George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans).
Image from Wikipedia.
Now at last we can return to the pleasurable life of books; and I can tell you about my latest addition to my exclusive five star list, George Eliot’s sweeping, realistic, biting, subtle Middlemarch.
I don’t normally get excited about Victorian novels. I’m using that term loosely to apply to eighteenth-century British novels, about the small squirmings of the upper class and the landed gentry of England. And yet, Middlemarch succeeded in utterly beguiling me. It’s less like Austen to me, and more like Henry James; it is passionate, realistic, and willing to gaze upon the lives of unhappy individuals with great clarity and compassion. Unlike the stories of Austen, which generally bear toward a marriage, several marriages happen in Middlemarch right at the outset. The drama will stem not from who will marry whom, but what life will truly be like after these matches, for better or for worse, have been made. One storyline follows Dorothea, an enlightened, modern women with great wisdom, ambition, and intelligence. She is a wonderful character to follow, full of identifiable emotion, passion, and loyalty. She marries an older man who is a respected scholar because she believes she wants to support him in his great work; but to Dorothea’s dismay, and the reader’s as well, we discover that his work is useless and backward, the scholarship that he has been devoting his life to an utter waste of time. Through Eliot’s graceful writing, we can see a marriage, having lost its foundation, crumbling from within.
There are other married-life dramas within this story, including another marriage that seems to begin on the best of terms, but begins to fall apart as husband and wife discover how little they know about each other and how unwilling they are to understand each other. Eliot’s descriptions of the small bitternesses of relationships, and how wounds can fester, or how chasms can open between people who once loved each other, are sensitive and real. They feel as relevant to relationships today as they must have been about marriages of a previous century. Frequently I felt myself associating guiltily with the character of Rosamond, whose utter self-absorption causes rifts to open in her marriage. She firmly believes each new hardship is done deliberately to spite her or marr her happiness; it’s these sorts of perspectives that I feel I take when I’m at my worst. And it’s these sorts of perspectives that can make relationships fall apart.
Of course, in the time and place of Middlemarch, divorce or breakups are not an option; so the members of these unhappy unions must struggle along the best they can, facing a lifetime of dischord. They realize that unhappy marriages can mean a lifetime of smothering their true selves, or subjugating their wills to others; but a chance for freedom, even at the risk of social disapproval, might just be worth taking.
Middlemarch is a small-town gossip novel; it’s a gripping portrait of troubled family life; it’s a coming-of-age novel; it’s even a murder mystery. I found it riveting, honest, subtle, and true. It’s the first book in a long while that I’ve felt a real, personal connection to. Finally, I get what all the hype was about.
It’s been radio silence here at Writerly Life this week largely because of the chaotic and awful events that have seized my hometown. The world has seen the footage of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, and I’m sure you all know the feverish flood of details and images that followed; I won’t try to go further into speculation about who these individuals are or what they possibly hoped to achieve. Save that for the journalists, the essayists, the experts.
But as for many Bostonians, the bombings have completely taken hold of my attention this week. I was at the marathon on Monday, as I am every year. I’m not athletic in the least, and maybe that’s why I love it so; it is incredibly inspiring, incredibly joyful to me to see these people willing to find out the limits of their strength and endurance, the outer boundaries of their bodies and wills. There’s something beautiful about the thousands of people who line that twenty-six mile winding journey through the outer towns, simply to cheer on strangers. And so there’s something personal we carry with us if we’re fans of the marathon. It’s my marathon. It’s my childhood. It’s a simple, good day of joy and triumph. To see it horribly marred in the way it has been is a jolt; it’s a deep, abiding tragedy.
That’s probably why we Bostonians listened obsessively to the news this week, and pored over every picture of a bomb pot lid or a circuit board, and when the photos of suspects were released, we stared at the faces and the cycling video again and again, trying to understand, trying to help. I looked back through the photos I had taken of that day, even though I was several blocks from the finish line and there hours before the bombs went off, just checking on the off chance that there was something of use.
Yesterday, when the city became frozen, I watched the news. To a fault. There comes a time when you can become sickened by the meaningless news chatter, the endless looped footage, but I can be easily sucked into these kind of dramas. I feel very glad that the story seems to have reached at least the first of many resolutions; that we can feel some measure of relief that the larger part of the mystery, the whodunit, appears to be solved. In the coming weeks, we’ll learn more about motivation, about potential affiliations or accomplices, and we’ll be saddened all over again (at least I will be) to learn how people who grew up in the United States could feel so savagely alienated from its people.
In the meantime, I can be glad for the grubby little streets and avenues of my home, for the scrappiness of its people; I can be glad for the measures of excellence to which we hold ourselves, in medicine, in education, in tolerance; and I feel that I can write again.
We’re all busy these days, and hopefully busy with writing, but here is a roundup of some interesting stories, links, and articles that I’m thinking about this week.
Literary consolation prizes. Gotta love ‘em.
A little old now, but a fascinating interview with Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Find out why he recommends we read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”
Advice from W.E.B. Du Bois to his young daughter.
Some very helpful thoughts on craft and why it’s like driving at night.
For fans of fairy tales, Philip Pullman has updated the Brothers Grimm’s Stories.
Look back at this list of 100 notable books of 2012 if you’re looking for what to read next.
THERE’S NEVER ENOUGH TIME TO READ ALL THAT MUST BE READ. We could spend our whole lives reading, Carl Sagan taught me in one episode of his show Cosmos, and still barely scratch the surface of a few shelves of the New York Public Library. So we struggle to read smart; we try to pick and choose which books will be most rewarding, which books will help our writing, which ones will educate us, which ones will keep us on the cutting edge. And sometimes we can be torn between which type of book is the right one.
After all, it’s important to read the classics, to understand the great works out there, to learn from the masters. It’s simply good for our souls to read the best works of the past, from Anna Karenina to Mrs. Dalloway. And there is still so much to be learned from these books about technique and style.
The other concern young writers may have is being on the cutting edge, understanding what kinds of writing are successful and of the moment. We don’t want to write another Anna Karenina; we want to write the book of our generation, of our time, of the style that defines us today. So how do we balance our reading lists? How do we drink from the right wells?
As a creative writing teacher, I usually focus on the craft and art of writing. We talk in class about sentence structure, story, pacing, character development; we discuss word choice and mood. But students are always hungry for something else, too; they want to know, of course, about getting published. They want to know about getting famous, about seeing their names in print. Here at Writerly Life, I want to satisfy that need as well, and provide what information I have about the typical publishing trail, from stories to agents to novels to everything in between. It’s about time to devote a little time to that issue once again, the issue of knowing when your story is ready to go out.
Let me preface this conversation with two warnings: first, anyone trying to become rich and famous by writing has been misled. That’s not really why writers write, and it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Instead, we can think about finding an audience, of entering the world of words, and strive for that. And my second warning is that your story is never really, totally, one hundred percent ready. Something more can always be done. And in fact, even if it is accepted somewhere, it will pass through another round of edits, another gauntlet or two of changes. The only thing we can do is make it the absolute best that we can.
In that way, knowing when our work is ready to be sent out might be a bit like sending children out the door. There’s no one moment when the story is all grown up, but there might be a moment when you just can’t have it under your roof anymore, and it’s time for that story to sink or swim. Before that moment, though, you can give it every chance in life. Here are a few key tests your story should be able to pass before you send it out.
1. Is it polished?
The first and most obvious criteria for a story is whether it has been polished to a professional level. Are there any grammar mistakes? Is the punctuation correct? Any typos? Have you read through for homonym mistakes, or just used spell check? Are the page numbers there? Is your name on every page? These little things are the easiest way to prepare your story, but they’re no less crucial for that.
2. Have you closed plot holes?
Have you read through the story and found everything to be logically consistent? Are there any continuity errors, like saying the character’s eyes are brown on page 3 but green on page 5? And in a larger way, does the ending make sense? Does the story make sense? Is it believable, or are there moments you halfway doubt? If there is even a moment that you think might be a little hard to believe, consider changing it. You, after all, are the person on the planet with the most inside understanding of this story, and if even you doubt a portion of it, there’s no hope for others to believe it.
This week’s guest post is from online writer Reena Cruz. She writes about improving your writing on the sentence level, which I’ve often said is crucial for making your language fresh, varied, and interesting.
4 Handy Tips To Keep Your Sentences Interesting
When you’re strung out for new ideas—or worse yet, suffering from writer’s block, it’s easy to fall back on the same old writing tricks.
It isn’t easy to find a fresh approach to expressing yourself when you’re a full time writer charged with the task of keeping up a column, writing that literary masterpiece, or updating a blog on a regular basis. Nonetheless, keeping your sentences crisp, fresh and engaging is a necessity.
It may be hard to get out of your comfort zone when the creativity well runs dry, but there are a few tricks you can use to easily give your sentences a much-needed boost.
Looking for a way to jog your creative writing muscles? If so, here are a couple quick things you can try.
1. Make Your Last Sentence A Clincher
They say that your first sentence is the most important. It sets the tone, the topic and the direction of your paragraph. However, your last sentence could be just as–or even more, significant. It is the last impression your readers take with them, whether at the end of a long post or the end of a paragraph.
So while your topic sentence is used to set the focus for your paragraph, use the last one to comment and set your point. It’s an effective way to drill down your argument. Also, use a short sentence as your last sentence. Using a short bold sentence can do wonders to strengthen your tone of voice when done appropriately.
Things at Writerly Life have been hectic in recent weeks as I work on my novel and work on grading papers for five different classes, but I’m eager to keep the narrative thread going. In what ways are you keeping the narrative thread of your writing life going? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments and to highlight them in future posts. For now, though, let me recommend a small tip for your Tuesday:
Try a New Form
I’m in the thick of editing my novel, but I’m also trying to set large parts of it aside right now so that I can get some distance and consider what it needs. That means that I finally have new story ideas flooding my head for the first time in months. At first I pushed these ideas away; I had to focus on my novel, and there was no time, no energy for other projects. But then I started thinking: why not?
Many writers have said that writing a short story while in the thick of a novel can provide a much-needed break and can help to refresh their writing. It can be truly rejuvenating to focus on a new setting, a new cast of characters, a new style. For a long time, I haven’t been able to step outside of the very consistent world I’m trying to create. Now, though, I have an opportunity to try something different. It’s a good chance to remind myself that I’m not just a writer of this novel; I’m a writer, period, and when this novel is done I’ll have to busy myself writing something else. I might as well start when the mood takes me.
And don’t just stop at fiction. When I was a student of writing, I was always being challenged to write in tough new formats; I had to write a one-page autobiography or an acrostic poem; I had to write in the first person or the second. Why not try writing a creative non fiction essay this week, or trying first person instead of third? You’ll find yourself excited about writing all over again. It’s time to produce work instead of just talking about it.
This evening, I finally had time to spend an Easter dinner with family, and to feel the prospect of spring coming. It’s still chilly here in New England, but the air has lost a particular bite of winter, and I can start to feel hope that spring is upon us. That means that I usually find new energy to work hard on creative projects. As I wrote in the past, spring is a chance for all of us to refuel our spirits:
How does Spring change your writing? Personally I get a big boost of energy once I’m out in warmer weather, squinting in the sunshine. Projects that I’ve been putting off, such as editing an older story or starting a daunting new idea, suddenly seem more interesting. That’s a big one for me: I don’t have the time or energy or gumption to revise my work very much when I’m in the thick of winter. It takes too much consciousness, attention, and spirit. When I’m in the darkest days of winter, I’m often dragging myself along, living week by week. When the weather gets warmer, I’m ready to look ahead and think farther.
It’s important to take advantage of these bursts of spirit when they come about. Do you feel a similar rejuvenation in the spring? If so, don’t waste it! Get writing on a new project, but more importantly, try doing a little “spring cleaning” for your writing. Clear out the cobwebs on a few old stories and consider revising them. Try making a plan for the months ahead. What works are most important to you? Which ones can’t be saved? Which will require the most of your time and energy in the months ahead? Try looking at your body of creative work with a long view. When you look at all of yours stories together, what’s missing? What plotlines or characters do you want to try writing that you haven’t before?
And most importantly, don’t forget to enjoy this glorious season. Get outside. Sit on a park bench and do some peoplewatching. Get active. Take pictures. Go walking. Do springy things, and let spring shape your creativity.
Tuesday tips is a category of posts here at Writerly Life that promises to offer concrete tips for improving or kickstarting your writing. The tips that fall into this category are the sorts that you can do today or even right now.
This week’s tip:
Shorten Your Sentences
When my writing is at its sloppiest, the funny thing is that my sentences get longer and longer. It’s a bad habit of mine; it actually takes less thought and effort to write a wordy, clunky, and ultimately dull sentence than it takes to write a short, punchy one. Have you seen your sentences start to creep across the page as you get more tired or if you’re out of practice? We have the urge to be loquacious, and it does our work absolutely no good.
There is a solution, though; we just have to rein it in and chop it up. Today, go through the last long, wordy, abstract paragraph you wrote and cut it in half. Cut out the adverbs. Cut out the nested clauses. Give the reader more powerful verbs. Avoid the verb “to be.” Avoid little words like “of”, “the”, or “into.” Re-phrase the sentence so that fewer small filler words have to be used.
There’s always a way to shorten a sentence. Once you have, you’ll notice that your sentences will pack more of a punch. They will feel more directly connected to the emotion you’re trying to access. They will deliver your reader right into the arms of your story.
We often discuss how important characterization is in your story, but I think a lot of the character development we think about is wrong-headed. We’re told to know our characters inside out, so we make lists or questionnaires. We figure out our character’s shoe size and political party, his favorite foods and her favorite colors, but are these things really the traits that make a person tick?
Stop for a moment to consider the people you know in real life, and think about what makes you feel that you really know a person. Is it that you know the politics, the dress size, the favorite foods?
Or is it that you know what that person wants, and you have a pretty good idea of what that person will do?