THE SHORT LIST
At seminars people ask for a bibliography for further reading, and I’ll give you a short one now. There aren’t any writing books on the list for three reasons. First, few have the scope and depth of the material you are listening to now. Most address one or two needs well so you have to find the ones that address your concerns.
Secondly, why go to secondary sources, when the primary ones are so much better. Once you know the six essential tools, read good writers for the best examples of how to execute them. And third, go to life for your answers. Don’t rely too much on how other writers present their material, no matter how good they are. Find your own sources in reality and your own voice in re-creating them.
There are two essential, must-have, reference books:
The Chicago Manual of Style by the University of Chicago Press and
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition). These identify the standards of form and meaning for publishing today.
In addition I highly recommend six excellent works. Each speaks particularly well to one of the six principles of the Lehman Method if you want a masterful example of each.
For Principle #1 there is A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. This is one of our great American plays. Read it, even if you have seen various television productions and watch how the characters build in reaction to the simple events of the play–the promise of money, a pregnancy, the purchase of a house, a failed dream, standing up for yourself.
Raymond Carver spins characters like no other writer. I read some writers, like John Cheever, and am paralyzed in awe by what they do. Carver makes writing seem so accessible. As I read Cathedral, a collection of his short stories, I can hardly wait to try to do the same thing he does in my work. He plays up opposites in his characters as they spill out their lives in a scene or two. His pieces are the essence of Principle #2.
For Principle #3 study Breathing Lessons. I understand my life better through reading Anne Tyler than I do by living it. As I follow Maggie in reliving her courtship at the funeral of a friend’s husband, then shooting forward to the events of her son’s disasters marriage as she tries to reconcile the separated couple, everything seems to come full circle in the course of one day. The order in which events are presented to us, Principle #3, builds layer upon layer of human richness.
For Principle #4 there’s My Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, a world in microcosm that is pleasing to the palate as well as to the eye. Notice what he includes and what he excludes of daily life and how this satisfies a romantic need for both the author and for ourselves. Boss by Mike Royko brings Richard J Daley and his Chicago to us carefully showing the power of such a man without turning him into a myth that can be simply admired or detested. Both are shaped by theme that emerges from the material–Principle #4.
Ragtime by E.L Doctorow is an intricate example of Principle #5. Not only do historic events mirror psychological changes in the characters but one of these characters–the little boy who is a stand in for Doctorow, himself–is fascinated by transformations and duplications of images (through such things as with photography and phonograph recordings).
Finally, Principle #6, a book that does all these things well is Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. As readers we are actively involved in coming to terms with the stories of three generations of women, and ultimately with ourselves. This is a moving tour-de-force, that is better with each reading. Like the poetic imagery of the oriental language The Joy Luck Club is a tapestry that draws us in and changes our perspective on the world when we depart. It is a powerful example of Principle #6 for both men and women.
As writers we couldn’t have better teachers than these seven books.
And now, eight no-brainers that just might make the difference between your feeling like writing or not feeling like writing.
1. Question Assumptions. You may believe you can’t write on demand or that you need quiet, time, a good computer or a place to write. Perhaps you do. Perhaps you don’t. But wouldn’t it be a shame to not write because you were under a mistaken assumption that one of these was true, and it isn’t. After fifteen years of commercial writing I have never seen an advertising piece be better because more time was allotted or great ideas restricted to the time when we are perfectly poised at a computer, well rested, all other responsibilities comfortably under control. Which would you rather be: the harried housewife with two young children under foot or a retired man with the whole day free to write. The second is more scary, there’s no excuses when you don’t write. The first doesn’t have any excuses either. Agatha Christie said, “The best time for planning a book is when you’re doing the dishes.”
2. Dictate/Transcribe. The first draft of this presentation was dictated. I was visiting my mother in a nursing home twice a month and was having a hard time staying awake driving between Madison and Chicago. I was bored with the radio and had listened to all the books on tape from the library. One Sunday I thought I would dictate an outline to a portable tape recorder and found myself three hours later still chattering away into the microphone. After a half dozen of these sessions I found a woman in the yellow pages who would transcribe the recordings on to computer disks. There’s a difference between the spoken word and the written word that meant rewriting every sentence, but what a difference sitting down to a completed first draft compared to sitting down to a blank screen.
Driving jogging and biking are great activities to free the right side of your brain. The left side is occupied sufficiently to allow the creative imagination to soar, unbridled. It even worked for writing ads. If I was stuck on a headline or tag line, I’d jump in the car and drive around town for ten minutes. I always came back with a solution.
3. Change Locations. That’s also a nice segue to this point. I discovered one of the things I did not like about writing was being prisoner to a desk writing about life, when the rest of the world was out enjoying it. Though limited by my computer for writing, I take hard-copy to a near-by bookstore cafe, order coffee and cheese cake and start editing. In the summer I go to the University of Wisconsin terrace overlooking Lake Mendota with poetry notebook or copy to be edited and enjoy the sun and a couple steins of beer. It’s amazing how much I look forward to writing.
The same is true when I am traveling. Instead of a book I’ll take seminar participants papers with me to a restaurant. I notice a change in attitude of others in the restaurant also. If you have a book they seem to think, poor guy, doesn’t have any friends. If you’re writing, they seem to feel, I’m just here eating, he’s eating and getting something done.
4. Celebrate Accomplishments. I don’t mean getting a novel published, I mean writing ten pages or receiving a rejection slip with a personal note of encouragement on it. Tell yourself, I’ll buy myself that book I want when I get this chapter finished or I’ll buy a notebook computer when I get a piece accepted. We fall back on habit; and the way to establish a habit of writing, as opposed to the habit of not writing, is by reward or punishment.
I prefer reward. We take achievements for granted and dwell on failures. If you don’t like where you are with your writing as a result. Here is the way to turn that around. Celebrate.
5. Have a Writing Friend. I haven’t talked to Rita Miller in fifteen years. She was one of the other writers I self-published Quick Blue Gathering with. But I think of her often when I’m writing and don’t feel quite so isolated. I know there is someone else, like me, sitting at the kitchen table, taking time to work out something in a poem that’s under construction. We sat through so many classes together, I can hear her feedback to what I write, even though she isn’t there. Often family and friends don’t provide support for writing. They see it as something that takes away from your time with them. It’s actually something that brings you closer to them, but only another writer can understand that, and whether or not you are close or can share work or vent your frustrations together, you need to have a writing friend.
6. Plan a Writing Trip (and tell the IRS it’s tax deductible). I see tourists wandering around New York and Chicago looking at buildings who wouldn’t dream of noticing architecture where they live. In writing about your childhood why not take your notebook and retrace locations that are so much of that story. In fact places are a way of retrieving the emotions we’ve experienced. To prove this draw a diagram of the house or apartment you lived in at age ten; not only will you recall every nook and cranny, but also the rainy afternoons hiding in the attic because you were angry or the games and the friends you played with in the basement. Or put your fictionalized characters in a new locale. As a boy I loved the Ian Fleming James Bond books–many of these are little more than travel books with a little and intrigue to keep your interest. And what fun it would be going to these exotic locations to research them.
7. Attend Readings. But, go as an equal. There’s a tremendous resurgence in the bookstore and coffee house as salon. No matter where you live writers are coming to you to promote their work, to answer questions, to share experiences. Don’t look for well known names or restrict yourself to a type of writing you happen to like. Readings at bookstores and coffee houses are a way to sample new things (and it’s so much easier when you have the voice of the writer walking you through). I’ve been to readings where there are several hundred in the audience, but I’ve also been to those in which there are four people in attendance. You know those authors are grateful you have come. You are there as an equal–today you’re in the audience, the author is behind the lectern, in a few years your positions could be reversed. Ask questions you want answers to: How did you get your agent? What percentage are you paid of the cover price? What do you do to break out of a writing slump? Would your editor be interested in this subject I am working on? The better the writer, the more generous he or she is with information that helps. This is networking for those of us who don’t get to rub elbows with members of the profession at cocktail parties in Manhattan.
8. Perform. If your interest is in baking or making bookshelves, and a friend comes over who says, “I’d like to sample something you’ve baked or see that bookcase you’re always working on” you wouldn’t say, “Oh, no you’re never going to taste anything I’ve made.” Why do we do that with our writing. Here is a built in support system, someone who is interested in you, who will spur you on by asking from time to time how your writing is coming, What are we afraid of. There is a danger when we set someone up to judge, that they will feel they should find something to criticize in order to prove themselves. You can circumvent that by explaining one of the six principles and ask them to respond if you are accomplishing this for them. This kind of channelled feedback from an audience is helpful in making a piece work better. Don’t worry about boring them, most people will let you know how much or how little effort they’re willing to give you.
To perform can be as simple as reading the words you write out loud to yourself and enjoying how they sound. I remember as a child how my father would put a record on his phonograph as background and read poetry into the microphone of a wire recorder (like the radio announcer Franklin McKormack). He would then listen to the result. No one ever heard these, except perhaps me, but here was the pure pleasure of performing.
Once I was asked to select and read a poem at the funeral of a friend. This was a manic depressive who had killed himself. I couldn’t find anything appropriate, but I told his wife I would write something instead. I don’t have the poem anymore, but I’ll never forget standing in front of the congregation…the swell of feelings as I read the first lines. He was about six-five and weighed over three hundred pounds. He also had a huge hooked nose. The piece began, “He was a mountain with an eagle at its peak.” People made the connection between his nose and the eagle’s beak and there was an audible sigh of recognition. Among other things he had played the trumpet “big and loud.” The poem ended with my nodding toward the coffin and reading “the instrument is gone, all we have left is its case, and the sound of his music ringing in our ears.” When your writing verbalizes the feelings of an audience, even if it isn’t particularly good writing, you experience the power that makes writing so much more than putting words on paper. Seize these opportunities. They’re energizing.
The key to writing well, is writing regularly so that when the inspiration comes you’re ready for it. Hemingway said, “I have tried to write the best I can; sometimes I have good luck and writer better than I can.” Writing even a little each day keeps your unconscious moving the subject forward, and sharing the edited results with an audience keeps that effort alive.