Three Books on Writing: A Summary

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June 4, 2014 by carlywont

Since my very first seven-page, handwritten novel (composed in a spiral notebook during recess in 5th grade), writing has been my #1 frenemy. I love it, I hate it. I hate to love it and I love to hate it.

I guess I thought reading three books on writing would be motivating and inspiring. I pictured myself writing furiously each day after reading a few chapters. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. (Although it did make me more diligent and give me the kick in the pants I needed to finish a story I’d been working on.)

Instead, I found it weirdly cathartic. It let me confront my relationship with writing and my own flawed habits surrounding the craft. I recommend you do the same at some point.

Since three is such a mystical number around these parts, I’ll give you the three main things I learned from reading three books on writing:

1. Mining is Necessary

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Don’t be afraid to write total crap. (…or to share total crap for that matter. I mean check me out on here!) Write whatever comes to mind, whenever it comes to mind, and don’t be bothered by its relative genius (or by your grammar or spelling, for that matter).

Lamott and Goldberg were especially big on this. Write pages and page and pages of shit so you can get to one good line. King thought that was a good idea too, more or less. He advocated “closed-door” first drafts. “Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.”

We want to think that our favorite writers are spinning gold every time they pick up a pen (and we want to think we can do that too, someday) but in reality, writing is a struggle for everyone. This was refreshing to hear—especially from this illustrious crew.

2. The Life is in the Writing

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This is probably my favorite piece of advice that overlapped among the three books. The life, the joy, the pleasure, the reward—it’s all in the writing itself. Not in the finishing. Not in the editing. Not in the publishing. Not in the success, if you’re lucky enough to find it. It’s in the WRITING itself!

Anne Lammot points out a common problem among writers: “The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kindof want to write, but they really want to be published.” I’ve been guilty of this, and chances are, you probably have been too.

And here’s from King on the topic: “I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

Yes, the life is in the writing. And guess what that means? That means YOU can have it! And so can I! Let’s all go and take it.

3. Establish the Habit

In order to write well, you need to write a lot. They all said it in one way or another. You need to do it consistently. You can’t wait for that muse to show up or that authorial fugue state to hit you so you can go off and write fifty pages of inspired prose in a day. That’s just not how it works—not if you’re in it for the long run.

King was the strictest with his habit recommendations, calling for a thousand words a day from his readers (and two thousand from himself). While that ain’t exactly happening for me, we can all “do work every day,” as my friend and fellow literary blogger Jocelyn writes in her post “Part-time Creative: My rules for surviving the battle.”

For me, that’s writing 15-30 minutes each day. Sometimes it’s more than that. Admittedly, sometimes, it’s much, much less. But that’s my goal. And it’s good to have goals in life; I think we can all agree on that.

Typically in these summary posts, I will share my ranking of the three books I read. This time, I just want to say that you should read them all! Read them all and then, go write another one.

The Lone Star Lit Roundup: Conclusion

Well, it had to happen sooner or later. Three Books in a Tub failure. That’s right, ladies and gents, I’m not going to finish the Lone Star Lit Roundup. I couldn’t make it through The Liars Club for a myriad of reasons:

1) The story prominently features a “Nervous” mother and a fucked up family. I found this a little anxiety-invoking being a new mom and trying to create our little happy family. I found myself thinking about the mother in The Liars Club as I moved through the day taking care of our little E and it was beginning to freak me out. Thankfully I have enough self-awareness to know when a book is penetrating my thoughts too much.

2) The book was due back at the library one day. The library was closed when I went to drop it off and frankly, running errands is a little tough these days plus our budget is a little tight, so I didn’t feel like going back and renewing it when the library opened or paying the late due. Lazy and cheap, but true.

3) I had a hard time buying it. I’m always a little suspicious of memoirs (How do these people really remember all this stuff? How should I take the dialogue? Can I trust this author?), but this one was particularly hard to swallow since about half the book takes place when Mary Karr was 7 years old.  Unless this 7 year old had unprecedented note-taking skills—on par with Harriet the Spy—I just can’t believe that she remembers what animal she was looking at at the zoo when her mom was smoking a cigarette. These thoughts nagged me every time I read it and honestly ruined a lot of the beautiful detail in the book for me. Call me a skeptic, ‘cause that’s what I am. And skeptics probably aren’t the best audience for memoirs.

So, I could have just switched to a different Texas book, right? True. But I really want to get a move on with my next trio (Hint: All posts will go up on “Throwback Thursdays”).

Plus, the more I read and thought about these books that are supposed to be iconic Texas literature, the more I realized that Texas is just too damn big to be fully captured in three books. To a certain extent, that’s true of any of my selections on Three Books in a Tub. Still, how can one sum up a state so geographically huge and culturally multifaceted in only three books? Ya can’t, that’s how.

That being said, there were some very common themes throughout these books—themes that lie deep in Texas’s history and still permeate the culture today. The ones that stood out the most for me:

  • Industry: Whether it’s hogs, cattle, oil, or high tech, Texas is home to a lot of business.
  • Vastness: Through the writing in both The Son and That Old Ace in the Holeyou really get a sense of the Texas landscape—huge, occasionally foreboding, desolate. I’ll never forget our drive out to Big Bend in West Texas. Talk about land. Also, we saw actual tumbleweeds.
  • Family/Legacy: Texans take family seriously. When I think of a “true Texan,” I think of someone who knows where they come from: they stay in town; they raise their kids close; they know their roots; they have a list of births and deaths written in the front of a Bible; they are frequent users of ancestry.com. Both of these books backed me up on this stereotype.
  • Inequality: When you have a state as industrious, as conservative, and as close to the border as Texas, there is bound to be inequality. Both of these books explore racism among whites, Mexicans, and Native Americans. Knowing these unforgiveable social mores is an important part of Texas’s history and its present.

(^Just a tumbleweed chillin’ on a bench.)

Both The Son and That Old Ace in the Hole were wonderful books that really grabbed my attention from the beginning. I wish I could say the same of The Liars Club but I just didn’t have that same push to finish it like I did with the other two. (Disclaimer: I’m not one of those people who force themselves to finish a book they don’t like. I used to be like that, being a natural perfectionist, but I’ve consciously let that go over the past few years. Life is too short and all that.)

If you want to get a little flavor of Texas, both of these books are great options. By the end, you’ll be chanting it with me—TEXAS FOREVER!

The Lone Star Lit Roundup: That Old Ace in the Hole

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That Old Ace in the Hole. Doesn’t that title kind of turn you off? There’s just something about the words “ace” and “hole” in the same sentence that makes me shudder a little bit.

If you’re like me and are feeling a little queasy after taking in that mouthful of a title, don’t worry. I’m here to tell you: There’s nothing to fear! This book is really great, just like my mother-in-law promised when she recommended it to me a few years back.

Annie Proulx’s book follows Bob Dollar, a Colorado native, as he tries to surreptitiously convince owners of large land spreads in the Panhandle to sell their property to Global Pork Rind. Through Bob Dollar, we learn to love the people of Woolybucket, a fictional town filled with hardworking, grisly men and devout, quilt-making women.

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(^Texas Panhandle location in case you didn’t know. I’d be willing to bet a very large sum that there are actual pans in the shape of Texas that utilize the Panhandle literally.)

Have you seen Richard Linklater’s movie Bernie? If not, check out this hilarious clip that perfectly describes what most of us here in Texas know about the Panhandle:

(Also, in case you’re wondering, I can confirm that Austin is indeed filled with hairy-legged women and liberal fruitcakes like myself.)

Proulx does a great job of capturing the Panhandle. At least, I think she does. If you want a definitive answer on that, however, you’re gonna have to find someone who’s actually been there. From what I understand about the place, however, her book is dead on.

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(^According to Google, this is what the Panhandle looks like. There were indeed a lot of windmills in Proulx’s book.)

I love this description of the Panhandle populace’s rampant fear of “outsider” people and things:

“There were activities in the panhandles that needed reporting: jogging, odd clothing, unusual vehicles, out-of-state license plates, dark skin, children unattended or quarreling, loose dogs, large house cats (invariably reported as ‘panthers’), people with flat tires or engine trouble who might be escaped convict decoys. Yet dead cows lay sometimes for weeks in the ditches waiting for the rendering truck.”

Pretty great, right?

That Old Ace in the Hole is just the kind of book I like. It’s slow and totally character-driven. It’s gossipy, filled with long sentences, and set in a small town. When it comes down to it, nothing much really happens in the novel. The book is a kind of testament to Anne Lamott’s wise advice that the plot is in the characters.

Proulx loves the people that populate this fictional town of hers and you keep reading to hear more about them. The town is slowly and vividly created for you through her description of its outland populace. The story comes alive through them. And that’s what a place is after all, isn’t it? Its people?

Now, I’m describing the type of book that many people—including my fantasy-lovin’ husband—absolutely hate. And I get that. But to me, there’s something incredibly pleasing about reading a book totally concerned with the ordinary lives of people and totally unconcerned with a shock ‘n’ awe plot. Of course, this only really works if you’re reading a piece by a truly great writer like Proulx. Otherwise, you’re just slogging through endless pages of crap.

Appropriately, Proulx writes in Panhandle vernacular throughout the book. I can go either way on using dialect in writing but I think it works here. A lot of the time authors take it too far and I end up getting annoyed at their desperate attempts to sound folksy. Proulx pulled it off, though it did take me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that “awl” meant “oil.”

One of my favorite things about That Old Ace in the Hole is the names. Get a load of these:

  • Ribeye Cluke
  • Tater Crouch
  • Bob Dollar
  • Rope Butt
  • Brother Mesquite
  • Coolbroth Fronk
  • Sherriff Hugh Dough

That’s just a little sampling for you. Kinda makes me wish I had read this before I gave birth so that we could have named our little guy Tater.

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I’ll leave you with another fantastic quote from the book on how truly tough Texas panhandlers are:

“Us native panhandle Texas don’t whine and bitch about wind and dust and hard times—we just get through it. We work hard. We’re good neighbors. We raise our kids in clean air. We got a healthy appreciation for the outdoors. We pray and strive to remain here forever. We are Christians. We are bound to the panhandle like in a marriage. It’s like for sicker or poorer, richer or healthier, better or best. Livin here makes us tough, hard and strong. The women are tough too, the ones can stick it out, anyway. This is horse and cow country and every dollar you squeeze out a the place, by God you’ve earned it.”

Every once in awhile I’ll get the urge to move to a super rural town, slap on some daisy dukes, and become a waitress at the local diner. If you can relate, pick upThat Old Ace in the Hole.

The Lone Star Lit Roundup: The Son

Hi y’all. I’m back from my baby hiatus! Yeah! Still, my days are filled with baby talk and my nights are filled with only a precious few hours of sleep, so forgive me if my writing is both incoherent and juvenile.

Appropriately, my first post after giving birth to my own little cowboy is on THE SON by Philipp Meyer (no relation to Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer that I could find, though I still like to imagine that Thanksgiving dinner).

I’m not sure about where you live, but here in Austin, The Son seemed to get a lot of press. It was at the forefront of every bookstore in town and for good reason! The author was a Michener fellow at UT, the book is about Texas, and it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist to boot. *Swoon*

Before I decided to do this Lone Star Lit Roundup, I was kind of resistant to The Son. Firstly, it’s long. Secondly, it has horses on the cover. Thirdly, there’s a family tree in the front content. Fourthly, did I mention it’s about Texas? In my world, those are four major strikes against a book.  My mom actually read this first (she can’t resist a good Comanche story, so once she read the back cover copy at Book People, she had to have it) and if you knew how little my mom reads relative to both me and the world at large, you’d be impressed by my saying that she absolutely loved it.

(^Quanah Parker, one of the last Comanche chiefs and my mom’s #1 love interest)

I now know why. I was completely hooked from the beginning of the book and really loved reading every page, despite its many faults. The book is a sweeping, multi-generational saga told from three different perspectives over the course of about a hundred years. The narrators are from the McCullough family: Eli—the patriarch and topic of much local and familial lore; Peter—the shamed son of Eli; and J.A.—the granddaughter of Eli and last family member to hold on to the McCullough compound.

The use of three narrators not only gives us a longitudinal view of the McCullough history, it also allows the reader to see the many transitions of Texas. With Eli, we see the transformation of Texas from wild, Comanche territory to white-dominated cattle country. With Peter comes the transition from cattle to oil, and with J.A. we see the Texas oil boom and its many societal ramifications. Another bonus to splitting the book into three narrative sections? It goes by quickly! I’m a sucker for split storytelling.

My favorite thing about the book was Meyer’s intertwining of the McCullough history with the Garcias’, another big family with long ties to the region. The rise of the McCulloughs coincides with the fall of the Garcias (not-so-coincidentally), and Meyer’s exploration of the two family histories reveals the racist legacy of Texas culture, beginning with the ousting of the Comanches.

The introduction of the Garcia narrator at the very end of the book was an interesting choice by Meyer. It seemed a little sudden and out of place. Instead of springing him on us at the end, I actually wish Meyer had included a Garcia narrator throughout the book, making the families’ two stories even more connected for the reader.

The major (and I’m talkin’ major) weak point of the book was J.A.’s narrative. Her chapters were lacking. Not only was her personality not nearly as developed as the men in the story, there was also just a lot more boring exposition.  At times, I felt she was used as a sort of epilogue storytelling tool rather than an actual character in her own right. Meyer needed to tie up some loose ends and bring the McCullough family into more modern times and he used J.A. for this. It’s really too bad that Meyer couldn’t get it together in J.A.’s sections since her timeline followed the Texas oil boom, a fascinating subject IMO.

There’s no denying that Eli’s chapters were the best. I mean, getting kidnapped by the Comanches and then becoming a full-fledged member of the tribe throughout the years? That’s some storytelling gold right there.

Overall, I would unreservedly recommend Philipp Meyer’s The Son. The subject is vast, the storytelling is great, and the pages go quickly.

PS: Did you know that there were lions and cheetahs endemic to America? Who knew? Thanks, Philipp Meyer!

The Lone Star Lit Roundup: 3 Books on Texas

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Out of all the states in our great nation (Go USA!), the one I never, ever thought I’d live in was Texas. It just didn’t seem like the place for a liberal, hippy, perpetually sweaty, Yankee poet girl to be. But, here I am, starting out my fourth summer in the Lone Star State and on the verge of giving birth to a new little Texas cowboy (seriously, that’s what the paperwork for the baby’s birth certificate says).

And guess what? I actually really love Texas, despite its many faults. In lots of ways, I’m grateful to my husband for forcing me to move here from the Northeast (a relocation that was to my immense displeasure at the time). Texas is rich in so many things: history, pride, amazing food, bad traffic, desolate landscapes, and an incredibly varied and troubled cultural legacy.

Texas is rich in something else, too. Something I never really realized until I lived here. It’s rich in literary work! There are so many great books about Texas and there are so many great Texas authors.

In fact, choosing only three books about Texas was incredibly difficult. Heartwrenchingly, I decided to surpass some classics like Larry McMurty’sLonesome Dove and Texas by James A. Michener. I also didn’t put any books primarily set in Austin on the list, such as Waterloo by Karen Olsson. Perhaps we’ll see a Round Two in the future.

Here are the three books I did select for my Lone Star Lit roundup:

The Son by Philipp Meyer

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This book was nominated for a 2014 Pulitzer and is all over the place at the local bookstores here in Austin. After learning a little about Philipp Meyer, I developed a major soft spot for the guy. He went to Cornell and was a Michener Fellow at UT Austin. I feel like we could gush about Collegetown Bagels and Torchy’s in the same conversation, which would basically make me happier than most things in the world.

That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx

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This book was actually recommended to me by my mother-in-law when we first moved here and I trust her book picks. I’ve wanted to read Annie Proulx (author of the more well-known titles Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News) for a long, long time but haven’t yet gotten around to it. This is a great chance to get acquainted with both Proulx’s work and the Texas Panhandle, where this book is set. Maybe I’ll even learn how to pronounce her last name.

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

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The Liars’ Club is an obvious choice for a Lone Star Lit roundup. Mary Karr’s book about her troubled childhood in Southeast Texas is a classic in the memoir genre. The magnificent title alone made me want to read it. I also think it’ll be good to add a little nonfiction to this Texas mix.

So, keep reading over the next few weeks (maybe months, depending on when this baby comes) to learn more than you ever wanted to know about my views on Texas lit.

Three Books on Writing: A Summary

Since my very first seven-page, handwritten novel (composed in a spiral notebook during recess in 5th grade), writing has been my #1 frenemy. I love it, I hate it. I hate to love it and I love to hate it.

I guess I thought reading three books on writing would be motivating and inspiring. I pictured myself writing furiously each day after reading a few chapters. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. (Although it did make me more diligent and give me the kick in the pants I needed to finish a story I’d been working on.)

Instead, I found it weirdly cathartic. It let me confront my relationship with writing and my own flawed habits surrounding the craft. I recommend you do the same at some point.

Since three is such a mystical number around these parts, I’ll give you the three main things I learned from reading three books on writing:

1. Mining is Necessary

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Don’t be afraid to write total crap. (…or to share total crap for that matter. I mean check me out on here!) Write whatever comes to mind, whenever it comes to mind, and don’t be bothered by its relative genius (or by your grammar or spelling, for that matter).

Lamott and Goldberg were especially big on this. Write pages and page and pages of shit so you can get to one good line. King thought that was a good idea too, more or less. He advocated “closed-door” first drafts. “Write with the door closed. Rewrite with the door open.”

We want to think that our favorite writers are spinning gold every time they pick up a pen (and we want to think we can do that too, someday) but in reality, writing is a struggle for everyone. This was refreshing to hear—especially from this illustrious crew.

2. The Life is in the Writing

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