Posted in Reading, Writing

Book Review: Becoming a Writer

Becoming a WriterBecoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often read writing books really slowly. After all, the best writing books make you want to WRITE, which makes them easy to put down. It took me almost a year to finish this little 175-page volume by Dorothea Brande, but I’m glad I took my time. It enabled me to let her advice seep in and stay there, infusing my process with better habits. I recommend this book to writers, especially ones who are feeling stuck or sluggish or, as Ms. Brande would say, in the “slough of despond.” There are a lot of good, practical tips in here to get you going again. And don’t be deterred by the fact that it was published in 1934. Replace “portable typewriter” with “laptop” and “talking pictures” with “movies” and most of it is still relevant today.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from Becoming a Writer:

From the forward by John Gardner: “Ms. Brande comments on the workaday world’s stereotypic idea about writers– how they’re childlike, undisciplined people, possibly witches, since when writers are very good at what they do, they seem to know more than a decent person ought to know.” (page 14)

“The writer is at a disadvantage shared by no novice of the other arts. He does use the medium of ordinary conversation, of friendly letters and business letters, when he exercises his profession; and he has no impressive paraphernalia to impose respect on the layman. Now that everyone has his potable typewriter, not even that badge of his profession is left to the young writer. A musical instrument, canvas, clay, carry their own persuasiveness by seeming exotic to the uninitiated. Even a good singing voice does not issue from every throat.” (page 50-51)

“When you have completed a fair first draft you can, if you like, offer it for criticism and advice; but to talk too early is a grave mistake.” (page 52)

“When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down and learn from it.” (page 106)

“It is well to understand as early as possible in one’s writing life that there is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.” (page 120)

“If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.” (page 123)

“How your hero meets his dilemma, what you think of the impasse– those are the things which make your story truly your own; and it is your own individual character, unmistakably showing through your work, which will lead you to success or failure.” (page 125)

“Once we have learned to use words we must be forever using them… The conclusion should be plain. If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theater, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.” (page 133)

“Every author, in some way by which he has come on by luck or long search, puts himself into a very light state of hypnosis. The attention is held, but just held; there is no serious demand on it. Far behind the mind’s surface, so deep that he is seldom aware… that any activity is going forward, his story is being fused and welded into an integrated work.” (page 160)

“Teach yourself as soon as possible to work the moment you sit down to a machine, or settle yourself with pad and pencil. If you find yourself dreaming there, or biting your pencil end, get up and go to the farthest corner of the room. Stay there while you are getting up steam. When you have your first sentence ready, go back to your tools. If you steadily refuse to lose yourself in reverie at your worktable, you will be rewarded by finding that merely taking your seat there will be enough to make your writing flow.” (page 174)
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Posted in Life, Teaching

There’s a New Version of Me in the House, and She’s a Little Wacko

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My hubby refers to the person he’s living with right now as “Summer Carie.” Summer Carie is a little crazy. She stays up late but also, somehow, gets up early. She reads for hours on end, only stopping to skip over to her husband, kiss him on the cheek, and tell him her latest idea for a creepy short story. Summer Carie decides on a whim to turn an old skull candle into a bird feeder or clean out the medicine cabinet or reorganize all of the books in her house. She takes walks and naps and texts her husband far too often while he’s at work. Summer Carie can be a bit exhausting, but she’s happy and relaxed and carefree and creative.

I love her.

I love being a teacher, but I also love my summers. I NEED my summers. Without them, I would not love my job. I haven’t once checked work email since the last day of school (I probably should, I will eventually) and I haven’t planned any lessons. Right this moment, I can’t even tell you what day we go back to work (and I don’t want to know). But every day, while I rearrange books and work puzzles and make bird feeders and take pictures of raccoons, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Could I use this in my classroom? Could this tie in to a lesson? How could I share this experience with my students?” I’m always a teacher, even when I’m Summer Carie, and I think I’m a better teacher upon returning to work because I allow myself this time.

Please don’t hate on teachers because we get the summers off. It’s not why we do the job. It’s why we CAN do the job.

Ok, I’m off to hide something that belongs to the hubby and leave him a trail of sticky note clues to find it. Summer Carie strikes again!

Posted in Life

Surviving My Morning Walk: A Brush With Nature

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The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is an “internationally recognized botanic garden dedicated to inspiring the conservation of native plants in natural and designed landscapes” located in Austin, Texas.* In other words, it’s a pretty, outdoor-y, nature-y place where you can take walks, learn about flowers, swing in swings, watch turtles and owls, look at art, climb a tower, listen to giant wind chimes, eat a snack, and generally enjoy the outdoorsiness and leafiness and buzziness of life with your friends, your family, or yourself.** And I am incredibly lucky to live within walking distance of it. I love visiting the center and have always wished they were open longer hours, especially in these warm summer months.*** Well, I must have wished loud enough because they now stay open until 8PM on Tuesdays and open at 7:30AM on Thursdays and Saturdays. Hooray! Thank you, whoever made that decision!

* From the Wildflower Center’s website
** For some reason, the Wildflower Center did not ask me to write the text for their website. ???
*** It’s only June and already our nightly low is 77 degrees. Did you get that, northerners? Our LOW temperatures are almost 80. Yeah.

So last Thursday morning, in an effort to adhere to my summer goal of making exercise a habit, I got up at 7:30 and walked to the Wildflower Center. I was looking forward to seeing the place at a new time of day, to see what was awake at this early hour and maybe catch a glimpse of a new bird or cute critter. As soon as I got there, I hit the trails. I’d passed a couple of employees on the way in, but I didn’t see or hear any other guests. It was just me and the blue sky and the bugs. I’m alone, I thought. I have the entire place to myself. No distractions. I didn’t even bring my cell phone. I smiled.

Then I came around a bend in the path and saw a giant snake skin hanging from a tree. It was at least four feet long, and it hung from a branch at least ten feet above the ground.

Now, let’s get something straight. I am not afraid of snakes. I respect snakes and am appropriately cautious of them, especially the dangerous ones, but I like snakes and enjoy seeing them in nature from a safe distance. However, there is one thing that I just do not agree with about snakes, and that is their ability to climb trees. No. No, no, no, no, no. Just no. Snakes should stay on the ground, as the universe intended.

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This is not at the Wildflower Center. This is a photo from the day a six-foot-long coachwhip decided to come to my backyard to eat its lunch, which happened to be a two-foot-long garden snake.

Also, I had just read an article the day before about a man in Corpus Christi who cut the head off a four foot rattlesnake and then got BIT BY THE SEVERED HEAD. The man survived but was in really bad shape. So, I’d just come up with a new rule that dead snakes should stay dead and not bite people.

Furthermore, I was not actually looking at a snake in its natural habitat. I was looking at a large snake SKIN. In a TREE. Which meant there was a EXTRA-large (too large to fit in that skin), fresh, tree-climbing snake somewhere nearby.

I’m alone, I thought. I have the entire place to myself. I DIDN’T EVEN BRING MY CELL PHONE!

Despite coming down with a severe case of the willies, I did not turn back. No, not this determined trail-walker. I forged ahead, staying on the path and keeping an eye out for fresh snakes above, below, beside, and all around me. Once, when I got too close to the edge of the path and a piece of spear grass brushed my ankle, I let out a high-pitched squeak that a person sitting on their porch in my neighborhood probably mistook for a coyote bark. But all was well. I made it out of the Wildflower Center alive.

My Good Deed for the Day

When I left, more morning guests were arriving, which made me happy because I want them to keep these new hours. In the busy parking lot, I saw one of my favorite critters: a large, brown, Texas tarantula. She was on the move, scurrying quickly, obviously with places to go. Unfortunately, the places she needed to go were on the other side of the driveway, and a car was coming. I couldn’t bear to see her get squished, so I stepped in front of the car, pointed at my little friend, and mimed for them to please wait until she had safely crossed. They did.

I recently learned that while male tarantulas often don’t live more than a few months, females can live up to 40 years. I don’t actually know the gender of the one I met, but I like to think that I helped a little old lady cross the street.

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This is a Texas tarantula next to my hubby’s hand. Both of them were very good sports for this photo.

I survived my morning walk. I got some exercise. I saw some sights. I plan to go back this week. I think maybe this time I’ll take my cell phone with me.