual of Style to verify the proper placement of quotation marks. For publications on the golden rules of grammar and punctuation, I prefer brevity and entertainment.

AllrightKris SpisaKris Spisakk’s ebook Alright? Not All Right! is a quick reference on common mistakes we all make on our social media feeds while pinning, posting or tweeting about puppies and politicians. Want to avoid bad first impressions and improve your day-to-day written communication skills? Download Ms. Spisak’s 100 Writing Tips for the Curious and Confused.

Here are some other writing reference publications which meet my brevity and entertainment criteria.

For grammar and punctuation, try:

Harbrace College Handbook (7th edition) by John C. Hodges and Mary E. Whitten. The indexing format of this comprehensive guide enables me to find answers fast. This 7th edition was issued to me my freshman year at college. In 2013 the publisher celebrated the book’s 70th anniversary and published an 18th edition titled The Hodges Harbrace Handbook by Cheryl Glenn and Loretta Gray.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. Learning the correct way to use a semicolon is actually fun when reading Ms. Truss. Using jokes (a panda walks into a bar with a gun and orders a bamboo shoot) and real life bad examples, she shames us all into becoming better writers.

For the craft of writing, there are hundreds of books on the subject. Here are three classics I have enjoyed:

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. Only 105 pages long, I re-read this one each time I start a new writing project.

On Writing by Stephen King. Part memoir and part writing craft advice, this book reads, well, like a Stephen King novel. A page-turner until the end, the book is a must for the novice novelist.

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser. According to the cover of my copy, more than a million readers think this book offers good advice on writing nonfiction. Tips from this book helped me with business and technical writing when I was a product development manager.

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Channeling The Bard

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Is there really anything new under the stars when it comes to creating love scene dialogue?

You had me at "hello".

You had me at “hello”.

Remember the run away line from the movie Jerry Maguire?  Showing up unannounced, Jerry (Tom Cruise) professes in a garrulous soliloquy his undying love for Dorothy (Renee Zellweger). She patiently listens then delivers her love punch, “You had me at ‘hello’.”

Something about the understated line rings true for those struck with the “love at first sight” fever. The phrase inspired country crooner Kenny Chesney to write a song titled “You Had Me At Hello.” And when the opportunity arose in which he met the object of his song’s affection, the lovely Ms. Zellweger, he, like Jerry Maguire, howled at the moon then declared his eternal love for her with a marriage proposal.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that this wonderfully simple claim of one’s instant devotion had been written before. That’s right, William Shakespeare’s Juliet used the same sentiment on the obviously clueless Romeo when he showed up at her residence unannounced.

487009351Upon Juliet’s insistence that it is time for the love-struck and babbling lover to leave, Romeo asks, “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?”

To which she replies, “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?”

And he begs, “The exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine.”

Then she asserts, “I gave thee mine before thou didst request it: And yet I would it were to give again.”

In other words, Romeo, you had her at “hello.”

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Mary Dulcie’s Jam Cake and The Christmas Lasagna Mutiny

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IMG_8478By the time I was old enough to boil water, my mother welcomed an extra pair of hands into her kitchen. At twelve, I was promoted to holiday cookie baker. However, my mother entrusted no one but herself with the baking of her mother’s Christmas jam cake. Think English figgy pudding meets American candied fruit cake.

According to Mom the Christmas season wasn’t upon us until the old fashioned Bundt brick was resting under the cake tent in her dining room cupboard drying out nicely for the big day. And every year, all but a slice or two of the dense block of nuts and dried-out cake dough managed to survive the entire two weeks of gluttonous jubilations. The cake, along with the half-eaten, mint jelly centered Whitman samplers, was always the last holiday fare eaten, sometime between the waning days of January and Fat Tuesday.

Chef Iris at Christmas

Chef Iris at Christmas

As it came to pass, the year I turned eighteen, Chef Mom gave me free reign over the Christmas Dinner menu. By then, I estimated, our mother had prepared over 23,000 meals; for her, the excitement of preparing a holiday feast had lost its luster. On this most high of culinary occasions, she abdicated her favorite whisk and mixing bowls to me.

These were pre-Martha Stewart-Paula Dean times, ya’ll, but like those culinary trend setters, I was ready to shake things up in the kitchen. The first item knocked off the menu was, you guessed it, the jam cake and the second item was the standard, ho-hum roasted turkey. Both were banished. In their place, I smugly announced to the family, we would be supping on lasagna on December 25.  “She’s joking,” they said, “No turkey at Christmas? That’s madness. Heresy!” When the day of celebration of the birth of baby Jesus arrived, the lasagna was paraded around the dining room and placed at the table’s center among the yuletide side dishes my parent’s English and German ancestors had handed down to their daughters over the ages.

The diners grumbled over the absence of giblet gravy and mashed potatoes as every morsel of the lasagna disappeared. My sister still refers to that particular holiday supper as the Christmas Lasagna Mutiny. But, as I recall, no one asked for a slice of jam cake.

They were right, my ancestors and my family, and I was wrong. Christmas isn’t Christmas without our holiday memory comfort foods like the roasted turkey and all its trimmings or simple sugar cookies shaped as Christmas trees and angels. The act of baking the cake, rather than eating it, was Mom’s way of celebrating the season’s traditions, the experience which connected her to warm memories of her childhood Christmases. Since she passed away, I’ve baked the cake at Christmastime to honor her and her mother and to connect with my own Christmas Past.

Come January, when the days are their darkest and the cold wind pits freezing rain against your face, I invite you over for a cup of coffee and a slice of Mary Dulcie’s jam cake.  Don’t worry, there will be plenty left over from our Christmas celebrations for you to enjoy.

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Memoirs: They’re not just for celebrities

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Doug Jones_PlaywrightDoug Jones says a memoir is not an autobiography, which requires research to verify events and dates. No, he says, a memoir is the story of your life or, perhaps, a milestone event you’ve experienced. Your story must be what you believe is the truth—in all its warts, pain and glory. To borrow from The Bard, “To thine own self be true” is the key to memoir writing. Doug’s a playwright, too.

“Why are memoirs so popular?” Doug asks. In the class my brother-in-law Bob and I attended, Doug says we read memoirs to connect with others, to assure that we not alone. To know that our fears, doubts, and joys are universal feelings; that every human has them.

“Who would want to read about my life?” Everyone in the class asks. “There’s nothing special about it.”

Doug disagrees. Guiding the class through a series of timed writing exercises then asking us to share our “interior monologues”, he proves to us that our stories can be interesting.

“Don’t worry. Don’t edit. Don’t stop. Just keep moving your pen,” he advises.

The exercises are designed to help find the “nugget”, or common theme, which can lead to scenes, or chapters, and, eventually, a story others may want to read.

On memories of being four years old, Brother-in-law Bob hit one out of the park by writing the phrase “on my side of the street.” This sweet expression conjures up all sorts of images and questions: What does this four-year old’s voice have to say about Bob the man? Or, what’s so special about his side of the street? Will he ever cross over? If he does, what’s waiting for him there?

Try it out. Starting with the phrase “I remember…” write for ten minutes, non-stop. Then read it aloud to a friend, roommate, spouse, or to yourself. Then, repeat.
Or, better yet, sign up for Doug’s memoir writing class this fall at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

 Memory_Story_intersectionMemoir Writing
Tuesdays, Sept 15-Dec 1, 10 am – 1pm at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

 

Here are some memoirs I’ve read over the last year or so. About the author’s stories, one’s funny, one’s heartrending, and every young woman pursuing a career in public service may want to consider reading the third.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson
All Over but the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleeza Rice

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What came first, writing or reading?

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This Common Reader spending time with Gus and Woodrow

If you ask, any writer will tell you he was a reader long before he wrote the first sentence with intentions of publishing.

Like Scout Finch, I was reading before my momma packed me off to first grade. By the time I left for college, I had devoured most of the books in the tiny library in my hometown. Through the years, I’ve managed to hang on to the first book given to me and my mother’s Universal Edition of The Works of William Shakespeare. Everything else, I’ve borrowed from the library or friends and, lately, have asked Mr. Bezos to send along.

In my freshman year of college, I had my heart set on becoming a poet. My writing professor suggested I pursue another vocation as I would surely starve if my livelihood depended upon my sonnets. So economics and commerce it was. Then the years zipped by at the speed of a snapped finger. But as I’ve pinged my way through my own private accelerated time tunnel, reading has remained a faithful travel companion.

And now I’m ready to write my own stories.

Becoming a member of James River Writers has given me the opportunity to meet some of the Commonwealth’s many talented writers—poets, novelists, essayists, playwrights, journalists and non-fiction writers. Members have encouraged and supported me as I pursue my dream of creating my literary legacy.

James River WritersJoin us for our Writer’s Conference October 16-18, 2015 at the Richmond Convention Center. If you’re a reader, chances are you’re a writer, too, and just haven’t admitted it to yourself.

Check jamesriverwriters.org for updates on conference activities and our “Reader’s Package.”  Come and meet the rest of the tribe.

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Hats off for respect

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Mr. G and the Pacific Coast

Mr. G and the Pacific Coast

l love a man who wears a hat. A man wearing a hat badly, not so much.

Recently, my husband and I watched a re-broadcast of In Performance at the White House, the episode  in which some of the nation’s most talented folk and country singers serenade the President and First Lady.

Mr. LovettDressed in his usual made-to-measure style, Lyle Lovett stepped up to the microphone on the East Room stage and sang his western love song, “Cowboy Man.” I’m betting he checked his hat with the butler at the front door because, unless he’s portraying a scurrilous lawyer low-life (The Bridge), you’ll never see this Texas gentleman wearing his John B. Stetson indoors, especially at the White House. Why? ’Cause his mama said so. In his song “Don’t Touch My Hat”, he mentions her lesson:

My mama told me

Son to be polite,

Take your hat off

 When you walk inside

Later during the show, the man from Massachusetts walked on stage sporting what haberdashers call an open road rancher. Where was his stylist?  His mama?

Whatever happened to the practice of removing one’s hat to convey recognition and respect? And, boys, learning good hat etiquette isn’t hard. On Emily Post’s website there is a simple list of where and when a man should doff his hat, with “in someone’s home” at the top. (And there’s a list for the ladies, too.)

In these times of popular music performances, a cowboy hat, or any other kind of lid, worn on stage in a football stadium, a roadhouse or bar, OK, I get it. But the White House? Hear the sportscaster’s plea for common sense, “Come on, man,” and show a little courtesy.

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Time for the Summer Reading List

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Warmer days are here and so is This Common Reader’s 2015 summer recommendations, featuring some of the talented James River Writers I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.

Non-fiction:

Dean KingConsider spending time with the “historical adventure stories” of Dean King, co-founder of James River Writers. The award winning author searches for truth in times long forgotten and faraway places, like the Sahara Desert and China, so that the rest of us can experience extreme peril from the comfort and safety of a backyard hammock.

Try Skeletons on the Zahara or Unbound, true stories filled with chance and daring-do.

Kristen Green

In June 2015, Kristen Green released her account of her Virginia hometown of Farmville, segregation and Prince Edward County school closings (1959-1964).  Both title and topic are big. Ms. Green’s Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle shines light on a dark and troubled time in Virginia’s history.

Fiction:

Harper LeeMy 2014 summer reading prediction that we would never see another book from Harper Lee backfired on me. Two million copies of Ms. Lee’s second novel and sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird will be released in July. The new novel, the author’s first manuscript, was discovered among her archives by her attorney Tonja B. Carter. The discovery and subsequent publication has faced much controversy in publishing circles.

Have a Finch family reunion during the coming dog days, re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, then find out what happens to Scout, as a young woman, returning home in Go Set A Watchman.

Kellie MurphyAnd speaking of second novels, James River Writer Kellie Larsen Murphy has just released her second Detective Cancini Mystery, Stay of Execution.  Great for a beach read. Ms. Murphy is destined to become Richmond’s next favorite crime story writer.

 

Poetry:

Johanna LeeTired of romance novels? Try something truly endearing. Listen to Richmond poet Joanna Lee recite two of her poems for National Poetry Month (April). She will move you.

Joanna shared with me the names of some of her favorite published poets. Joshua Poteat Ian BodkinKelly Cherry, Poet Laureate of Virginia (2010-2012) , Sofia Starnes, Poet Laureate of Virginia 2012-2014, and Angela Marie Carter

And, of course, there is always Richmond’s favorite. On June 20, the man himself reads from his works in Edgar Allan Poe – Richmond and Beyond at the Historic Hanover Courthouse.

Happy reading everyone, wherever it may happen this summer!

This Common Reader spending time with Gus and Woodrow

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Social Media and the Afterlife

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Bookcover_Goodbye for nowIn her second novel, Goodbye for Now, Laurie Frankel takes a classic theme of the human experience—we live, we love, then we die—to a new level by adding avatars of her characters’ dead loved ones.

Sam, a software coding genius, writes a computer program that enables his grieving girlfriend, Meredith, to chat via social media with her recently departed grandmother. He creates an algorithm which, drawing data from emails and video calls between the two, allows Meredith to continue communicating with her grandmother after the dear soul’s physical remains are reposed. Sam and Meredith call the software application RePose and offer it to others.

A philosopher with a pen for storytelling, Ms. Frankel has her characters debate the notion that with the onset of artificial intelligence and other technologies, we humans may require an upgrade in Descartes’ proclamation of existence—a version 2.0 of “I think, therefore, I am.” They seem to wonder, “Is ‘the Cloud’ the new heaven since our thoughts, words, and likenesses (pictures and videos) will continue to exist there long after our physical bodies are gone?” What is the soul but conscience and individuality of one’s being?

Skype Chat w Gran-maShe concludes that this “brave new world” of interacting with a facsimile of another pales to experiencing in-the-moment real life with actual loved ones; using social media is, in fact, an isolating experience much like the act of dying.

And, oh, the irony, I’m blogging about this story and sharing it with you via email, Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook has developed policies for loved ones and their dearly departed’s account(s). It’s only a matter of time before a real life “Sam” comes along and creates something like the fictional RePose.

If given the chance, would you want to converse with a loved one after they are physically gone, using the reams of data we are all accumulating from texting, emailing and video calling? Would interacting with a loved one’s avatar help with the grieving process or hinder the healing of the heartbreak of loss?

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Peace on Earth, David Sedaris Style

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David Sedaris

If Seinfeld is a show about nothing, then David Sedaris’s essays are musings on the same topic. The humorist has been scribbling about bellybutton lint and other life oddities since courdory jackets were hip.

SantaLand DiariesHis big break came in 1992 when National Public Radio asked him to read from his SantaLand Diaries about his adventures as a “low-key sort of elf” named Crumpet. I became an instant fan when he sang Away in a Manager, Billie Holliday style. http://www.npr.org/2011/12/23/144136439/david-sedaris-reads-from-his-santaland-diaries

Like an unscripted recording of modern life, Mr. Sedaris’s works are dioramic exhibitions of his everyday experiences. His narratives hold nothing back. They convey blinding truths, realities which come with a spectrum of emotions from happy and funny to sadness and anxiety to full on distress.

Passages in his stories coax me to laugh out loud. And there are times when his more poignant essays cause a cloud of gray funk to float over my head for days. Some just have it all, like the accounting of the loss of a sibling. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/28/now-we-are-five

Sedaris BooksHis style of humor is grounded in the paradoxes of daily existence, forcing us to see the absurdity of our seriousness and notions of self-importance. To further the cause of peace on earth this holiday season, read Mr. Sedaris’s fables about nothing.

http://www.davidsedarisbooks.com/books.html

 

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Summer of 2014 Reading List

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This spring my husband and I ventured out on what I called The Grand Inland Southern Tour. En route to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, our road trip took us through Birmingham, Alabama by way of Chattanooga, Tennessee. After we sated ourselves on gumbo, etouffee and jazzy blues in the Big Easy, we breezed through Natchez, Jackson and Oxford, Mississippi, then up the Natchez Trace Parkway to Nashville, Tennessee and back home to Virginia.

The journey inspired this summer’s reading list, a mix of new releases and books from the literary archives.

Harper Lee BookFist up, Alabama. As Harper Lee, who calls Monroeville, Alabama home, doesn’t plan to write a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, read Charles Shields’ biography of the legendary author, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

Birmingham resident  Fannie Flagg has the summer’s quick and fun read covered with her latest The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.  Visit Ms. Flagg’s website to watch her interview with Southern Living Magazine and learn how she got her stage name.

rick-bragg-saving-face-sAnd speaking of Southern Living Magazine, the articles on pruning crepe myrtles are no longer the reason I reach for it while in the grocery store check-out line. News journalist Rick Bragg’s noodlings about his mama, fishing, and stray dogs on the magazine’s back page are as down home as the fried chicken recipes. The man’s got a silver tongued pen. Try his memoir about growing up in Alabama, All Over But the Shoutin’.

While driving through New Orleans’ Uptown District, I thought about Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth.  A story teller at the top of her game, Ms. Smith uses New Orleans and Asheville, North Carolina as settings in her tale of tortured and tender souls. Read it to discover the genius of Zelda Fitzgerald, who was born in Montgomery, Alabama.

Natchez BurningOn to Mississippi, the Magnolia State. While my husband stopped at a Natchez coffee shop for his afternoon jolt, Miss Seren Dipity escorted me across the street to the local independent bookstore. On the counter right next to the cash register sat native son Greg Iles’ latest, Natchez Burning. Miss Dipity insisted I buy the 788 page tome. Tuck it into your tote bag for the beach. It’s a page-turning-can’t-put-it-down yarn.

Also on my list this summer is Eudora Welty’s short novel The Optimist’s Daughter 225px-Eudora_Welty_at_National_Portrait_Gallery_IMG_4558(Pulitzer 1973).  After driving by Miss Welty’s Jackson home, my husband was coaxed into traveling two hours out of our way to pop in to see William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak on The University of Mississippi campus at Oxford. When we identified ourselves as Virginians, the docent shared with us Mr. Faulkner’s thoughts on Virginia civility, saying, “Mr. Faulkner said Virginians were snobs and he liked them just fine.” My grandmother would call that a left-handed compliment.

If your summertime plans don’t include a trip to the Deep South to view the muddy Mississippi River and eat fried alligator, perhaps you can make a virtual visit by reading these tales about a place where “the livin’ is easy, fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”

See you under the sun umbrella and happy reading!

 

 

 

 

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