Bird by Bird: On Writing & Honesty


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What does it mean to be a writer? Ask anyone who practices the craft. You might hear several answers, because people have different reasons.

Anne Lamott’s memoir Bird by Bird offers a response I believe few would disagree with:

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

Lamott offers advice on matters such as outlining, but she makes sure we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture while fussing over technicalities. Our obligation is to tell the truth, the truths of our readers and of the human race.

But I write fiction, you might say. Everything is made up. So do I. I’ve yet to try heavy worldbuilding; however, soon I will. Even then, my story won’t be an untruth. It’s set in a realm that’s very real to me.

I have yet to meet a devoted author who hasn’t felt their dream world as if they lived in it. When a writer puts soul into their story, they’re telling the truth about themselves, using words to help it be seen by an audience.

It would be nice to have thousands of readers, but it’s still a story, even if no one has read it. It would be convenient to make a living off of it, but I can’t bet on that. Lamott believes, and I do as well, that any writer who wants to write well should desire nothing more than to tell their truth.

Formerly a creative writing teacher, Lamott offers advice to improve our craft. By means of parables and flashbacks, she instructs without sounding like an instruction manual. I highlighted sentences so I can go over them again, but three tips stood out to me most.

First, she instructed her students to write 300 words daily. I found a notebook and resolved to fill a page every day, no matter how tired I am. One page seems a small goal when you start, but it’s comforting to see progress as the days pass.

Secondly, Lamott’s resolve about honest writing is powerful:

Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.

She tells us to take the truths that frighten us, spinning them into tales that make an impact. Even if we change names, truth remains the core of it. Readers feel it between the lines. A writer’s job is to tell the truth.

Finally, her most unpopular advice is that publishing can be overrated. Lamott made sure to warn her students that contracts don’t take away Writer’s Block. We will never be happy if we write for publication. We should write because we love it.

Writing can be bittersweet. On days when it’s hard to put words on paper, we are tempted to quit and find an easier hobby. I don’t think true writers can quit for long. Even when we aren’t writing, the worlds we write are a part of us.

Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.

Bird by Bird reminds us that writing can drive us mad, but it’s worth embracing this madness. It reminds us that fiction is never a lie, encourages us to soldier through rewrites and bad reviews because we’re storytellers.

I believe any writer should read it at least once. Let us never lose sight of the honesty that characterizes our work; we owe the world our truths.

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A Place of Light


This is another excerpt from my journal that I would like to share. It needs editing, but I liked it, and hope you will too!


There’s a lot of light in this place.

It’s a haven of pure air and high spirits. It makes me feel like there’s no darkness left in my reality; by this I know it can’t be reality.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Perhaps I’m on a different plane.

It has to be a dream.

I sit on the ground and let it soak in – energy, inspiration, peace. Could this be the place ideas come from?

Could this weightlessness be the root of my inspiration?

Closing my eyes, I search my mind, seeking ideas for my next poem…here in this place of light.

On Storytelling


What does it mean to be a storyteller?

Stories are places of refuge for people frightened by the realities of this world. They provide rest when we are too weak to dwell on reality.

Story is salve for the wounds inflicted by life.

A well-told story comforts us. We seek depth and meaning. We find both in a book.

We are cheered by the thought that the human mind, while capable of terrible things, also brings forth great beauty.

Fiction is a playground for the human imagination, which needs exercise like any other muscle. The storyteller cares for the playground.

We are gardeners charged with planting wonder and safety; these might come in the form of a novel or a poem. This skill is learned through observation and practice.

It is difficult: many of us curse the craft as much as we love it.

Storytelling is not easy, but human beings need story more than they care to admit.

Any garden has to be tended.

The Garden and the Trilogy


Sometimes the cure to Writer’s Block—and to Reader’s Burnout—is to do something else. Some of you might have known that already, but I’ve been stubborn for years, refusing to think myself capable of taking up another hobby with the passion I felt for literature.

Then I took up gardening.

The dining room window looks like a greenhouse; I imagine my books looking on, dejected, as I speak to my cilantro or asters. The books are wondering what could have distracted me so much.

Some of my enthusiasm might stem (no pun intended) from reluctance to finish editing. It’s necessary, I know, but it’s never been my favorite thing. If given the choice between editing or planting a flower…

This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting Alice’s novel. I’ve made a great deal of progress since December: I drafted it, made an outline, rewrote it and started edits. The draft is decent. I have even shared it with trusted people.

The reason for this progress is my decision to include logic in my fantasy universe. A year ago I planned dozens of stories with no order for them. There was no way to discern which plot arc was more important.

Now, I’ve divided the story into trilogies, making them easier to keep in order. It’s like taming a jungle or planning a garden. Hopefully the series will be nicer to look at and easier to navigate.

Today, I edit the second-to-last chapter of Alice’s book. After that I’ll put the novel aside and focus on something new. Maybe it’ll be my garden, or maybe I’ll start the second book. After all, too much planning isn’t good, either.

I hope your springtime has been lovely so far!

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway


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This is my first Hemingway novel. It’s a quick read and struck me for being so detached. The writing style seems indifferent by nature, focusing little on the main character’s emotions and more on dialogue.

I don’t know if Hemingway’s writing is like this in other novels. It isn’t bad: the way the main character interacts with others, rarely showing strong emotion even to the woman he loves, gives the settings sheens of gray.

At first I thought Maybe he doesn’t love her as much as he thinks. Later, when his child is born, he feels nothing towards it, not even anger. Maybe it’s the war, and the drinking certainly didn’t help. Whatever the case, it’s a powerful scene, bringing out his inability to feel.

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
― Ernest Hemingway

Some criticize Hemingway’s style for being too bare. We know what’s going on from what the characters say to one another. The writing is very minimal, so I could not pick it apart for layers like I have done with Dickens. You’re pulled along by its straightforwardness.

There are different styles for different authors; it’s a reminder that there isn’t a right or wrong way to tell a story. The book is worth a try, keeping in mind that some will enjoy it and others will not.

There were descriptions that plunged me in. You will find and remember them. Overall, I’m glad I read the book. It’s a powerful statement about writing style and the impact it has on a story.

David Copperfield: The Call to Action


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In my final reflection on David Copperfield (for now), I want to muse on a paragraph which appears to me as a living, direct link to the author and what he stood for. It is a reflection on the homeless of his time–and ours.

In context: still a child, David Copperfield has escaped horrific months of factory work. Alone, he fled London on foot to find an aunt he has never met. She will adopt and protect him, putting an end to his darkest years, but they have marked him forever.

The journey to find her is grueling; he is forced to sell the coat off his back in order to buy food. Once he is taken in by his aunt and given a roof over his head, he reflects before going to sleep:

I remember how I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never might be homeless any more, and never might forget the houseless. I remember how I seemed to float, then, down the melancholy glory of that track upon the sea, away into the world of dreams.

Though the first part of this paragraph seems most relevant, I will share all of it because it sets the scene: Copperfield is a child, and his final thought before drifting off is that he might not forget the poor. He hopes never to forget the sensation of feeling unloved and belonging nowhere.

I believe it was written as a call to action. Dickens is telling his readers never to forget the poor. His words are relevant to us, as well.

The poor are still around us, though they look different. You may not see a David Copperfield walking through the countryside, but you will find other children who don’t eat enough, their families enduring hard times in silence.

It might be tricky nowadays to spot someone in need. What, then, can we do to make a difference? Besides prayer and donation to trusted causes, I think the answer is kindness. Many of us forget to practice the virtue of charity, when a smile might be the light needed to relieve a stranger’s pain.

Dickens was not perfect–reading his biography, we see he had flaws. However, the flawed man can make a difference. I hope we can all smile at the strangers around us despite our imperfections. It might give them strength to make it through another day.

I’m not done taking apart David Copperfield for truths between the lines. However, I am ready to dissect other books. There is so much to be learned–both from the classics that never died and in modern works.

Seek truth between the lines and explore the margins. Books will always be relevant. Pay attention to their calls of action, because many stories are timeless for a reason.


Here are my other musings on David Copperfield, if you are interested in reading them:

David Copperfield: Escapism and Books


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Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield is, in many respects, autobiographical. Readers see the protagonist in bleak situations, many of which take root in things the author himself experienced–child abuse, poverty, instances when it was difficult to count one’s blessings.

As a reader and writer, the following paragraph stood out to me. It describes Copperfield as a child, seeking refuge from his ill fortune by vanishing into books.

It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read these books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favorite characters in them–as I did–and by putting Mr and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones–which I did too.

I’ve written books where my characters were similar to me in some ways, sharing habits or speech nuances. This has always happened by accident. I never sat and told myself this character will like the same music or we will enjoy the same foods. No, these things crept onto the page; later, I found them and smiled.

In the above paragraph, David Copperfield describes escaping dark times by reading books. He became the hero and identified the villains in his life. I wondered if Charles Dickens did this knowingly, to increase the book’s autobiographical nature. Was it strategic, or an accident? Did he later reflect on his character and realize he and Copperfield shared this trait?

Once writers master the art of escapism, we know the skill for life. It becomes a part of us, so when we spin stories of our own, we write ourselves in without meaning to. We don’t notice until later that bits of us have slipped in between the lines.

Excerpts like this show why it’s interesting to learn about the author as well as the book. When you know the circumstances in which they lived, it enhances the experience. It’s why I always read introductions when they are available. Often, when I finish reading, I do research on the setting (time period, customs, etc.)

When you read a good book, there’s more going on than your brain registering words. You’re immersing yourself in a journey through time. You become one with the characters. You might even find that you and the author have things in common–habits, opinions, hurts. Any well-written novel has this power. All you need is a bit of patience to get through longer works.

Find a sliver of spare time, and you will travel far.

With people seeking entertainment elsewhere, I fear the beautiful art of reading might one day be forgotten–the kind of reading that immerses us, escapism. Each form of entertainment has its benefits; however, let’s not overlook the joy that can be found in a book.

Reading is a superpower, and we can all learn to use it. If you haven’t been reading much, find a book and start now. There’s a book for everyone, and best of all, there’s always time.

Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten


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Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girlsthe book title was clever. I’m not sure what I expected to find once I started reading. This is a good thing. Any book title is used to draw readers in: it makes them want to lift the cover and glance at the first page, where there should be a hook.

This book title was strong bait indeed; it cleared the way for me to be pulled into the page-turner.

Since I have not read many thrillers, I can’t comment on plot devices used. I enjoyed the read, and it made me consider reading more thrillers in the future. This post is not so much a review as it is a musing, my impression as a reader.

How far would you go for revenge? How broken must a person be to pull off the perfect murder? Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls features one of the darkest characters I’ve read; she’s dark in her brokenness.

I believe this would not have been possible if the protagonist, June, had not been such a contrast. Comparison is a powerful way to write a memorable story. Black and white – shadow and light – June and Delia are a dark, sad balance.

They are both struggling. The difference is this: June lacks the nerve to pull off the feats Delia gets away with. June is the follower in this friendship. She is the weakling, though Delia often pretends otherwise. She is a toy to help Delia feel powerful.

June seems designed to grip the target audience, channeling their weaknesses. The author plays with your mind from the moment you see the cover. She’s not finished, though–once you’ve started reading, she uses your insecurities to help you connect with June! Like her, most of us struggle with insecurity. Most of us have a desire to fit in.

As you see, my commentary focuses on the characters. June and Delia are a fantastic example of characters used strategically. June and Delia–opposites attracted to each other, and not a good pair at all.

However, this must be said: June was not always weak. My favorite scenes featured her trying to grow despite the sadness on her shoulders. There were times she stood in the name of friendship to find out what happened to Delia. It helped me remember, as an insecure reader, that nothing keeps me from standing in the midst of a storm except my own fear.

The plot, pace, and characters were arranged so you will remember them. I finished this book in a day, pulled into the atmosphere, the mystery, the struggle. Whether or not you enjoy this book, I promise you won’t forget it.

David Copperfield: Contrast of Summer and Winter


Paragraphs can be so telling. Here, I’m going to compare two passages from David Copperfield that made their way into my reading journal because of their devastating depth.

Here is the first:

When my mother is out of breath and rests herself in an elbow-chair, I watch her winding her bright curls round her fingers and straightening her waist, and nobody knows better than I do that she likes to look so well, and is proud of being so pretty.

David Copperfield’s mother, Clara, was widowed before the birth of her son. The above paragraph shows she has not lost her energy and attractiveness, even when raising a son alone. When David grows old enough to observe, he notices this, but never thinks it will lead to great change. They have a good life, himself, his mother, and the faithful housemaid. What else do they need?

The reader knows better, though, drinking in these sentences. Young David has noticed that his mother is pretty, and that she likes being pretty. He does not realize that she’s open to the idea of finding love again. He doesn’t realize that their peaceful life could change at any moment.

Since he loves his mother in that innocent way in which children love, David notices that she is pretty and happy. He does not think his mother will marry again. He can never predict she will choose a cruel man who will actively work to put out this spark. Mr Murdstone will dull the glow that David notices in his mother; where once she twirled her hair and daydreamed, now she will lack life.

Clara’s new husband will subject both of them to emotional abuse. When David does not behave to Mr Murdstone’s satisfaction, the child is sent to boarding school. He returns to find his mother’s spark is gone, and when she later dies, her pride and will have both been destroyed:

He [Mr Murdstone] drew her to him, whispered in her ear, and kissed her. I knew as well, when I saw my mother’s head lean down upon his shoulder, and her arm touch his neck–I knew as well that he could mould her pliant nature into any form he chose, as I know, now, that he did it.

The paragraphs, placed side by side, tell a devastating story: the destruction of a beautiful person in a cruel way.

Dickens’ words go so far as to change the light in readers’ minds. The first paragraph feels like a summer afternoon, complete with flowers and a warm breeze. Then we find the second, which evokes a feeling of confinement, and I found myself fearing such bleak loneliness.

As a deep thinker, I wonder: who or what inspired Clara’s character?

This is the beauty of old books: they’re relevant. Clara’s story reminded me that, even today, men and women are tricked into cages very much like this.

Though they look dusty on the outside, old books contain the bits of humanity that never vanished, both light and dark. Read them–not because you were told to in school, but because they contain realistic people.

There are books set today, yesterday, and tomorrow. This means that, at any point in time, there will be a story in which someone relates to your struggle. Even if there isn’t a happy ending, this ancient sense of community gives me hope: people fought these battles. There have been losses, such as poor Clara, but there have also been victories.

There is a book for everyone and everything. Find the story you need–it’s out there.

David Copperfield: Intro


david copperfield coverThe Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery. This is the original title of Charles Dickens’ eighth novel, published in serial form in the year 1850. Now sold as a 700-page book, it was originally released in 19 monthly one-shilling installments. This makes for a delightfully long story in which even the villains trigger a certain empathy.

Dickens himself called it his favorite among all his novels, and countless readers over the years have agreed; I myself found it to be moving, not only because there wasn’t a dull moment, but his word choice–as usual–took my breath away.

Based on Dickens’ own past, particularly the chapters which describe a troubled childhood, the story immerses you–as any good book should. Even if I had not enjoyed the story, I would have kept reading because of the style in which he wrote. His style is known to be vivid; he forms creative parallels to make readers feel emotions, even those of characters we don’t like.

Reading this book, I felt their anger, love, heartbreak, infatuation–and it took me a long time to finish, because I had the constant urge to stop and jot the paragraphs in my journal. Some scenes were so bold that I sensed I had lived them–they were part of my past–and I had to record them, borrowing words from one who was a master at using them.

As I wrote Dickens’ words, I couldn’t help contemplating them on a deep level, finding poetry between the lines–in the pauses–the things not said. They found new meaning as I took them apart from the rest of the book. I realized that, as a reader, there is little like the beauty of a paragraph: words, black ink, old or fresh, promising a tale, promising a description that our own minds wouldn’t have come up with.

I would like to share a few of the notes I made. In the next few days, I want to show anyone interested what I found beautiful and why I thought it so–not as complex analysis, but because I want to share. Perhaps you will find enjoyment in the passages. Perhaps they will encourage you to read the book, but it will be enough if they make you stop and ponder, as they did for me.

I do this because I hope to one day write something this powerful. I do this because I have deep love for words and the magic they create. I do it because I love Dickens’ work and wish he was not dead.

Most of all, I do it because words are beautiful. They ought to be appreciated. I believe they can uncover depths in us, timeless depths. Check back if you want to read my thoughts as I share them. I hope they will make you pause for one moment of your day.