35 – Is Marrying Absurd?

An unpublished essay.

Photo: CW

The night before our wedding my fiance and I sat bed with glasses of wine and I read aloud Joan Didion’s essay ‘Marrying Absurd’. I am always rapt by her diamond-cutter prose. Chris was not. He stared at me in the silence after the final sentences, wide eyes asking: What are you trying to say?

“Another round of pink champagne, this time not on the house, and the bride began to cry. ‘It was just as nice,’ she sobbed, ‘as I hoped and dreamed it would be.'”

His wide, wary eyes signaled perfect comprehension. He knew I was using Didion to ask the question I couldn’t. Are we doing the right thing?

On our first date we went to a Mexican restaurant with orange walls, purple tables, and a crowd of drunk Santas in running shoes. We both ordered vegan mole, looked at each other and said, “You too?” Two margaritas on the rocks, salt for me. My body was strange. No crackle-and-static of attraction but expansive euphoria, as if every electron in my blood had leapt an orbital, opening me from the inside out. I’d never seen such eyes: a coruscating handful of sapphire chips.

I lived in Spain at the time; he lived in Memphis. For the next few months we found ways to meet in London, Manchester, Brussels, and Rome. We hoarded time together, constructed intimacy from daubs of conversation and torrents of text. At the end of the year, inevitable as a rock rolling down a cliff, I moved to Memphis. One night we sat in bed, where we conduct most of our powwows. He was adding me to his car insurance. When it came to the Relationship blank he looked up: “Fiancee?”

Sure, I said, why not.

A couple of weeks later, for my birthday, we rented a cabin in Arkansas. It was too cold to sit on the porch swing and watch the stars blaze so we sat on padded vinyl dining room chairs to eat rice and beans washed down with red wine.

“Are we really going to get married?” I asked.

“Do you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Why marry? We don’t want children and I won’t take his name. Our bank accounts and tax returns will stay separate. We don’t believe in God, monogamy, or the sanctity of marriage.

Yet by our second date I wanted to marry him. Not just be with him. Not just be his girlfriend/partner/significant other. I wanted to be his wife, with all the weight that word carries; wanted him to be my husband. Not because those words are a talisman against conflict or even heartbreak – everyone knows they aren’t – but because marriage (however devalued, degraded, or deflated) is our culture’s apotheosis of commitment. Like the Supreme Court, it is fluid and fallible, but still the last word.

Wanting to be married, though, and marrying are as different as climbing the ladder to the high dive and jumping off.

Photo: CW

Chris and I were in down town Las Vegas just after Christmas. We drove past wedding chapels that caught Didion’s gimlet eye fifty years ago, parked in a cavernous underground lot, surfaced at Best Buy and wove through steel drummers, midget Elvis impersonators, and bikini-clad girls dancing away the cold on Fremont East. “We could get married in Vegas,” we teased, testing each other. Instead, we found a Mexican bar and drank jalapeno margaritas. Not wanting to marry in Vegas had something to do with the vision of Joan dancing in my head. But she wasn’t writing about Las Vegas eo ipso. It was journalistic shorthand for dangerous impulsiveness, failure of decorum, fractured social mores.

Didion’s specific grievance with Las Vegas was that its wedding chapels were “merchandising ‘niceness,’ the facsimile of proper ritual, to children who do not know how else to find it… how to do it ‘right’.” Inverted commas notwithstanding, she suggests that parents, at least some parents, know how to do it right.

Believing that must help. Children of happy homes can borrow courage. Skin puckering in the chill, toes hooked on the beef-tongue surface of the diving board, they can at least look down on faces that made the leap and emerged smiling.

Those of us with no family account of goodness or goodwill stand alone. Poised on the proverbial edge, we can only count the mistakes, comic and awful. My mother hooked up with my (still married) father while pregnant with another man’s child. Chris’s mom married and divorced three times, one on either side of his dad. In fact, his parents’ marriage was annulled by Papal pronouncement which makes Chris, technically, a bastard. The second time around, his dad went for a straightforward decree from the State of Arkansas. My dad’s second divorce was in Alaska; the first who knows where.

Then there’s our previous marriages. Mine ended with a gentle parting from a friend who happened to be my husband. His came with the sting of surprise: an email with legal papers and a note to say his stuff was in storage.

Nine divorces altogether. Worn notes of anger, betrayal, and disappointment bundled and stashed like junk bonds. We’d be fools to not wonder if we’re being foolish.

And.

Every card Didion played as a damning signifier of what it meant “to be married in Las Vegas, Clark County, Nevada” in 1967 – well – Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee will see and raise in 2017. Like Vegas, Memphis “demands no premarital blood test nor waiting period before or after the issuance of a marriage license.” Unless the celebrant is 17 or under, in which case Shelby County imposes a three day wait. In other regards this Delta city is as careless in love as any neon-spangled desert oasis.

Photo: CW

Want to cut down on the ten minutes it takes to apply in person? Fill in the online form then collect the license at the county clerk’s office.

Previous marriage, or a few? No problem. Choose a number between one and thirty-one on the drop-down menu. It will ask for the date of your divorce(s) but don’t worry if you don’t remember. Neither clerk nor judge will request any proof of dissolution.

Once you receive a license you have 30 days to marry.

Chris and I took forty-eight hours.

“Dressing rooms, Flowers, Rings, Announcements, Witnessess Available, and Ample Parking,” Didion writes. “All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas… are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”

We married at 12:30 on Thursday the 9th in Room 226 of Shelby County Courthouse. Before us went a group that fit Didion’s description of “actual wedding parties… The bride in a veil and white satin pumps.” What would she make of my well-worn silk dress, fishnet stockings and vintage heels? Chris’s charcoal Merino sweater and Doc Martin Chelsea boots?

The judge twinkled and swished in his black satin robe. Potted plants with thick stems and dark, glossy leaves lined the window, tinting the bright, thin February light semitropical green. Beyond, a wind-scrubbed blue sky. I held Chris’s hand, bracing myself for a spasm of doubt that never came. My spine stretched like a tether drawn tight between my buoyant heart and the anchor of his touch. Tears softened the blaze of his cobalt eyes.

My name echoed like foreignly in my ear as I repeated the vows, but my tongue didn’t fumble.

“Will you love, honor and cherish… till death do you part?”

“I will.”

Walking to the car I found a way to hold my handbag so the wind didn’t froth my skirt. There were still forty-five minutes on the meter. “We should do something,” my husband said. So we went to our favorite taco spot for Prosecco and black-eyed pea hummus with corn chips.

‘Marrying Absurd’ appears in Didion’s classic essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Its eponymous centerpiece opens with this report: “The center was not holding…. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held society together.”

Photo: CW

Chris was born in Arkadelphia and lived in Salt Lake City as a baby. He was raised in Little Rock, branched out to Baltimore, bought and sold houses in Moline, Charlotte and Memphis, all while travelling 200-plus days a year. I lived at dozens of addresses in four countries by the time I was thirty. We live out of suitcases and send mail “care/of”. Movement is a choice, a manifestation of our mistrust in the games that are supposed to hold society together. Marriage is not, appearances notwithstanding, a contradictory choice. We’ve studied and sifted the claims of religion, society, and status quo. We spent long, separate years learning who we are, what we want, and what we are prepared to do. So we can take from ritual as much as has meaning to us, and leave the rest without regret.

Marrying is absurd. So are all acts of courage. For those of us whose accumulated experience of marriage veers from farce to disaster, to marry is to stake a claim to our own lives. Marriage is precious to us because we know how easy it is to fail, to fall apart. For us, to marry is a refusal to be defined by the past. It is a pledge to believe the best of one another. To say we’ll try again, no matter. To love again, love better.

33 – Married Folk Blues

This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.

Photo by Hannah Dean on Unsplash

Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.

Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.

He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.

Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.

Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.

Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.

“Please, Shooter, come on. Please.”

Click to continue reading

31 – Fake Writing Gurus

This originally appeared on Medium. It’s a subject close to my heart.

There are two kinds of people who give advice to writers: those who want better writing, and those who want payment.

Teachers, from the unsung heroes singing the ABCs with snotty toddlers to college professors hacking through forests of sophomoric prose, are mostly the former.

Once you venture beyond formal education, though, the search for guidance can lead straight into the slough of despond where some self-proclaimed guru will offer you the keys to the kingdom, on an installment plan. There are also wonderful writing teachers who ought to be paid for their time and expertise.

These five questions will help you to avoid hyenas and find legitimate guides —

1. Do non-writers read their books?

This is important because, if you’re going to take writing advice from someone, it might as well be an actual writer. Not someone who has set him/herself up as an expert on the basis of figuring out MailChimp.

When a writer who is read and loved by millions, like Ray Bradbury, E.B. White or Stephen King dispenses writing advice, I’m happy to pay.

2. Do they tell you how much they earn?

The above mentioned writers never, to my knowledge, sent emails to their readers bragging about their income. If a so-called writing guru leads by telling you how much they earn, it’s a con.

Writers can and do earn great salaries as writers. But if a person’s primary income stream is other writers s/he is a huckster, not a writer.

3. Do they promise you a secret formula?

Writers are wishful thinkers, in the best possible way. We wish to understand, report, illuminate, entertain, and above all connect. This fundamental optimism keeps us at the keyboard. It also makes us susceptible to slicks who claim to have discovered a secret to striking rich as a writer.

This prospect is pure mirage — and enticing as an oasis.

If someone really had the secret to endless, effortless cash from freelance writing clients s/he would simply enjoy the income. If the technique were valid and replicable, teaching it would create competition.

4. Do they try to up-sell you?

A writer who earns a comfortable primary income from writing shouldn’t be hustling. I’ve encountered sales pitches ranging from $199 for an online journalism course to $10,000 for one year of “mentoring”.

The give away, whether at the low or high end of the price scale, is the guru’s insistence that this is great value. Two online courses for the price of one! Access to a “community” (as if there aren’t a gazillion free writers forums and Facebook groups)! Cheaper than college! Cheaper than a weekend in Vegas! Only 20 percent of your annual income!

The people most likely to be tempted by dubious expertise are those worst-placed to pay these rates, which makes fake gurus opportunistic dickwads.

5. Do they tell you it’s all in your head?

Without fail, every single fake writing guru will preach some version of “failure is a mindset”.

Never mind that writer’s median income has dropped by 42 percent since 2009, according to the New York Times, and that royalties and advances are down by 30 percent in that period. Or that more than 1,800 newspapers have closed in the U.S. since 2004. Or that magazines like GlamourRedbook, Cooking Light and ComputerWorld ceased print publication in 2018.

Photo by Alex Boyd on Unsplash

PayScale data show only 10 percent of all writers earn more than $83,000 per year, meaning even fewer earn above the much-hyped six figure mark.

Failing to earn scads of money as a writer is not a mindset — it’s a reality.

The only people who tell you it’s all in your head are the ones who are ass-covering for the inevitable moment when you realize that over-priced bottle of secret sauce isn’t going to make you a millionaire.

Where to find the real thing

Don’t despair of getting sound, disinterested writing guidance— and don’t pay through the nose for it.

Sites like Funds for Writers and Freedom with Writing are a great way to learn about contests, publishers and grants.If you want advice on the craft of writing, hit the library or bookshop.


My favorite books on writing include:

  • Zen and the Art of Writing — Ray Bradbury
  • Bird by Bird — Anne Lamott
  • Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind — Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing Well — William Zinsser
  • Steering the Craft — Ursula K. LeGuin

For honest first person advice, join a writing group or workshop, or take a class. Some of the best, wisest writers I know work in community colleges or extension programs, for little reward and less recognition, because they want other people to experience the life-altering power of writing.

Seek the positive

Writing should be a source of joy, even if it’s a job.

A writer worth listening to embraces both its struggles and its delights.

“Writing is survival,” Bradbury wrote. “Any art, any good work, of course, is that. …We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory.”

28 – The Stowaway’s Secret

In 2009 I took a shot at writing a children’s mystery of the sort I grew up on (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys, etc). Revisiting it, I was as much in thrall to J.D. Salinger as to Carolyn Keene. It remains unfinished but I’m open to offers 😉

Intro

Benjamin Riddle-Smith wasn’t happy. His summer had started badly, and right now it was sunk deep in the doldrums. I feel like this stupid yacht, he thought, staring across the deck from his lounge chair, stuck here boiling under the sun and never getting anywhere. Benjamin’s face folded down into a deep frown as he remembered the events of the final few days of school, which had cost him his freedom this summer.

Despite their looming eleven-plus exams he and his best friend Tod had been having a jolly time. They were both sport mad, and spent every spare moment climbing, swimming, and playing rugby or tennis. That wasn’t a problem until their housemaster decided on long, boring mandatory study sessions in preparation for their eleven-pluses.

Tod and Benjamin had never seen eye to eye with the headmaster on the subject of studying versus sport, so they shouldn’t have really been surprised when he took a dim view of them sneaking out to play games during library hour. The more Mr. Hawkins watched them, the harder they tried to get around his rules, until one night they executed a daring free climb right up the stone and ivy façade of Ashford House.

Worst of all, they made it cleanly to the second floor, and were only feet from the safety of their shared room when their prank was discovered. They were at the room next door, to be precise, and Thomas Smyth’s shriek of surprise as they tumbled through his open window had woken most of the corridor. Mr. Hawkins would have dearly loved to see the two mischief makers gone for good. But luckily Benjamin’s father Alfred Riddle was an extremely wealthy and persuasive man, and Tod’s nearest relative was his elderly uncle – a close friend of the queen’s.

There had been a lot of fuss about it, but in the end the real punishment didn’t come from grumpy Mr. Hawkins but from Benjamin’s parents who agreed that instead of spending the summer with his mother in Switzerland he would spend it with his father on his yacht, the Icarus. It was a huge, triple deck floating palace, packed with gadgets, and Benjamin enjoyed spending the occasional weekend there. But eight hot weeks? No thanks! Ben loved climbing more than anything. Now, after months of waiting for summer in the Swiss Alps, where he could climb every single day, he couldn’t believe he was stuck baking slowly on deck.

He stood up and shuffled over to the edge of the pool. The water was perfectly still. Peeling off his tee shirt he dove into the pool and started swimming lengths. It wasn’t as much fun as climbing, but he’d been swimming since before he could walk and he liked the steady rhythm of his arms and legs. Plus, his little sister Jasmin couldn’t keep up with him, so the swimming pool was about the only place he could get a minute’s peace.

Chapter One

It never lasted long though. No sooner had Ben gotten back to his cabin, changed, and settled down to tackle the next level of Prince Of Persia than she came running. “Benjamin! Bennnn-ja-miiiin!” Her high-pitched voice carried through the corridors and portholes till it bored right through the door. Benjamin was squinting in concentration, but his thumb slipped and his lifeline fell into the red. With a grunt of irritation he put down his PSP. There wouldn’t have a moment’s peace until he answered Jasmin’s piercing call.

“What?!” he shouted, pulling open his cabin door with a bang, “I’m down here. What is it?” A minute later his seven-year-old sister came flying down the passageway, bare feet slapping like wet towels against the polished surface.

“Daddy says you’re to come up to the third deck, aft, as soon as possible. She-hike Sullyman is visiting and Daddy wants you to come greet him.”

Benjamin let out a very deep sigh. Along with Jasmin he spent his summer holidays with his father. Being called to meet and greet an assortment of politicians, business moguls, and celebrities was inevitable. Since Father had bought Icarus there had been a lot more visitors like Sheik Suliman.

“Honestly,” he said, thinking out loud. “You’d think the Sheik would have seen enough yachts – what with having three of his own – that he wouldn’t need to come and snoop around ours.”

“Come on Benj,” Jasmin whined. “Daddy told me to tell you to hurry up!”

“Ok, ok,” he replied, “just a second.” He saved his game, switched off the PSP, then locked the door and pocketed the key before following the slap-slap-slap of his sister’s footsteps.

19 – Ibiza Noir Chapter 1

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Ibiza Noir. Available here.

Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

Lou ducked instinctively as a jet lumbered through the syrupy air, landing gear down, scarred white belly near enough to touch. As he did, an upward-flying elbow glanced off his chin. He straightened and put a hand to his jaw as a thicket of tattooed arms rose to hail the passing plane. Whoooo! Vamos! Ibiiiizaaaa! Exhaust caught in Lou’s throat as he tried to join the cheer. Spluttering, he set down his canvas bag and wiped his eyes.

He had been standing on the same patch of gravel for over an hour, listening to a single bass note thunder from a small white building next-door to a vegetable patch. “Best party on the island,” the bartender told him the night before. “The last great day rave. Full of nutters that’d put Bedlam in its heyday to shame. Pure madness, mate, if that’s your thing.”

Lou stared at the cerulean sky and shivered with the heat. He didn’t know if this was his thing, but he was willing to try. The bus from Ibiza Town didn’t stop outside the club, though. It took him almost an hour to walk back to join the restless horde of party-kids waiting to be admitted to this inconspicuous techno temple.

Heat waves shimmered above the dirt parking lot and bolts of fierce light reflected from the cars. Were tattoos a form of heat-proofing? Lou wondered. Sweat was running off him like snow-melt but everyone else looked perversely cool. His initial sense of comfortable anonymity was gone. He was too tall, too dark – even in a crowd of Spanish and Italians – and above all too plain. Everywhere he looked were pierced lips, tongues, eyebrows, and cheekbones. Jewels glittered in girls’ cleavage and accented their wrists. Men in denim cut-offs and skin-tight tees flaunted bulging muscles. Scraps of cloth stretched over silicone globes on the chests of women who would otherwise pass for underfed boys. The ubiquitous sunglasses with enormous, bug-eye lenses made him feel like he was trapped in a swarm of colourful flies.

Some people were dancing in place, kicking up puffs of dust. He had a feeling they would continue, music or not. Others alternated gulps of neat whiskey and warm coke from the bottle. Nobody made any effort to conceal the wraps passing from hand to hand, or the mounds of powder being inhaled off credit cards and hotel keys. The girl beside him was so pale she looked albino but her arm was solid black from shoulder to elbow apart from an artful smattering of stars. It was the first negative tattoo he had seen. He’d also never seen a hoop as big as the one hanging from her septum. Her boyfriend had silver studs through his cheeks; his left calf and right arm were covered in tribal ink.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Lou shaded his face with his hands, wishing he had water, or a hat. The heat was making him light-headed. How much longer can it be? A long horn-blast sounded, as if in answer to his question. The bodies around him kept moving, eyes obscured, heads tilted up to the sun or down to the ground. Only Lou looked around to see green-and-white jeeps marked “Guardia Civil” bearing down like a fighter squadron. Officers in forest green jumpsuits and caps leapt out, shouting in Spanish. They wore white latex gloves and worked methodically, checking IDs, patting pockets, running hands up legs and down arms, pulling people aside as they found stashes of pills and powder.

Six years in the navy had taught Lou how to deal with this type of authority: keep your eyes down, follow orders,don’t give them a reason to notice you. He reached inside his bag. Time stopped. His heart beat on his ribs, looking for a way out. Sidling backwards, he found an empty patch of ground and dropped to his knees. Inshallah, let it be here. Subtly as he could, Lou groped through his seaman’s bag, feeling neatly folded tee-shirts, combat trousers, a frayed khaki jumper. He slid his fingers inside the pockets of a waterproof and fumbled with his shaving kit, feeling a disposable razor, a bar of soap wrapped in a rag, and assorted coins, but no passport or wallet.

Someone shouted as he walked away but Lou didn’t look back. Without a passport he couldn’t get in the club, or on a plane; he couldn’t even book a hotel room.

There was an abandoned newspaper on the bus shelter bench. Leafing through, Lou stopped on a back page. He knew enough Spanish to read the headline: 14 migrants drown when boat sinks off Alicante. A photo showed bodies laid out like a row of parcels. One face was visible: boyish, with dark, curly hair, a Roman nose, and high cheekbones. Lou ran a hand over his regulation military cut. It was growing fast, the natural curl coming back. He looked at the picture again. Apprehension balled his stomach like a fist. Normally if you lost your passport you went to the police. But the rules were different when you were a young Muslim man. He didn’t look like someone they would help. He looked like someone they might let die.

A bus arrived and halted with a huff of pneumatic brakes. Lou found an empty seat amidst a group of bongo-toting hippies and wedged his bag between his feet. Not that it mattered now. Where did it happen? Trundling along the motorway past billboards advertising “Cream @ Amnesia”, “Privilege: The World’s Biggest Club”, and “Pacha Ibiza” he mentally retraced his steps. The marina. A walk through town. Beer in some basement dive bar. Giving coins to a wandering violinist. Returning to the harbour and ascending to the walled old town. Following a narrow road on the seaward side till he reached a cluster of fragrant pines. Lying beneath the trees catching glimpses of starlight between breeze-blown branches.

He had woken with the sun, which rose from the sea beyond the city. Birds twittered over the softer whirr of insects. After brushing off the pine needles he shouldered his bag and walked the few minutes to Plaça del Parc where he breakfasted on black coffee and a buttered baguette. Then he caught a bus to San An and walked the beach all the way to the end of Sunset Strip. His next stop was an internet café: “Merde.” Someone must have been watching as he took out his wallet and the plastic folder with his passport, discharge papers and other documents. He didn’t remember the name of the place, only the smell of sweat and stale smoke; he probably wouldn’t even recognise it.

Photo: Cila Warncke

18 – Reading Like a Writer

This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

In Focus: Writers’ Recommended Reading:

  • UlyssesJames Joyce
  • To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
  • A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
  • Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
  • New York Review of Books

17 – Cheryl Strayed on Memoir

This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…

How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?

It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.

When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?

The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.

What memory aids do you use?

I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.

How can writers elicit those memories?

The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.

Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?

You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.

How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?

Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.

How did you overcome that fear of failure?

Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.

In Focus: Writing exercise using objects

I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.

To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.

I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.

16 – Letting Go of Emotional Baggage

Gradually, my writing moved beyond all music, all the time. There is a heart of darkness in Ibiza’s club world; the shadows got long. It was time to look at things differently. This piece was written for Tiny Buddha. You can read the full article here.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

“Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.” ~Ha Jin

You’ve probably heard of the fear of missing out but what about the fear of letting go?

My father was volatile and mentally unstable. Criticism was his preferred method of communication. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away and became an expert at deflecting personal questions.

Without realizing it, I carried this habit into adulthood, avoiding any talk about my feelings or turning them into a joke. When a friend finally called me on it, the shock of self-recognition quickly turned to resistance. This is who I am, I thought. Why should I change?

I plodded on, working as hard as ever to keep my fortress intact. It wasn’t making me happy yet I wasn’t ready to change.

As I struggled with my desire to cling to hurtful memories and self-defeating behaviors, it dawned on me that I was afraid to let go because defensiveness was part of my identity.

The problem wasn’t that I had baggage—everyone has baggage—but that it had come to define me. I didn’t know who I would be without it. At that point it hit me: I had to dig deep, discover the person I wanted to be, and then act on it.

After I identified that I was holding on to the past because it seemed too important to jettison, I discovered that letting go is harder than it sounds. Relaxing a long-held belief isn’t a one-day, one-week, or even a one-year process. However, it is possible.

Read the rest at Tiny Buddha.

5 – Loud, obnoxious, American

This column appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian 21 years ago, on 31 January 2000.

Speak up!

Loud, obnoxious – and decidedly American

All I could think was that I’ll never be able to open my mouth in this class again. He was ruining it for me, ruining everything with his grating tone, his blatant rudeness, the patronizing way he kept interrupting other students to correct their opinions

If only he was German or French or Dutch or Spanish, I would have been all right. But he was American. Loud, overbearing, inconsiderate, arrogant and undeniably American.

As much as I wanted to light into him, my tongue was tied by the sudden awareness that my voice and accent would betray me in an instant. It wouldn’t matter what I said, my accent would stamp me just as quickly as his had identified him — and equate us beyond my power of control.

Until that mortifying hour in my critical theory class, surrounded by British students who were —justifiably — looking daggers at this specimen of Americana, I hadn’t realized to what extent language shapes and projects our identity.

It was the first time I had ever been afraid to speak because of how I would be branded by my accent and diction.

The worst of it, though, was the fact that my boorish fellow student could not have been French or German or Korean, or anything but a citizen of the dear old U.S. of A., for the simple reason that no other nation so assiduously fosters such linguistic arrogance.

Whatever his name was, the plaid-shirted Washington, D.C., boy was merely projecting a particularly noxious version of the snobbery of Americans toward anyone who doesn’t speak our language. (Granted, Brits and Americans ostensibly share a language, but the differences in manner and expression are so fundamental as to constitute British and American as two separate entities.)

It is a condescension that is manifested in American language education — or should I say the lack thereof. Some young people are fortunate enough to attend high schools that provide the opportunity to seriously study another language, but more often than not, language courses are viewed as something of a joke.

My own high school experience was with Spanish, a lovely and eminently useful language. However, for all the benefits I would have accrued by actually developing a proficiency in it, I was never given much in the way of an occasion or encouragement to do so.

Spanish class was a haphazard affair, a conglomeration of worksheets, flash cards, pop quizzes and lots of goofing off. In my second year, due to lack of funds and interest, it was taught on a semi-volunteer basis by an assortment of half-a-dozen people, some of whom spoke less Spanish than I did (which is saying something indeed). After muddling along with A grades for two years, I moved on to other subjects and was never given reason to use Spanish again.

However, the language problem is a more general one, beyond my own school or secondary education in general. I remember reading over a college application form from the University of Oregon where “foreign language” was merely a suggestion, not even a prerequisite, for study at the university level.

Frighteningly, we’re used to it. No one ever makes a big deal of it—not politicians and not educators, and I imagine parents only rarely. We are conditioned from an early age to regard learning another language as something that may be done, but is never in any way vital.

Sure, it’ll help you get into a better university, but not much else. Or if you wish to go into business, or international law, it might be useful to acquire another language. But the idea that it is a crucial part of educational and social development to partake of another culture through language study simply does not seem to exist in the States.

Hence the arrogance, hence the rudeness, hence the all-too-often-true stereotype of Americans as loud-mouthed, know-it-all morons. Because, you see, we are never forced to identify with another group through the intimate process of acquiring their mode of speech.

“Why should we?,” the argument goes. Everyone speaks English anyway, so why should we learn Spanish or French or what have you? We don’t need to.

Wrong.

We do need to. Not for the sake of mere communication, though.

Learning another language is not about knowing how to ask for directions or tell time or find the loo or order a meal, it is about understanding how to truly identify with someone else. It is about entering into their life through the medium with which we shape our lives – language.

Cila Warncke is a junior English major from Portland, Ore. She is studying abroad in London this semester. Bigmouth Strikes Again appears on Mondays.

4 – Deaf Stereo

Profile of a short-lived indie electro outfit written for Clash sometime in ’06 or ’07

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash (NB: Not Deaf Stereo)

Deaf Stereo

Deaf Stereo has been percolating ever since Luke, Will and Ben met at Westminster Uni on a music course, at the turn of the millennium. It was four years before they had a name and an idea to go with it. “We decided to stop playing stuff we thought we should, and play music we wanted to listen to,” they explain. The music they wanted to play, if their first single is anything to go by, is solid, grooving beat driven indie pop. Disco biscuits with a side order of Jack Daniels, say.

“We’re into bands like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld… we like the peaks and troughs of dance, but we also wanted proper songs,” says Barney, who describes his role in the band as doing “keyboards and laptop stuff.” About a year ago, they completed their set up, with fifth member, Tom, the clean-cut drummer.

Sitting in the trendy bowels of the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, it’s Will, who plays bass, who keeps up the steadiest stream of patter. A series of wry asides from behind a hand rolled cigarette. “Would I ever sail a giant effigy of myself down the Thames? Shit. If I were as big as Michael Jackson that’s the least I would do. I’d have a whole set of them.”

Ben, (guitars, backing vocals) is small, dark, thoughtful. He takes on the philosophical questions. Or rather, turns questions philosophical. If you had a band uniform, say, what would it be? Luke (singer) runs a hand through his beautifully cut hair and says, “That’s something we’re still thinking about.” But Ben launches into an earnest and articulate explanation of the dangers of embracing style over substance. Absorbing this, Luke effortlessly readjusts his stance on the issue. “We happy wearing what we wear. No one’s told us to change anything yet.”

These small, subtle realignments happen more than once. Not in a deliberate presenting-a-united-front kind of way, but in a fluid manner which suggests long practice in accommodating each other’s ideas and opinions. Disagreements are minor: Barney prefers Addlestone cider, while Ben is happiest drinking mojitos. Will predicts a Dire Straits revival to general eye-rolling. When it matters, they’re in perfect sync. They want the right songs on the album (“we have a reputation as a party band, but we have some slower songs too, we want to showcase that”); they like the same venues (Koko and Fabric, where they played a riotous 3am gig); and perhaps most importantly, they all know what they want on their rider: “You mean when we have a rider? We’ll have as much as we can get! We got sandwiches when we were at Brixton, that was great,” Luke says.

So far, they’ve humped their equipment through calf-deep mud to play at Glastonbury last year. They’ve written a raft of songs which will somehow have to be whittled into an album. They’ve learned to party on backstage freebies because “we can’t afford to go out unless we’re playing.” They’ve been given some good advice: “Get a job, sort your life out, stop wasting your time,” Will guffaws. And what advice would they give someone following in their footsteps? Ben and Will catch each other’s eye and chorus, “Get a job! Stop wasting your time!” They all laugh.