Holiday Reading 2017

Having been bludgeoned with Christianity from infancy, I’m over the away-in-a-manger stuff. Books, though, are one aspect of childhood Christmas I revisit with joy.

Christmas was prime new book time. The rest of the year my siblings and I got what books our parents could afford, which is to say, we went to the library. December 25th was one of the rare occasions we could count on one or two new volumes for our personal collection.

This year, my holiday reading echoes the old pattern. One library book (digital now), one Kindle purchase, and one old-fashioned paperback from a charity shop in Crouch End.

handmaids taleThe Handmaid’s Tale came courtesy of the library. I don’t get Atwood aesthetically in the same way I don’t get, say, Thomas Wolfe or D.H. Lawrence. Her politics are admirable though. Astute women are writing and talking about The Handmaid’s Tale so it seemed like something I should have a first-hand opinion on.

Which (not that you asked) is that the novel puts Atwood perilously close to being the Ayn Rand of the left. Admirable politics, yes. But cardboard characters prodded around a stage so ripe with Symbolism that I wanted the whole damn wooden set-up to burn. I see now why it is being hailed as visionary: it’s dumb enough that even people who didn’t see Trump coming can grasp the Badness of the Bad Things that happen in it.

What’s disappointing is that Atwood can be a fine writer. (I realise, writing these words, that all hell would break loose if anyone read this blog. She has won a thousand awards and sold a million novels. Who the hell am I to criticise? Just a reader.) Her novel Cat’s Eye is rich and absorbing. The Handmaid’s Tale is pure bully pulpit blather, though. She (a woman of intelligence) didn’t trust her readers with anything subtler than a sermon.

dark is risingTo my delight, Susan Cooper didn’t make the same mistake in The Dark is Rising. Full confession, I’d never heard of it till reading a Guardian column that sang its praise. Normally, I avoid fantasy and children’s books in equal measure, but sometimes it’s good to bend the rules. The Dark is Rising reminds me of many of the books I loved as a kid: The Lord of the Rings, The Hounds of the Morrigan, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Chronicles of Narnia. It is pastoral, charming, and very very English. I blazed through it.

That treat consumed, I picked up Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This is maybe the third copy I’ve owned. It is one of those books I buy, give away, then buy again. I started with the final story in the slim Penguin Modern Classics paperback, “A Christmas Memory”. Capote’s evocative account of his boyhood Christmas made me weep, even though I know the ending. IMG_20171226_182805

Then I flipped back to the beginning and reread Breakfast at Tiffany’s, marveling at his use of language, description, and the curious fact that leggy, stuttering Mag Wildwood is given the full name Margaret Thatcher Fitzhue Wildwood. In 1958, when the book was published, Thatcher was an up-and-coming Tory politician. A Capote in-joke?

IMG_20171226_182814

Breakfast at Tiffany’s was the perfect starter for a Flannery O’Connor short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find. The eponymous opening story is deliciously agonising. O’Connor’s genius is that she doesn’t tell you anything. She just lines words up on the page and you hurry along, captivated by their perfect inscrutable order, until you crash face first into the gruesome conclusion.

O’Connor is the anti-Atwood. Nothing in her writing suggests she cared if her readers got it. She wrote. I know which I prefer.

What did you read over the holidays? Share in the comments. 

 

 

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Elements: Attention

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 15: Attention

Great stories come from creators who are passionately attentive to everything.

Case study: Jack Gilbert jack-gilbert

What it is:

Jack Gilbert was an American poet who turned life’s most banal, excruciating moments into heart-shattering art.

After twenty hours in bed with no food, I decided
I should have at least tea. Got up to light the lamp,
but the sweating and shivering started again
and I staggered backwards across the room. Slammed
against the stone wall. Came to with blood on my head
and couldn’t figure out which way the bed was.

from ‘What I’ve Got’

Why it matters:

Storytellers often aim too high. They want to convey love, terror, excitement, or despair. So they write about love, terror, etc. The thing is, when you write about love, you get a Hallmark card. The bigger the theme, the harder it is to write straight; it’s like looking at the sun.

That’s where attention comes in. Great storytellers know the little stuff reveals the big. In the excerpt above, Gilbert doesn’t tell the reader that it is scary to be sick and alone. He pays attention. In the throes of it, he is alert to every small, true detail: the slow passage of time, the dark room, the fever (only he uses clearer, closer words: sweating, shivering), the disorientation, the abject sense of failure as the body falls.

If you want magic, prop your eyelids open with toothpicks. Pay attention. Especially to boring, mundane, every day things.

In his own words:

“He explained that somebody wanted to give me the Yale prize. I didn’t know what to do, how to express it. I took him out with my two friends and we had milkshakes.

The next day I roamed about trying to find a way to feel about what had happened. I finally lay down under the Brooklyn Bridge to try to feel something. I lay there all afternoon, and then I called the people at Yale.” Read more

Practice: “Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious. ‘Okay. I’m at a wedding. The bride has on blue. The groom is wearing a red carnation. They are serving chopped liver on doilies.’ Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart. You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redheaded mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled.” Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

Remember: “As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly and unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost.” ~E. B. White

Elements of Storytelling 12: Ethics

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 12: Ethics

Great storytellers hook their audience with a clear ethos, worldview, or proposition.

Case study: Kat Lister

kat-lister

What it is:

Freelance journalist Kat Lister has carved a successful career writing for publications including Marie Clare, The Telegraph, Huff Post, InStyle, Vice, and Broadly by championing the ever-contentious cause of women’s equality.

Why it matters:

Journalists have flirted with starvation since at least 1891 (the year George Gissing published New Grub Street*). Modern multimedia journalism is unapologetically fuelled by celebrity and sensation. To survive journalists must be inimitable. Lister nails it. Everything she writes, from investigative pieces on Syria, to reportage on young Muslims, to think pieces on Brexit, “glass cliffs” and IVF is examined through lens of her feminism. Lister’s cohesive, provocative ethical stance, plus ferociously good writing, whets editors’ appetites, and has prompted 40K shares and 140K Facebook Likes (and counting).

In her own words:

I write about women and culture

Read more / Follow @Madame_George on Twitter

Practice: “Put yourself at the center [of your stories], you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.” ~ Anne Lamott

Remember: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” ― Elie Wiesel

*Free on Kindle: Amazon.com  and Amazon.co.uk

Elements of Storytelling 11: Imagery

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 11: Imagery

Deft use of imagery creates indelible images and provokes powerful emotions.

Case study: Maggie Smith Poet

What it is:

Maggie Smith’s poem ‘Let’s Not Begin’ is a meditation on life, death and courage. These are dangerous topics (Rilke, no less, advised against such broad themes) but Ms Smith nails it with an unforgettable simile: “My heart’s galloping hell / and gone from the paddock…. But let’s not end / with the heart as horse, / fear-lathered, spooked deaf.” The use of a figurative phrase transforms the cliche of a racing heart into a concrete image so vivid I can see the horse’s flared nostrils and flying sweat.

Why it matters:

For millennia poetry was entertainment, education and historical record. Spoken or sung, it had to make an instant, lasting impression on its audience. So poets got very good at painting word pictures. They learned to compare unlike things in a way that seized people’s imaginations and seared images into their brains. Now, we’re drowning in a sea of information. Metaphors are life-rings; similes shine like beacons. From poetry to advertising, the most imaginative, compelling, memorable use of imagery always win.

In her own words:well

Maggie Smith is the author of three books of poetry: Weep Up (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2018); The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015), winner of the 2012 Dorset Prize and the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Gold Medal in Poetry; and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005), winner of the 2003 Benjamin Saltman Award.

A 2011 recipient of a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Smith has also received fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, and elsewhere. She works as a freelance writer and editor, and is a Consulting Editor to the Kenyon Review. Read more

Practice: Complete these sentences with vivid images. To really get the most of the exercise, don’t worry about coming up with something good, just write. The whole idea is to get your subconscious to make connections in a new, more creative way.

  1. Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
  2. Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car

    seemed___________________________.

  3. A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
  4. Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”

via The Balance

Remember: “A metaphor is a kind o’ lie to help people understand what’s true.”
~Terry Pratchett

Elements of Storytelling 8: Voice

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 8: Voice

A clear, unique, personable voice hooks audiences every time.

Case study: No Meat Athlete

no-meat-athlete-book-cover

What it is:

No Meat Athlete was a blog that became a brand that became a thriving business for Matt Frazier, an applied mathematics PhD student and amateur marathoner. It began as a chronicle of Matt’s quest to qualify for the Boston Marathon after switching to a plant-based diet.

Why it matters:

Nutrition and fitness blogs are rarely sustainable businesses. The sector is over-crowded, trend-driven and audiences are fickle. No Meat Athlete succeeded where most fail thanks to Matt’s inimitable voice. He tells readers everything they need to know in just three sentences:You’re not here to be preached to. And I’m not here to preach. In fact, I’ll come right out and say that a plant-based diet might not be for you. But I’ll also say this: You won’t know until you try.”

The tone is frank, warm, equable, and non-judgemental. Matt makes no apologies for being neither a professional runner nor nutritionist. Instead, he addresses readers as equals and fellow explorers. He writes in the enthusiastic, endearing voice of someone who has discovered something brilliant and can’t wait to tell you about. No Meat Athlete has grown into a brand that includes books, running groups, merchandise and more but Matt’s voice hasn’t changed. He is still the excitable, passionate, chatty guy you want to go running with then hit the pub for a vegan beer ‘n’ burger afterwards.

In his own words:

You can run without being a “runner.” I did it for five years.

Even once I had run a handful of marathons and was close to qualifying for Boston, when I lined up at the start of a race among all these passionate runners, I still felt like an imposter.

I was just a tourist, doing what runners do, but without feeling like I really belonged.

Sometime during the training for my Boston-qualifying race, where I finally succeeded in breaking 3:10:59, something shifted in me.

Shortly after qualifying, when I was in that happy, weirdly cloudlike space you find yourself in after accomplishing something you’ve worked at for so long, I read Born to Run. And damn if I didn’t feel like a runner after that.

For the first time, I could say that I really loved running, not just as a means of staying in shape or for accomplishing goals, but for its own sake.

And so I became a “runner.” Quotes and all.

Read more

Practice: “You can’t recognize and then strengthen your voice if you don’t hear it—and hearing it in your head isn’t the same as hearing it spoken aloud. Get in the habit of reading what you write out loud. I print and read everything before I send something out and also whenever I’m feeling all snarled up in my organization.

Want to accelerate your voice development? Read out loud to another person without any feedback. This is utterly maddening to your inner approval junkie: “But what does she think about my writing?!?” The magic comes because you turn toward yourself and listen for where you are being true to what you wanted to say and where you’re skirting the truth, where you dug deep and where you skimmed the surface, settling for clichés. Of course, there are plenty of times when getting specific feedback from other writers is useful—but not when it comes to honing your voice. via Jane Friedman

Remember: “Style cannot be copied, except by the untalented. It is, finally, the distillation of a lifetime of reading and listening, of selection and rejection. But if it is not a true voice, it is nothing.” ~Mavis Gallant

Elements of Storytelling 5: Accuracy

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 5: Accuracy

Good stories create a vivid, believable world. To achieve this, descriptions and details have to be accurate to the context and setting of the tale.

illahe 1899

Case study: Illahe ‘1899’ Pinot Noir

What it is:

Illahe is a small vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, not far from Salem. Winemaker Brad Ford is a laconic, dedicated experimentalist and a stickler for accuracy. Each year Illahe releases a small batch of ‘1899’ Pinot Noir, so named because it is made without using any modern equipment or electricity.

Why it matters:

Anyone can claim to be “traditional” or “classic” — Illahe delivers by being accurate down to the last detail. From the vine onward, ‘1899’ is made to strict standards. The grapes are tended by hand, horses not tractors are used to work the land, picking, sorting and crushing is done by hand. “No electricity” means “no electricity”: they use candles to light the barrel room or bottling line. When ‘1899’ is ready to go to its distributor in Portland, the cases are transported by stagecoach, bicycle and canoe, ensuring that no modern technology touches it until it leaves the Ford’s care.

The Illahe story:

Brad’s first harvest was in 1986, when he performed the important roles of tractor driver and bucket collector. He took a short break after high school to work as a bartender, carpenter, grant writer, and English instructor. He then returned to wine, taking classes with Barney Watson, Al MacDonald, and Professor Wamser at Chemeketa and PSU.

Brad worked with Earl VanVolkinburg, Joe Dobbes, and Russ Raney, who taught him the practical aspects of the craft and about their love of the product. He also owes a debt to Peter Julian of Nuit-St. Georges, Burgundy, who invited him to attend tastings from Chablis down to Mercurey, hitting all the major towns in between. His experiences there taught him that winemakers can craft incredible wine without huge operations, but not without close attention to the vineyard and vinification. Read more here

 

Practice: “When you are present at the birth of a child you may find yourself weeping and singing. Describe what you see: the mother’s face, the rush of energy when the baby finally enters the world after many attempts… When you write, stay in direct connection with the sense and what you are writing about. If you are writing from first thoughts — the way your mind first flashes on something before second and third thoughts take over and comment, criticize, and evaluate — you don’t have to worry.” ~Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones

Remember: “Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

Elements of Storytelling 3: Inspiration

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Whether you are a writer, entrepreneur or politician your story is how you connect with people.

The elements of storytelling are like the letters of the alphabet. Once you know them, you can put them together to tell your story in the best way possible.

Element 3: Inspiration

Great stories are not plucked from the air; they grow from the fertile soil of stories that were told before.

Case study: Eivissa: The Ibiza Cookbook by Anne Sijmonsbergen

eivssa cover

What it is:

A cookbook based on, and inspired by Ibiza food. What it isn’t is an attempt to slavishly recreate traditional Ibicenco recipes, or a generic Mediterranean cookbook. The author lived on an organic farm in Ibiza for a dozen years, growing local produce, working with other farmers, and hanging out with rare-breed animal experts, fishermen, and artisan cheesemakers, before she put proverbial pen to paper.

 

Why it matters:

This long period of absorbing and exploring the food culture freed Anne to create recipes that are unique to her but capture the essence of Ibiza. She transforms stolid island fare like flaó — a dense, old-fashioned cake — into something fresh and suited for a modern palate. Each recipe becomes a story in its own right, revealing the history and origin of its components and the author’s inspiration.

The Evissa story:

Ibiza is on the cusp of a food revolution. The island’s traditional farming and fishing culture has been supplemented with a wave of chefs and producers making artisan products and vibrant food.

Now Eivissa, the first recipe book to showcase the incredible Ibicenco dishes Ibiza cuisine has to offer, reveals how to recreate the tastes of the white island in your own home.

Divided into seasonal chapters to reflect the ingredients in Ibiza, these are gorgeous recipes reflecting the heritage of the cuisine, yet with contemporary twists. Sample a really simply Grilled Courgette Ribbons, Asparagus & Mint Tostada from Spring, for example, or a Grapefruit & Juniper-Encrusted Pork Salad. Try Steamed Mussels with Samphire or Chicken with Roasted Figs from Autumn. Or treat yourself with a Ricotta Pine Nut Cake or Spiced Chocolate Truffles.

Full of stunning photography shot on location in Ibiza, both of the recipes and the island’s beautiful backdrop, these are recipes that are full of energy, warmth and enjoyment.

Read more here

Practice: Plenty of writing ideas are culled from great tales that have been told throughout history. Some of these have been converted into formulas that writers can use as storytelling guidelines.

From the three-act structure to the hero’s journey, formulas have been criticized as making stories dull and predictable yet they have also been credited with providing writers a framework in which to create.” via WritingForward.com

Remember: You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” – Jack London