It’s Monday & I’m feeling craft-y #IMWAYR

September 11, 2023

I talked to my 86-year-old great-aunt yesterday who told me she was bored out of her mind two years ago, so she started taking a playwriting class and since then has written three plays and had two of them produced with the third debuting in November. Also, she’s going to act in the third one and directed all three of them. So, if you’re thinking it’s too late for you to pursue something, I say please reread those two sentences.

I’m still in Joshua Tree, a new post about that forthcoming. In the meantime, here are the books I finished since my last post. I have decided to listen to books on craft while I’m here, so you’ll see a bunch of those. And the lone Sara Zarr book means I can link up with the kidlit IMWAYR group 😀. Also, it took me approximately thirty years to make the below quote graphics (all that resonated with me and especially my time in Joshua Tree so far), so please applaud.

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Josie and the Pussycats Vol. 1Josie and the Pussycats Vol. 1 by Marguerite Bennett

Yeah, I couldn’t rock with this. Lots of non sequitors and the plots and time jumps made no sense. Letting it go after the end of the second story.

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Sarah PhillipsSarah Phillips by Andrea Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am reading interlinked short story collections (short story cycles) as part of my sabbatical research.

I really liked the way this collection was set up. It starts with Sarah in France, basically wondering how she found herself in her current predicament (an expat in a relationship with a guy whose friends she sometimes sleep with and who is also a little bit racist) and thinking about going back home. Then, each story basically shows how she got there by with key moments from her past, starting in childhood when she decided not to get baptized even though her father is a pastor and then other moments from her life, either in her neighborhood or her schools. It’s a fascinating character study that also paints a really clear portrait of a well-to-do Black family with ties to the Civil Rights Movement.

I keep trying to figure out how to end this, so I will just say I liked this very much. I like slice of life stories. I like how run of the mill the things that happen to Sarah are–as well as how they’re impactful for being regular but also out of the ordinary. Sometimes books are about regular people and the regular things that happen to them, and this was a good reminder of that. How did Sarah become the woman in the first chapter/story? Well, these things happened that shaped her world view, and those are the things that make up the total of who she is, and sometimes it was just the things she observed about her family and the world around her and sometimes it was the way she behaved or responded to situations. What I also think is remarkable about the way this novel is constructed is that these things often happened to or around Sarah, but she still retained a lot of agency and felt like a participant in her own life even when it seemed like she was just observing. A masterclass, really.

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How to Write an Autobiographical NovelHow to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Daniel K. Isaac. Logging the paper book to get an accurate end-of-year page count.

I picked this book up because I’ve read two other essays Chee has written about writing (not in this collection) that I found worthwhile, so I figured I should give this collection a go. It is such a great look at a writing life (which puts this firmly in the memoir category) that also has writing tips and strategies woven throughout each essay. My favorite might be the one about Peter, and the necessity of narrating a story from the point of view of a character who isn’t ultimately the main character (think Great Gatsby or Wuthering Heights). How do you develop characters? How do you write well? What is writing? What is revision? Though many of these questions are not set up and answered straightforwardly in this book, they are all answered throughout the book. It was big “tell it slant” energy (even when he spells it out–“This, too, is writing”), which I am 100% here for.

The last essay is about writing at the end of the world, and Chee starts it describing the 2017 election but then going back to the AIDS crisis and the September 11th attacks. And reading it now, post-COVID (not that COVID is over, but that we live in a world recovering, still, from the virus), it’s just a good reminder that the world is, indeed, always ending, so it’s a stellar call to action to write right now, and an excellent way to end the collection.

I would put this up there with On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft except I would use this as a way to teach writing the essay as well.

As for the audiobook narration, it was very good, though there were a few places where I felt like Isaac was “performing” instead of just reading, which I found distracting. I understand why he did it, but it felt out of place even if, technically, it did fit the scene.

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Story of a GirlStory of a Girl by Sara Zarr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Me to my students and friends who are writing books: read a book that does the thing you want to do. So I decided to take my own advice and reread this one about a girl who gets a bad reputation after getting caught having sex with one of her brother’s (much older) friends.

This is such a fast read, super easy to get into but also with such lyrical language. The characters are fully drawn, and the relationships are so complex. This is really about everyone doing the best they know how, no matter how painful it is. I also appreciate a good open ending, so kudos to Zarr for that.

The updated version (2020 with the tie-in cover) also has an interview in the back between Zarr and the director of the movie adaptation, Kyra Sedgwick. My favorite part is Sedgwick discussing the importance of realistic fiction, especially for teens and how, when she decided to adapt the book, it was largely driven by noticing there is no equivalent of the after school special for teens to try out the world and think through hard concepts. “Where are there art guides?” she asked. So, if you can, I would highly suggest reading the interview because there’s a rich discussion about art and artistry and storytelling there.

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Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal NarrativeBody Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took a romance writing workshop and one of the teachers (Zan Romanoff) suggested this book as a way to reconsider how to approach sex scenes. (I highly recommend the workshop if you’re at all interested in writing a book that includes any kind of love story.)

This is a memoir that is also a book about writing with suggestions for how to along with why. It’s a powerful call to action for people with marginalized identities who have been either explicitly or implicitly directed away from writing about their traumatic experiences. Febos also advocates for embodied writing–writing about bodies and sex in whatever way feels right or necessary to the writer/narrative. With that said, she does talk about some of the pitfalls about writing for real people and how to decide what may or may not be worth including in a finished product that is then publicized for the world to read.

I read this with my ears, and the book is narrated by the author. This is my first Melissa Febos, and I do appreciate her candor a lot. There are some practical craft tips interspersed throughout the recounting of her experiences that all go back to the primary thesis of the book about the radical power of personal narrative. I did get a lot out of it, but I will admit that my attention started wandering quite a bit during the last essay. That essay likens writing to spirituality and since that’s a philosophy I already subscribe to, I didn’t feel like I was really learning anything new. That may just be a me thing, though, so I am not advocating skipping that chapter just pointing out why it didn’t quite work for me. Again, I did listen to the audiobook so it may read better with the eyeballs than the ears.

Nonfiction isn’t really my genre of writing, but there was a lot of valuable information here that would encourage anyone to write the story they want to write and why that story and their voice are important. Plus, as noted above, there are practical craft tips and suggestions throughout that can be applied to any type of writing. I’m going to agree with Zan here and highly recommend this one.

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Letters to a Young PoetLetters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Marc Allen.

This has been on my to-read lists for years, and we all know why. If you said Sister Act 2 (see above pic of Lauryn Hill from the movie), then that would be correct.

This book wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I thought it would be more about craft like the last few memoir/writing books I’ve read, but it most certainly is not that. It’s a book of philosophy more than anything else. There were some good gems in the book, of course, but I found myself getting distracted while listening, which usually doesn’t happen when I’m really into a book. I understand why it’s so beloved because it points people toward living an artist’s life and taking pleasure in that, but, you know, okay.

I’m not rating this one because my expectations going in were skewed, which affected my enjoyment of the book, but that’s not the fault of the book nor author.

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Have a great week, everyone!

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