On Writing: “I can’t teach you how to have something to say.”

Here are a few more gems — I know it’s been a while — from Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life.” You’ll find it in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60), which you should buy — or borrow from the library — and read.

If you write.

Writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes. I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. (pp. 31-32)

Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Two novels I’ve read in the past year stand head and shoulders above the rest.

The first is Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, published in 1967. The only surprise here, if you know my literary tastes, is that it took me nearly half a century to pick up and read this classic exploration of religious life. There are certain gaps in my literary experience, I readily admit — but this is no longer one of them.

(Another conspicuous gap is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). I know it is had for both good and evil, and was banned within my lifetime in a certain Washington school district for being part of a communist plot. All the same, a young writer I met at lunch a few weeks ago talked me into reading it sooner rather than later. I’m too old, among other things, to be drawn to it for its rebellion and teenage angst, but it has other charms. After reading just the first two pages, I’m inclined to appreciate — and to study — the first-person narrative voice. But I digress.)

The second highlight of this year’s novel-reading is Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, first released not five months ago. Cleave’s first three novels, which I haven’t read, were well received and have contemporary settings. This fourth offering is historical fiction, set in England and Malta during the early years of World War II — mostly before the United States joined the conflagration in December 1941.

Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, Chris Cleave

This book is delightful but substantial reading. Though often light-hearted, at times it is grimly realistic and personal about the physical, emotional, and moral horrors of war. It has some thoughts on race and class, but (thankfully) isn’t heavy-handed about them. This virtue displeased the subset of reviewers who declare even a brilliant novel disappointing, if it does not bludgeon the reader with proper and comprehensive modern views of any social issues it happens to touch.

Reading in Transit: Jana Riess and Julie Schumacher

Authors Bookstore at MSP -- irresistible section

Context (or Chatter)

I spend more time writing than reading, these days — too little of both — and I read online more than I read printed books. But if you read this blog, you probably don’t need me to tell you there’s a charm in holding the book in your hands and turning actual pages instead of staring at a screen. Also, actual books have a far longer battery life.

I’m in Bloomington, Indiana, just now, traveling with a family member who has an audition today at Indiana University’s sprawling, beautiful campus (which must be simply gorgeous when it’s green). I spent lots of hours in and between airports yesterday. Much of that time I spent reading actual books, and it was delightful.

On a similar trip to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, I found Authors Bookstore, a charming airport bookstore at Minneapolis-St. Paul, and bought a very promising, shortish novel which claims to a national bestseller. I’m not disputing that; its renown is sufficiently compatible with my never having heard of it before. I started reading it then and finished it yesterday.

Authors Bookstore at MSP
A little bibliophile Mecca at MSP

Then I finished a book I picked up almost on a whim in Salt Lake City a few months ago and starting reading on the warm, sunny commuter train (and platform) at the end of workdays. It was excellent too, and the fact that I read the second half of it only yesterday doesn’t disparage its charms at all. I do that with books, even very fine books.

And yes, I’d be pleased to tell you more. Thanks for asking.

Rereading Scout

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeDecades ago, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and immediately declared it one of my favorite books. Then, over the ensuing years, I mostly forgot it.

What I knew I remembered was a trial – thanks, I suppose, to the movie, in which Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch. The Oscar-winning film focuses more on the trial than the Pulitzer Prize-winning book does.

What I remembered without realizing it was the book’s compelling child’s-eye view of life and people and the world.

What I had forgotten, or perhaps could not see then as I do now – for reasons not belabored here – was the utter charm of the book. The human insight in the novel feeds mind, heart, and wit. The prose in which it is wrapped is artful and delicious.

Barber Baby Bubbles and a Bumblebee (and Me)


This week brought two noteworthy birthdays at 180fusion, where I work. For the company’s 5th birthday we had ice cream and cake. For Dr. Seuss’s 111th birthday — Monday — we took it on the road. About 20 of us went to Woodrow Wilson Elementary in South Salt Lake City and spent part of the afternoon going from classroom to classroom, reading Dr. Seuss books to the students there.

Before we were finished, we had visited more than 20 classrooms, from kindergarten to sixth grade, for half an hour each. I myself read to kindergarten students, first graders, and third graders, in groups ranging in size from 4 to 13 students.

The students at Woodrow Wilson presently come from 26 countries and speak 28 native languages. Most are refugees or recent immigrants from such places as Nepal and Somalia. A school official told us that some students who were in school this week were in a refugee camp in Africa just a week or two earlier.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower

A few years ago, not more than four, I decided it was time to enlarge my understanding of period of American history I had studied very little: the 17th century, give or take, from the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower in 1620 through the aftermath of King Philip’s War (1675-76).

I bought three recent books and began reading the first, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the National Book Award a few years ago. It’s a very readable book, and I immediately began to enjoy it. That it took me until I was on a recent flight to Seattle to finish it is no reflection on the book itself. It is simply a consequence of the fact that, though I read quite a bit, my reading time mental energy for history and in a situation where I can sit and mark up a book is quite limited. So I read dozens of other books — mostly fiction — while I was reading this one off and on.

Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower

Some of the roots of our national founding are in that period, I knew — including some of our early challenges with respect to religious freedom. I also expected the ambivalence of Pilgrims, and later Puritans, toward the indigenous peoples. I expected fear, heroism, bloodshed, confusion, brutality.

I suppose I expected insights into the challenges of diverse peoples attempting to coexist. But as I began to read, there were some interesting surprises on that theme. And there were sad accounts of what I had mostly forgotten, the beginning of the slave trade in New England, involving native slaves.

Is It Too Late to Think (or Read) About Christmas?

It’s December 27. Some people would call this the Third Day of Christmas. Some people think December 25 is the Twelfth Day of Christmas. For my Russian Orthodox friends, Christmas hasn’t even arrived yet. December 25 for them (in the Julian calendar) is January 7 by our modern (Gregorian) calendar . . . which is the day many Christians celebrate Epiphany, which isn’t altogether unrelated.

Are you confused yet? If so, welcome!

Welcome anyway, of course.

I asked my boss if we’d be getting Orthodox Christmas off work, as we did unorthodox Christmas. He thought I was kidding. It was one of those times when you wish people didn’t know you’re a Mormon. ‘Cuz I can still do a Russian accent.

Ann Padgett on Writing: “I Learned How to Forgive Myself”

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60)

Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? . . .

Art stands on the shoulders of craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath.

. . . I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

. . . I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself. (pp. 28-30)