Portland, Oregon has a well-deserved reputation as a bookish city. Its literary climate springs, in part, from its actual climate. During the months of interminable rain it is natural to retreat to bookstores and libraries, or curl up at home with a favorite volume. The city’s creative energy, fueled by coffee, craft beer and local wine, helps foment works of imagination by local writers. Harvest the fruit of their labors at these book stores.
This small but venerable indie bookstore in the heart of Multnomah Village, on the west side, has been dishing out literary goodness since 1978. It sells new books, with a focus on fiction, children’s and young adult, travel, current events, and cooking. Plus it is a great space to browse for magazines, art supplies, puzzles, and cards.
This Northeast Portland stalwart is particularly strong on stocking local writers. Subject matter is wide open, with offerings of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, graphic novels and more. You will find personalized material from local authors like Cheryl Strayed, who has the honor of a section dedicated to signed copies of her work.
No mention of the PDX literary scene would be complete without a nod to Powells’s, City of Books. As the biggest thing in local literary retail it is a huge draw for both writers and readers alike, who can spend happy hours browsing its immense color-coded collections. I’ve been hanging out at Powell’s since I was a kid (when I gravitated to Nancy Drew mysteries and Marguerite Henry horse stories). Whatever you go looking for, you generally come out with something different, which is most of the fun of it.
The most adorably clapboard, overstuffed used bookshop imaginable, Wallace Books is a throwback to the eclectic, eccentric wonderful bookstores of my childhood. Its charming exterior beckons you in and its sprawling collection rewards languid browsing. Take your time.
What’s your favorite indie bookshop? Big it up in the comments!
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.
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:
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
Even before a ton of ordure hit the propeller-style cooling device I’d only read three books this year.
Since the age of six or seven I’ve been capable of reading three average-length books a day. Once, when I was about 9, I read 1,000 pages in a day, to see if could.
On another occasion (again, pre-teen) I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy in three days.
The point I’m sidling towards is that it is a sign of spiritual/ emotional/ logistical malaise when my word-consumption dips to such low levels. (The other obvious conclusion is I was backward as a kid, which is fair, but there were reasons.)
Being almost too far gone in anxiety to even read a book is new and unnerving. Books have always been a reliable portal away from the unappetitliche present, but the present present has got me so tied in knots I’m afraid to miss anything.
Initially, I tried to negotiate this in my usual Protestant, eat-your-beet-greens-they’re-good-for-you fashion. That is, I started a book about Palestine. If there is one thing more depressing than coronavirus, it’s the situation of Palestine. Reading about children getting shot with tear-gas canisters and all the other interminable head-fucking brutality of the Israeli occupation was enough to make me think that maybe enough humans are ugly enough that we all deserve to be wiped out by a virus.
Not reading material for these times.
After that failed effort, I didn’t read anything for a few days. Then my friend Nick emailed and it turned out I bought his book (presciently titled It Gets Worse) last year and forgotten to read it. That’s like discovering the bottle at the back of the cupboard you thought was cheap emergency plonk is a fantastic vintage meant for a special occasion.
This is a special occasion.
So, I’m (finally) on my way to having read four books this year. When I finish Nick’s book I may go back and reread his first, Bitter Experience Has Taught Me, because it’s nice to hear a friend’s voice — especially when it is funny, acid, and laden with anecdote.
After that, I’ll try Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde and Primo Levi.
Disparate, yet equally essential.
All of these writers, including Ms Austen (whose reputation for daintiness is undeserved) exhibit rare levels of integrity, perspicacity and moral clarity. They took the world as it was, but refused to accept the supposed constraints of that relationship.
And they, one and all, write sentences so good I have to pause and let the wave of admiration/envy/admiration pass. Right now, it’s reading for pleasure, or not at all.
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
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).
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
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:
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.
Blue paint spilled on the road like___________________________.
Canceled checks in the abandoned subway car
A spider under the rug is like___________________________.
Graffiti on the abandoned building like___________________________.”
Four hard-working professional magicians: Mark Phillips, Bob Sheets, Brian Curry and Barry Woods. Together they have over 100 years of cumulative magic experience and each, if modesty allowed, could claim to be one of the world’s finest prestidigitators.
Why it matters:
My acquaintance with Comedy Magic Society began when Mark Phillips commissioned me to write a profile of the quartet. Interviewing and writing about the four magicians was an eye-opener. Dexterity is the smallest fraction of illusion, it turns out. The real magic lies in storytelling.
Magic relies on hooking the audience into a narrative. The story distracts then, holding their attention while the magician does his work. A great magician can tell stories to anyone: Mark uses magic as a tool to help corporate clients communicate and sell; Brian honed his skills doing close-up tricks for restaurant patrons; Bob is a former circus clown who perfected the art of magic bartending; and Barry educates and entertains kids in schools and hospitals.
In their own words:
Barry, Mark, Bob and Brian brim with joy and enthusiasm for what they do. “I’m grateful to be getting paid to do something I love,” says Barry. “I’m blessed.” This gratitude and energy flows through their work both as individual magicians, and as the Comedy & Magic Society collective. Magic, as performed by the CMS and friends, is the art of celebrating what’s possible. “Magic can lift people’s feet off the ground, if only for a moment,” says Bob. “You never know what the result will be. You get a kid in front of an audience and he realises it’s okay to get in front of people, it’s okay for people to laugh at – and with – you. It gives him confidence.” Read more…
Practice: To retain all the “juice” of being in the moment, a writer needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat – to use sleight of hand that moves the reader from a second-hand recounting to feeling present in the scene.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is shot, for instance, Nick Carroway, his narrator, is off-stage. Yet he allows Nick to surmise not merely what happened, but also what Gatsby must have felt during those last few minutes of life:
No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock – until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.
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.
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
Storytelling is the essence of communication. Writers, entrepreneurs, corporations, governments and even religions rise and fall by the stories they tell. It’s simple: if you want an audience, customer, or acolyte you better tell a damn good tale.
Think of the elements of storytelling as letters in the alphabet. Once you know them, you can tell any story your want in a way that makes people pay attention.
Element 1: Listening
Great storytelling begins with listening… to stories, people, songs, ideas, waves breaking on rocks, the voice of your intuition
My first interaction with @BoomEarwear on Twitter. As a music fiend and serial jogger I go through headphones at an unholy rate. I clicked onto their webpage to order a pair but the site was down. I Tweeted a jokey complaint. To my surprise a response popped up a minute later, thanking me, apologising, and promising to fix things ASAP.
Why it mattered:
Easily distracted, I went back to my crappy generic headphones. When they gave up the ghost I thought of the Twitter exchange, but couldn’t remember the name of the company. The fact they listened and responded was enough to make me search my feed for the name. My post-purchase Tweet received a prompt, friendly response. Once again, giving me the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being listened to…
A note from James, founder of Boom Earwear.
Firstly, thank you for checking out Boom Earwear, we’re super excited to have you around. I’ve been asked many times why I set up Boom Earwear, and wanted to tell the story exactly as it is.
I founded Boom Earwear after encountering issues with my headphones when travelling through Asia. I’d gone out for five weeks alone, and took a pair of headphones with me to listen to music – it’s a big part of travel for me.
During the second week, my headphones developed a fault – and naturally, I wanted to get this solved. I contacted the manufacturer and was told that sure, I could have a replacement – but I had to go back to the store I bought them from, or get them shipped to a UK address. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home – that’s not a great answer.
That’s when I started to get super bummed out. Consumer electronics as a whole is a huge industry, and there is a real lack of companies that care enough to help….
“Imagine yourself in the other person’s situation, wanting to have someone listen to them. When they are speaking, make an effort to think of where they are coming from and why. Imagine what their life is like and what struggles they might be facing”
“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ― Ernest Hemingway
A beautiful poem to complete the year, from Nobel prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. The briefest of the poems I memorised in 2015, it is a profound reminder that how one lives is always a choice.
Remain in bliss in this world,
Fearless, pure in heart.
Wake up in bliss every morning,
Carry out your duties in bliss.
Remain in bliss in weal and woe.
In criticism and insult,
Remain in bliss unaffected.
Remain in bliss, pardoning everybody.