Book Review: East of Eden

East of Eden by John Steinbeck, a book review

BookCover_East-of-Eden_Penguin-Steinbeck

Caution: This review may contain spoilers.

Maybe I shouldn’t read others’ reviews of a book before I write my own. Having read one extremely negative review of a book I rather loved has me on the defensive, coiled to spring with rebuttal fangs. Why did I read the review in the first place?

It started by looking at any reviews and then by noticing the number of stars in each review’s rating on Goodreads.com. From there, from seeing only one star on the review, it was a blend of intrigued indignation, morbid curiosity, and that creeping doubt of my own sound judgment as a reader that induced me to “read more.” I asked myself what I missed and thought maybe this reader could tell me.

O, ye of significant reading experience, intuitive literary thinking, English literature teacher training and three years’ teaching experience, studious involvement in a classics book club, a writer’s view of writing, and reasonable intelligence and good taste, how little faith you have!

No, I don’t know everything and never thought I did, but knowledge is different from evaluation, discernment, analysis. Credentials don’t guarantee the ability to look with an open mind, but I brought both to this reading experience. I followed an intelligent woman’s, a friend’s, passionate recommendation to read East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

Having read it more than a few years after that recommendation, I am so far from regret, it is hard to fathom any literary soul hating this book. And yet such people exist. Then again, they exist for all great, good, or popular books. That is not my concern. All I can say is I am glad that the reviewer I mentioned did not have the power to keep East of Eden, or any other beloved books, from me.

East of Eden is not my favorite book. I have enjoyed some books more than Steinbeck’s, even this year, novels such as Howards End by E. M. Forster and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. But East of Eden is a very good book. Wait a minute. Am I tamping down my fervor because it’s uncouth to be enthusiastic about literature? Am I curbing my enthusiasm for the sake of appearances? Am I modulating my response because not all books can be “the best”? In a word, yes. I’m putting on my professional, objective, scholarly hat to prevent myself from looking ridiculous with glee. I’m judging a book for the public’s benefit by direct assessment and by comparing it with other books I’ve read.

On one hand, there is this empathy for the author, being a writer myself, that turns me away from harsh criticism. On the other hand, I feel the responsibility of a writer for the public, even my small cadre of readers, to be as objective as possible. But what it comes down to is that I really did like the book; I cannot force that view into objectivity. And what’s so bad about passionate love for a book or for an author’s writing, anyway? Well, one might argue, love is blinding. We cannot see the real truth of a book’s merit once we fall in love with it. This is the dilemma of subjectivity. But let’s start with the objective lens.

Premise and Opening

A book about families, about people and their relationships to each other and to their land, era, and wider society, it is not just a novel, not a work of pure invention; it’s also a memoir of John Steinbeck’s family history. The narrative is based on real people if not entirely true events or details, and the narrator places himself in that context as the son of Ernest and Olive Steinbeck of Salinas, California.

The story begins with the place, the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck takes his time setting the scene and presenting in brief the region’s history before introducing any characters. This exposition is gradual but interesting, logically ordered and beautifully rendered. It’s an opening that invites the reader to settle in for an epic by making the surroundings visible and cozily American. Yet, some of the description of the hardships inherent in trying to farm the Salinas Valley reminds the reader of Grapes of Wrath‘s depiction of Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s.

Summary and Genre

The story involves the lives of these people from the 1860s until the end of World War I. The Hamiltons, emigrating from Ireland, are Steinbeck’s ilk. He introduces them with the memoirist’s caveats of partial memory and reliance on hearsay and imagination for a full picture. In the next chapter, there is no caveat, and presentation of the Trask family reads at first like pure fiction. Moving to California from Connecticut, the Trasks serve as the focus of the author’s allegorical exploration of humanity through the lens of the Genesis story of Cain and Abel.

Genre sets a reader’s expectations of a book’s characteristics: A novel should have a good plot, and a memoir should be true to the writer’s life and emotions. One could argue that both should have good plots and human truths. As a novel, a memoir, and a genre bender, East of Eden accomplishes both ends. Switching between families throughout, the book starts with Hamilton and ends with Trask. While not formulaic or tidily paced, the plot of East of Eden follows the life story of the narrator’s grandfather Samuel Hamilton and his family, as well as three generations in the family of his grandfather’s neighbor and friend, Adam Trask.

Point of View and Characters

Steinbeck maintains the occasional sharing of a personal viewpoint on the Hamiltons and eventually inserts first-person voice into parts of the Trasks’ story. These latter characters all receive space in which to express themselves, through third-person omniscient point of view and the free indirect style of stating a character’s thoughts as straight narration, instead of using italics or quotes.

On the Trask side, there are three archetypal “C” characters, and three archetypal “A” characters, and yet, the author draws them all uniquely. Cathy is one fascinating specimen. Adam is almost as enigmatic. Charles, his brother, and Cal, his son, provide flickers of the wicked streak that Cathy fully embodies. Adam, his son Aron, and Abra, Aron’s girlfriend, symbolize sweetness, goodness, and beauty, and also the illusions that accompany the good soul’s initial experience of the world.

Employing memoir but leaning toward fiction, the book showcases Steinbeck’s skill with invention and description, even of characters. In one chapter, he provides a signal that he is imagining Cathy a certain way and then proceeds to develop intimate anatomical and physiological details of her pregnancy that no one who would actually ever speak about it really knew or observed.

That section starts, “I’ve built the image in my mind of Cathy, sitting quietly, waiting for her pregnancy to be over, living on a farm she did not like, with a man (Adam) she did not love.” These bare foundational facts prove true to the story’s outcomes, but as with most memoirs, the specifics of the story are subject to faulty memory, incomplete records, insufficient research because dead people can’t answer questions, and so on.

So how can we trust any character details in a memoir-novel? At bottom, we really can’t. We have to treat all aspects equally—those not observable by visitors to west central California or witnessed by current or former residents in the past. That is, we must treat those details as almost fully invented. It’s the only “safe” approach to maintain suspension of disbelief where needed and sustain basic belief in the author’s credibility generally.

The experienced reader of classic fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and other forms is more likely to understand that the narrator is a character in the story, too, a persona being drawn, just like other characters. None are trustworthy; all operate from their own motives and agendas with imperfect humanity. I’ll get into flaws in Steinbeck’s narration later on. Back to characters for now.

Then, there’s Lee. The most compelling and unexpected character, his personality and initiative receive free rein with Adam as his master and, later, his non-romantic family partner. An educated, well-spoken Chinese immigrant, Lee’s Pidgin-speaking habits for the public’s benefit he drops not long into the story. Lee is the glue that holds the Trask family together, and he becomes the surrogate mother figure to Adam’s twin boys.

In connecting Sam Hamilton’s and Adam Trask’s world views, Lee presents the book’s central theme of the importance of recognizing one’s free will when the path seems as predestined as a Biblical story. Some themes, like this one, announce themselves overtly while others percolate more subtly within the story.

Between Chinese labor camps, soldiering to control Indians on the western frontier, World War I, the stubborn poverty of the Hamiltons, and the accursed riches of the Trasks, these characters all experience degrees of great hardship, family tragedy, and personal struggles with their identities, their moral fiber, and the temperamental nature of love.

Steinbeck focuses on portraying their lives and thoughts without judging them, and yet he pulls no punches in revealing the follies that keep the Hamiltons poor or in fleshing out characters’ weaknesses as much as their strengths. The peculiar Hamiltons are depicted ultimately as beaten down by life, and in emphasizing the Trasks, also experienced in tragedy, Steinbeck urges the reader to invest in their hopes and dreams.

Plot and Structure

Steinbeck could have written this book as a series of vignettes or short stories, but he connects the stories end to end and across the text, tying them back to place or theme or his personal experience growing up among many of these characters. Presenting a solid chronology of family development and activity, the author uses no fancy flashbacks or flashes forward in time.

The first half of the book tells the stories of the first generations and their impacts on the book’s central characters. Charles and Adam Trask grow up as very different people receiving love unequally from their brusque, military father Cyrus in rural Connecticut. They are half brothers, each losing his mother before his maturity. Adam is sent to the army without wanting to go, but Charles is kept at home despite wanting to fight.

They eventually inherit an unexpected sum from their father. While working their childhood farm, Adam struggles to come to terms with life after the military and the implications of the inheritance, but Charles moves deliberately forward without fully grasping his character and purpose. The second half of the book follows Adam to the west coast.

Samuel and Liza Hamilton are the maternal grandparents of the narrator, and the book explores their large family’s relationships and how they cope differently with conditions of poverty on a farm in the Salinas Valley of California. The Hamiltons have no fewer than nine children (in rough age order)—Lizzie, George, Mollie, Will, Olive, Tom, Dessie, Una, and the youngest, Joe.

A few of them die young after suffering physical and mental anguish in their adult lives, and the death of a favorite permanently breaks another family member’s heart, taking some of his spirit away. “The Hamiltons were strange, high-strung people, and some of them were tuned too high and they snapped. This happens often in the world,” Steinbeck tells us, almost too obviously. Samuel is their story’s focus.

Steinbeck uses his ink rather wisely, creating a lengthy saga that meanders and sometimes drags with anecdotes but never strays off point, even in slower parts, because place and moment are pillars of the novel. He takes his time to develop a home for the story to live in, to grow in, to breathe in. This approach creates a book for the reader to invest in, and the returns are substantial, numerous, varied, and beautiful.

Central World and Theme

The contextual tapestry emerges with grace, setting the background for subsequent insight on events and characters. Featured through the narrative are things like the advent of the automobile, farming practices, brothels, the military draft, the nature of small-town life, and WWI attitudes toward local Germans. Religious themes are grounded in human realism, which elevates religious insight to the level of Biblical awe like the relief of the Gabilan Mountains and Santa Lucias rising on either side of the valley.

East of Eden is a story about legacy and its rejection, about differences confronted and either conquered or reinforced, about the messiness of life and the forgiveness of love. It is large in scope and detailed in development. The signature word of the novel, the Hebrew translation of a key passage from Genesis, is “Timshel,” which means “Thou mayest.” It says the way is open, you are free, and you have God’s blessing. Lee offers this as a beacon of hope in the lives of Samuel and Adam, as well as in his own.

Cleverly couching this hope in the hearts of non-religious characters, Steinbeck weaves a thread of evolving personal philosophies through his portrayal of the everyday joys and sorrows in the lives of two families. A brewing transcendence permeates the pages even while dark tragedies play out and loom on the horizon. The lasting impression speaks of the human soul’s capacity to expand, even or perhaps most, in moments of its greatest pain.

Peers in Literature

East of Eden has earned its place in American literature as a modern classic. Of the Steinbeck works I’ve read, it is better constructed and less pedantic than The Grapes of Wrath, grander in scale than Of Mice and Men, and far less depressing than The Red Pony. The tone is consistently ponderous but also factually documentary, though at times pretentious. The characters offer many different ways to produce a reader’s smile. The style reminds me of other great classics and some of my favorite nonfiction writers, including Annie Dillard.

As American literature, Steinbeck’s East of Eden is smoother than Hemingway and Twain, more accessible than Faulkner, and less heady than Fitzgerald. Steinbeck’s epic reads like a classy but comfortable pair of jeans—snug, flexible, quintessentially American, yet totally individual. Its beauty, relevance, and simmering intensity remind me of another beloved work, Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, for which I played the narrator in high school theatre.

Flaws in Storytelling

This brings me to flaws in the narrative perspective, which are somewhat puzzling in origin and made me wonder if they were intentional, but to what purpose I couldn’t tell. Right away, in the third paragraph of the book, using first-person voice, Steinbeck describes the pleasing nature of one mountain range and the “unfriendly” character of another, to him as a child. But then, in stating he loved the first and dreaded the second, he declares, “Where I ever got such an idea I cannot say.”

Well, he just said it, didn’t he? The Santa Lucias were “brooding” while the Gabilans offered “a kind of invitation.” What’s to solve? This apparent lack of awareness of the thread of his own narration is confusing, especially since, after claiming he can’t say where he got this idea, he goes to the trouble of conjecturing about it further. Unfortunately, such passages inevitably raise concern if not doubt in the reader’s mind about the author’s clarity of thinking or level of intelligence.

There are similar examples throughout the book. These suggest to me that either his editors were too timid in their suggested changes for improvement, weren’t intelligent enough to notice the flaws in logic or sense, or tried hard to impose their wisdom on an intractable Steinbeckian will.

The example of the third paragraph’s mountain range comparison could be seen as a symbol of Steinbeck’s black and white moral thinking represented elsewhere in the novel. Periodically, Steinbeck opens a chapter by exploring a truism or aphorism that applies to the times, the region, its people, or humanity. These serve to set the stage for subsequent events, placing them in his chosen context. Sometimes, the truisms don’t ring true in a human universal sense where intended, and in many of these philosophical passages of social comment, the author comes off as pedantic and pretentious.

Some spots could be read as facetious decrees or other rhetorical devices meant to demonstrate through logical formality, for instance, the impossibility for normal humans to avoid pain. Or, he could be speaking in the limited mindset of the characters he refers to next, but it seems unlikely when compared to other omniscient passages, and even less so when the reader reaches Chapter 34. See below.

Because of these features, if we give Steinbeck and his editors the benefit of the doubt, the use of narrative voice raises further questions about narrator perspective and identity. While imagining the people in the pool of his origins, does Steinbeck stray into magical thinking about himself as well? What magic, for instance, enables him to gain the impossible insights his narrator persona seems to possess?

Flaws in Thinking

One of the most striking examples of mediocre philosophy on Steinbeck’s part occurs in Chapter 34, which serves as the introduction of Part 4, the last in the book. Here he presents a treatise on the story of good versus evil in the space of a few pages that comprise the whole chapter. I examined the ideas at length and found some fundamental holes in the argument, but narratively, what’s worse is that this preface is easily forgotten because it proves at first only tangentially related to the next events and, later, insufficient to capture or effectively foreshadow the story’s outcomes.

In essence, Steinbeck argues, “We have only one story. . . . the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.” While there is validity in the claim that this question is central to human existence, he exaggerates in saying it is alone in its centrality or even importance. It’s almost as if he means to impose the rules of fiction on everyday life, when most people’s lives, at least in America today, prove far less dramatic in contrasts. If anything, we’re droning along in a humdrum banality of digital vacuousness. Little did he know . . .

He finishes his treatise by saying virtue is stronger and ultimately more successful than vice. Sadly, this brands some of his key ideas as unseasoned and foolish. It may be his wish that virtue will win (most people want this), but how can we tell? If we while living cannot know the consequences for the evil-acting people of the world when they die or know completely what lies in the heart or actions of every human being—more good or more evil—what basis do we have for declaring virtue the winner? He takes it on faith.

Then, there’s the completely neglected question of happiness and the fact that a life of virtue does not guarantee it, whether in the process or in the end. As you can see, this chapter distracted me well.

Whether true, only ringing true, or missing the mark, many of the narrator’s reflections and efforts to understand people and their motivations do at least represent the spirited candor of one who earnestly reaches back without knowing exactly what he touches. The important thing, the entire book emanates to the reader, is to reach. Still, the distraction created by strange, confused, and confusing exposition cannot be ignored or dismissed. If not tangents in themselves, reading them encourages tangential thinking in the thoughtful reader, which needlessly detracts from the story.

Theme: A Closer Look (Spoilers ahead)

At the fulcrum of the saga, the revelation Lee experiences in studying the Book of Genesis delivers the concept of “Timshel,” or “Thou mayest,” with respect to 16 verses in the fourth chapter of Genesis and the supposed imperative or promise that man will rule over sin. “Timshel” reveals it as a choice man can either make or not, perhaps emphasizing that man has not only the power but also the responsibility, and he cannot deflect blame for his own ignorance, or its persistence, onto God’s unfulfilled promise.

With this difference in translation, the power of man is elevated to a divine level because he retains his choice no matter how much of whatever else is stripped away from him (Steinbeck Centennial Edition, Penguin Books, p. 301). The embrace of this truth among the men discussing it—Lee, Samuel, and Adam—sets the stage for the second half of the book. That half reenacts the Cain and Abel story in the next generation of brothers, Adam’s twin sons Cal and Aron.

Characterization

Immediately in the first chapter of Part 3 (of 4), which introduces them as young boys, their fates are foreshadowed through the hunting of a rabbit. From there, the book intensifies its allegorical aura. I found the second half of the book more interesting and of heightened conflict, where the adults have already had their turn, and it is now up to the youth to make something of themselves. Experiencing the sorrows, dreams, and potential of these families through the first two parts of the book, the reader’s anticipation rises to see if the first generation can be redeemed, improved upon, and set at peace through the second.

Yet, the adults continue to grow and evolve through the rest of the story as well, especially Adam Trask. He experiences an awakening after his own personal heartbreak that renews his relationship with his sons and with Lee just as we are getting to know the twins, and his unpredictability adds tension and excitement to the unfolding story of his progeny. Even Lee reaches a crossroads as he is forced to decide where he ultimately belongs.

Meanwhile, Cathy’s life without Adam or her sons has its own color and curiosities, and, like her, Will Hamilton plays a key role in the lives of the Trasks in their highest-stake moments. Lee continues to serve as a soul guide of wise counsel while focusing his energies on maintaining the Trask household.

What do they learn in the end? What does Steinbeck finally have to tell us about these people and what they teach us about humanity? The first half could be interpreted as an echo of the Old Testament while the second half resonates with New Testament sensibilities. Old: Black and white morality, wrath of God, violence, Job (Samuel?). New: gray area, reserving judgment, mercy, forgiveness, more subtle movements of evil.

Above even allegory, though, the messages “I wish” and “I love” come through the story from Steinbeck’s commemorating heart, starting from sentence one of the book: “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” Adding to these waves of emotion, the second half and final chapters seem to beckon the reader to “Be the best version of yourself no matter what” and “Love and know yourself loved deeply always,” and some characters show potential to understand and to achieve.

However, just as the point was in reaching back to family and home for Steinbeck, the importance overall is in the journey where you fail but get up again to keep trying. Life guarantees no happy endings, but, above all, there is love. And we who are helped by such things as the epic of East of Eden to learn this, we are among the blessed.

Indulgent in detail, East of Eden respects its subjects and literary tradition. As a novel and a memoir, its resolution is fittingly incomplete as it emphasizes atmosphere and journey. Steinbeck has blended personal genealogy with updated mythology to create a story of contrasts and common ground. By turns idyllic and realistic, the characters leave indelible impressions that made me want to meet them in person. Of local color but rarely provincial, East of Eden portrays the intimacies of a specific region in turn-of-the-century California where universal themes bloom like deep blue lupines, fiery Indian paintbrush, radiant cream-colored poppies, and golden summer grasses.

Conclusions

My initial impulse with East of Eden was to shower praise and contradict the Steinbeck-hating reviewer. But note the strike-through marks and words added later in pink: “However, when, objectively, a well-organized, lyrically unfolding narrative replete with delicious turns of phrase, methodical, lilting description, realistic, smooth, absorbing dialogue, well-integrated themes, and juicy, three-dimensional characters persists page after page, how can I not fall in love admire it? John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is that kind of book.”

Then, as I re-read several parts of chapters in the novel’s first half, I found myself back-pedalling to a less generous assessment that does indeed make a book that feels weighty and remarkable suddenly seem rather mundane.

I guess judging as a lay reader the value of a classic work of literature comes down to how well one understands what one has read and how much one enjoyed reading it. Granting that some of what I didn’t understand could be my own mind’s problem and some of it could be the author’s thinking or writing foibles, the fact remains that I did not understand some of Steinbeck’s ideas about moral philosophy. Those I did understand didn’t always ring true for me. This incomplete and disappointed understanding lessened my enjoyment noticeably.

I greatly enjoyed several sections and aspects of the book, and I closed it upon finishing with a general sense of satisfaction. However, I wasn’t reduced to tears, gasping in awe, mind-blown beyond reason, or enamored of anything in the book so much that I felt compelled to re-read it completely or immediately, or to shout from the rooftops about it. And there have been a handful of books in my life that did some of those things to me.

On reflection, East of Eden stands on a par with lots of other really good classics. What it doesn’t do is stand out as a magnificent product of masterful brilliance. Sure, in it are outstanding description, great sections and ideas and characters, and a respectable mark of the author’s thematic ambition. However, as a whole, East of Eden has plenty of flaws that diminish its value, if only slightly. The most serious I can identify is the unfortunate effect of perceiving that the author has tried too hard to mold a novel with memoir elements to fit a philosophical viewpoint, rather than allowing the reader to craft her own conclusions from a simpler presentation of the raw narrative materials. Leo Tolstoy did this even more overtly with politics in War and Peace, as I discussed in that review.

In determining a rating for East of Eden, I could give it 3 out of 5 stars based on the above. However, there are other important personal facts to consider: (1) I was rarely without interest in the narrative, (2) I felt comfortable and swept along on almost every page, (3) I never felt tempted to stop reading altogether, (4) I loved most of the writing, and (5) I genuinely wanted to know what happens to the characters in the end.

After having read and thought about it a while, I found that the highlights of description, dialogue, and characterization, as well as some of the memoir traits of the book, added to my level of enjoyment and positive feeling about the book. Therefore, I cannot in good conscience give the book less than a 4. It’s just not a 4.7; it’s more like a 4.3. All things considered, even as long as it is, East of Eden is well worth reading.

Who This Book Is (and Is Not) For

If you like Steinbeck, you’ll really like East of Eden. It is praised far and wide as his ultimate literary achievement. If you like American literature, chances are good you’ll like this book. If you enjoy looking closely into the emotional lives of families, and aren’t afraid of sad outcomes or open-ended paths, this book might just be for you. If you’re a descriptive writer and love the English language, I recommend sampling at least the beginnings of Eden’s many vivid chapters.

If not, if you have hang-ups about Steinbeck, American literature, intelligent prose, flawed narration, emotional insight, or the notion of a classic, move on to the next book on your list. If you prefer high-concept science fiction or fast-paced mystery, fantasy, action-adventure, fan-fiction, or popular romance to human-centric realism and religious and philosophical inquiry, you probably won’t appreciate East of Eden.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy stories about turn-of-the-twentieth-century America or rural California or the psychological dynamics of archetypal characters in a highly particular setting and situation, this book is worth your while. If you’re keenly interested in studying, or witnessing characters grapple with, the nature of good and evil and are fascinated by the potential of humans both to rise to divine levels and to sink into being hellions on Earth, you might regret not adding East of Eden to that mix.

Just balance out your Steinbeck with a little Nietzsche or Sartre, and maybe some Capote, when you’re done. The way is open, and you are free. Timshel.

As for me, did my reading of that negative review improve or worsen mine? You know, it just may have helped me strike a better balance. So, thanks, Steinbeck hater! You made me think more carefully, see more clearly, and justify my love for Steinbeck’s many gifts.


If you enjoyed this post, you may also like some of these book and TV reviews:

If you’d like more of my thoughts on judging classics and choosing the best books, and to see which novels I recommend most, visit Great American Reads.

NaNoWriMo Prep Resources 2018

After several years of writing novels during November, I’m finally starting to get more organized about the online guides I rely on to keep trying to make it work. Note that this post doesn’t explicitly include print books or other print materials, of which there are many excellent examples. And one caveat for you: Start with a good story idea. Brainstorm if you need a well-developed idea or premise to start with. It will help to visualize your idea in the context of the following developmental helpers for story writing.

Featured Resource: The Write Practice

The website Thewritepractice.com is quickly becoming my go-to NaNo prep resource this year. I’ll spare you the effort to recall exactly how I happened upon it. The point is I’ve found it really helpful, full of a-ha moments. Here are some of the particular a-ha moment articles I recommend so far, whether you’re a planner, a pantser, or aren’t sure what kind of approach you take yet but just might want to try writing a novel.

I find each article engaging and digestible, and each ends with a writing prompt exercise. I’m using them to recall and dive deeper into the principles of story writing as I figure out what my novel will be about this November. I hope you find something insightful in them.

A handful of other great materials I’ve found useful since 2011, my first year of NaNoWriMo:

National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program Workbook (download the high school pdf) – Worksheets on everything from finding a premise to determining setting and conflict to writing good dialogue to choosing types of antagonists and more.

A Compendium of Novel Structure Resources – Just during drafting of this post, I found from Storm Writing School what might be the mother lode. It captures and links to 7 of the story structure systems and resources I’ve consulted or used in the past (Syd Field, Dan Wells, Christopher Vogler, Larry Brooks, Blake Snyder, K.M. Weiland, and Dramatica!), plus many I’ve never heard of! The article addresses the nature of acts (Act I, Act II, Act III) and organizes the resources into three aspects or types of structural frameworks–named stages, plot point outlines, and process guides. Check it out!

Brainstorming, Outlining, Drafting, Progress Tracking, Moral Support, and Organizational Tools including Mindly; AirTable; Nanowrimo.org library, word sprint tool, stats and goal trackers, pep talks, forums, and their blog; Writeometer and other word sprint/progress tracking tools; Scrivener; and PlumeCreator (open source).

Happy noveling or whatever writing you do!


If you enjoyed this post or want to know more about my personal novel writing journey and what NaNoWriMo–and Camp NaNoWriMo–can be like, I recommend:

Poetic Feet to the Fire

I’ve won a poetry contest before, once (granted I’ve entered only about 4 or 5 total), and I entered one recently. For this live performance competition, I collected a group of poems I thought to be of reasonably high quality for the upcoming event (end of July). Before long, I started narrowing down the candidates, returning to that process again after two things changed: The “tournament” became a showcase due to insufficient competitor entries to make the brackets work, and the accompanying call for literary magazine submissions opened up to entries from more writers than just would-be contest winners.

Thus, the pressure was lifted for content on one platform (stage) and transferred to the other (page). The result was to extend the time available for each writer’s decisions on what to submit (deadline moved from June 2 to July 1). With the change in deadline came more detailed guidelines as well. I suppose the crisis of faith that followed for me simply happened sooner than it might have, which is probably good since you don’t want to panic right before going on stage either. Whatever the cause or contributing factors, doubt has crept in.

I had already shuffled the order a few times, relegating poems to alternate status and back again, when I learned the news of the event’s structural changes. Before the tournament became a non-competitive showcase, there was to be a series of time limits for contestants at the mic. However, with a dearth of entries, stage time has expanded for each participant. By contrast, with the new goal for the literary magazine being to include more participants than before, page space per writer has shrunk.

The new submission guidelines for poetry (the event includes storytelling, comedy, and music as well) specify a limit of 30 lines per poem, including lines between stanzas, and this has added difficulty to my decisions. It’s appropriate–only your best work. Of course I would submit only my best! If I could.

My trouble, as I see it, given that I do not write poetry prolifically, is that my shorter poems, the ones eligible for submission, tend not to be as good as those just out of range.

The consequences? My collection has thus begun to dwindle further (not inherently bad); I was forced to revise structures to make a few poems more horizontal and less vertical in appearance (no biggie); and I started to feel the overall quality ebbing away (kind of a biggie). The bubble of my collection of poems seems already to have burst.

For this event, I’ve focused on nature poems, but so does my overall poetry collection. Due to my infrequent verse writing activity (up to a half dozen poems a year), the total collection of possible candidates also spans a period of decades. The oldest poem in the group is 24 years old, the youngest a couple of months. My verse children were born in different personal eras (adolescence, college, working world), geographical places (France, Ohio, and Massachusetts), and moments in my poetic development (confessional, abstract/obscure, nonsensical word play, formalism, free verse with internal rhyme, terse verticality, and so on). A diverse brood. Ironically, the oldest poems tend to be the most underdeveloped–sometimes that’s the nature of literary babies (and some humans).

I have not officially, i.e., formally, published any poetry in my career, if one can even call it a career. So, finding myself on the cusp of large-scale live audience action, if not publication, I’m sitting up a little straighter and feeling the lick of flames under my toes.

In desperation before these emergent, combined realities, I found myself scrounging for additional works to use. One poem I had discarded, or set aside, a few years ago as birth defected and beyond repair has become an object for resuscitation, remodeling, and renewal. You can do that with some writing. I journaled about it, scanned the meter, and color coded my pen marks for the strongest aspects I could isolate and reshape into something new. Now the poem awaits rewriting. Who knows? Maybe it will be the saving grace of the family.

Putting yourself out there is a healthy thing, I must remind myself, even if doubt lingers. It forces you to keep moving forward, find a way to make things work, and start new projects. With the imminence of the showcase, for which I’m officially on the schedule, I gain new motivation to work, to improve, to learn, and to try again. Sometimes, when idea inspiration doesn’t come, when desire to express doesn’t win out, the external pressure of a deadline and an audience can provide the needed incentive.

What is it? Disguised blessing? Healthy challenge?

There are more ways than one to get things done, and opportunity need not be a crisis. So courage, creator! And carry on toward adventure.

Noveling in November

It’s that time again!

NaNoWriMo_shield-left-spelled-out-right

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

And I didn’t yet finish that epic Alice books spin-off project, my vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic story from the Jabberwock’s perspective. In fact, following a fellow writer’s advice, I took a long break from it entirely after I got stuck in concept analysis and rehashing the outline for the umpteenth time. It felt as if it had become too unwieldy to manage, so from late May to mid-October 2017, I set it aside.

The story started at the July 2016 Camp NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), then I continued to develop it during NaNoWriMo last November, and I even managed to attend to it roughly weekly through early 2017. Après tout cela, le déluge. . . .

A lot has happened in the four and a half months since (in well-blended order):

  • read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • tutored English, essay writing, career help, and social studies through the summer
  • shopped for a dog
  • became addicted to Gold Peak green tea
  • read Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire and watched Brando in film version
  • gardened and weeded all summer
  • took a memoir writing class; planned and drafted the start of a memoir about teaching
  • took on more responsibility with my local writers group
  • hiked the Glens Trail at Gorge Metro Park for the first time
  • started a new endocrine medication
  • watched the scandalizing History Channel documentary series America’s Drug War
  • painted a portrait of Texas bluebonnets in vases
  • traveled to Pittsburgh to meet a puppy for adoption
  • same weekend, in Cleveland: Gold Cup double-header, nature hiking, Hofbrauhaus
  • adopted the cutest puppy in the universe two days later
  • nearly lost the puppy, who escaped his harness, in a plaza parking lot during the 1st week!
  • watched the affecting A&E documentary series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath
  • discovered the puppy had worms (gross) and fleas; got him de-wormed and cleaned house
  • worked with financial advisor to improve our finances
  • bought some new, softer bed sheets—nice
  • fell in the garage, bruised/scraped up my right side (mainly knee) trying to corral the puppy
  • rehabilitated and trained a fearful puppy in a month-long, self-imposed boot camp
  • dealt with 4 dogs who got loose in our neighborhood at different times
  • bought a new lawn mower after the handle on our old hand-me-down broke
  • consulted a dog trainer for the first time—helpful
  • fell in love with Panera’s green goddess salad and chipotle chicken avocado melt
  • took the puppy to an art festival only to discover no dogs were allowed
  • wrote a few journal entries
  • became less motivated and energetic for writing once we got the puppy
  • experienced and photographed the solar eclipse
  • watched the classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby for the first time
  • exercised a lot more because of the puppy, lost a few pounds
  • enjoyed a Labor Day party at our nephew’s new Columbus apartment
  • discovered new hiking trails and parks because of puppy
  • discovered we have a grub problem—evidence of skunks digging in the yard
  • took the puppy to a local mum festival (first time going)
  • saw Blade Runner 2049 and Wonder Woman (both great) in theaters
  • learned some agility basics and obedience training for the puppy
  • had several massage, chiropractic, and doctors’ appointments
  • replaced our ancient water heater after losing hot water
  • wrote a couple of poems, drafted some political essays
  • bought a UV light to kill mold and VOCs in our house
  • decorated indoors for autumn and Halloween
  • met lots of new people because of our puppy, including a neighbor friend
  • weaned myself off daily ibuprofen per my rheumatologist’s instruction
  • created a template permission contract for others’ use of my creative work
  • tried a few new recipes, including a great one for pumpkin chocolate chip cookies
  • stopped tutoring social studies after a trend of low ratings from students
  • wrote some blog posts and reblogged others
  • considered but decided against participating in volunteer community theater production
  • Droughtlander finally ended and an excellent Outlander season 3 began
  • attended some pre-NaNoWriMo meet-ups with our municipal liaison, seeing friends again
  • started feeling more pain in my left hip and left knee after stopping ibuprofen
  • signed on to help a writing teacher guide her students through NaNoWriMo
  • cooked a new turkey and white bean chili we enjoyed
  • started reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for classics book club
  • made oodles of to-do lists and one done list like this one; took tons of notes

Not exactly achievements for a traditional resume, but I wasn’t a bump on a log either.

Now, I’ve returned to the same Jabberwock novel to finish the story I started, and all that outlining is paying off. Having an established story structure–plus all my previous character development, world mapping, analysis, and storytelling–has prepared me to pick up where I left off. Now that I’m reoriented, it’s much easier just to show up at the computer, find my place, and write the next scene. I am free to be more creative and explore what remains: the story itself.

The following poem is a sample of my latest work on the novel during NaNoWriMo 2017:

To the Ray Harvesters from Cheshire Cat’s Pub

Let me sell you some sunshine
from the broad eastern plain
so you won’t have to reach so high up that tree
to catch the sun’s rays, blocked by dense
branches and lofty foliage from harvesting.

They have plenty of sun back east
where drought is too long creating
mirages in a soon-to-be-desert
and the drunkards stumble to the tavern’s threshold
only to find invisible smiling cats.

The sun is not useful there
where they block it with blinds
of thick wool and old wood planks
in the one building where infamy lives,
but barely, while liquor flows and cats nap.

The ground there is golden
with burnt grass and bright dirt, mocking
the yellow of sun beams wished
for growing green things, which you have
in abundance in your abundant shade.

Could we make a trade, perhaps,
a bargain of sorts? Rain for sun,
damp for dry, and a stoop of rum
or a sprig of thyme, for good measure
and good faith, or if you’d prefer,
some visions ground from your own toadstools?

It won’t be long now before you’ll
pale in the dearth of light on your western earth
and we’ll shrivel in the hot white searing
of sod and sand and roof on this edge of things.
We must take care of each other, or what are we?

Somehow, I rattled that one off in about 25 minutes after drafting a scene that takes place at the Cheshire Cat’s pub, a place I invented. It probably helped that I came fresh from studying poetry and contemplating the craft of verse writing as part of my responses to a friend’s questionnaire for profiling me as an artist on her blog.

The great thing about NaNoWriMo, which started midnight on November 1, is that there’s always another one around the corner for creative fuel injection. Now a global phenomenon, nearly half a million people are participating in this, its 19th year.

The NaNoWriMo Mission Statement:

“National Novel Writing Month believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”

The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel between November 1 and November 30. As the website explains, “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel.”

It sounds like a lot of work, which it can be, but it can also be as enjoyable, enriching, and fruitful as you choose to make it. In the organization’s press release for this year’s program, they describe their enterprise as “one part boot camp, one part rollicking party.”

People unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, or the impulse to write long-form fiction, often ask why on earth anyone would schedule such a project during the busy holiday season, but there is method to this writing madness. Also, as part of that “structure, community, and encouragement,” there’s at least one article on time management tips by NaNo novel writers (see the sources at the end of this post). Authors whose NaNo novels have been published include Sara Gruen, Erin Morgenstern, Hugh Howey, Rainbow Rowell, Jason Hough, and Marissa Meyer.

I’ve blogged about the NaNo program and my involvement a few times since I started my blog in 2013:

2014 – NaNoWriMo blog “Now What?” post-noveling resources

2015 –
On Finishing That Novel
Literary April: National Poetry Month and Camp NaNoWriMo
Five-Phrase Friday (16): Alphas and Omegas

2016 –
Packing for Camp
Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start
This Hunted Story
Novel excerpt: Song meets Alice

2017 – Camp NaNoWriMo: Song of Spring

As I explained in my April 2016 post about my writing progress after the April camp:

“winning” [NaNoWriMo] is a formality and having some semblance of a recognizable tale when you reach the 50K happens only by the honor system.

[Unless you want them to,] no one reads the final product you upload for official validation to be classed among the winners. It’s all self driven.

This will be my fifth year participating since 2011. (With 2015’s fall workplace stressors, I opted for doodle-and-loiter therapy at those write-ins.) Raising a puppy this summer has worn me out a bit and thickened my usual brain fog, which always makes regular writing a challenge, but I’m hoping for an air-cleansing lightning storm from this year’s NaNoWriMo. There certainly is no shortage of resources for planning, pep talks, and inspiration. It has also helped that the puppy is more comfortable with us after almost 4 months and doesn’t need quite as much attention.

Here’s another excerpt from my first week of NaNoWriMo noveling:

Scene: The White King and Queen confer after the murder plot she has overheard.

The White King sat at his writing desk with yet more papers to go through from the post and the cabinet members’ council meeting of the previous day. The piles were piling up, and these clandestine rendezvous and illicit assassination pow-wows were starting to take their toll on his schedule. His large lower lip pushed out into his usual pout, though it was thin and hardly did a monarch’s pouty face justice.

The eyebrows were another matter. Bushy, white streaked sparely with silver, and often scowling. He brooded over the documents, with one pudgy hand rubbing the barely touchable stubble of his rounded but well-proportioned and well-positioned chin. No one would have seen the stubble from across the room or even a few feet away. The King himself was conscious of it mainly because he had a hand on it, and because he knew he had one of those clandestine rendezvous not long into his future.

The white robe of the White King was made of mink and studded with onyx pyramids projecting from their impossibly soft surface and lining the length of the hem up over his pot belly and all the way around behind his white heeled buckle shoes, usually at least two feet in front of the draping train of the robe.

The White King wore a ring of the monarchy on his right pinky finger, this time a pearl set in 14-carat gold etched with mountain-range like ridges and curving round the stocky little finger with delicate scroll work in bas relief, projecting out like the studs on the robe. The pearl was bulbous and large, comically large against a little finger, however stocky it may be. It resembled a boil or a corn or some other nasty protuberance one does not want to see growing on the skin of a finger or anywhere else.

As she entered the brightly lighted room full of tapered candles and the elaborate royal chandelier just out and above the desk top, the White Queen’s eye fell instantly on that boil of a pearl she always felt compelled to lance, at least for that flicker of time before she again realized it was not illness or injury, but simply jewelry.

She looked up and stopped, raising herself to as majestic a height as she could muster in her diminutive stature, with a neat button nose, silvery hair not yet fully white and a smooth pallor to her facial skin worked in concert as an ensemble complexion that belied her significant age, near to the King’s own.

As was her custom, she folded her hands diagonally to one another, keeping her elbows bent above the hips, her chin up and back, shoulders back and low, elongating that petite frame in the neck and torso so that it almost did perceptibly increase her height. And there she waited for her husband to look up.

Concentrating as he was on the papers and matters of state demanding his attention, he neither heard nor saw her enter. See this, she subtly shuffled her slippered feet laterally beneath her long straight gown, and this did the trick. With almost a jerk, and possibly a shudder, the White King’s head turned up and to his left as he sat in his masterly chair.

“Ah, my queen,” he said mildly, attempting to conceal his startlement. “A word.” He had not summoned her. She had arrived of her own volition and initiative. But he behaved as if his will dictated her every move, even though he knew it did not and never had.

Amused, she waited for the “word” from her lord and master, neither approaching closer nor changing position nor slackening her dignified air. She simply blinked and smiled slightly.

Unperturbed, the King began. “Yes, I am glad you are here. There are some matters I would like to discuss with you, matters of some urgency that we must attend to, my dear.” His round chin drew up into a polite smile but his bushy brows remained concentrated and serious.

The White Queen replied with a soft, silvery tone, like a sword quietly unsheathing itself. “What is it, my lord?”

“Come here. I have something to show you that I need your opinion on.”

The White Queen suppressed a sigh, as was frequent, while she approached the King at his desk throne. She thought to herself, Ah, if only you had consulted me sooner, I would have steered you rightly. She was of course thinking of the plot to kill Jock Warber, which she had overheard her husband, not an hour before, assisting Humpty Dumpty to arrange with the White Knight.

“Yes? What is it, my dear?” she inquired, smiling as she reached his side and brought her hands with open palms on graceful limbs down to the desk surface, tilting her head to see what it was the King was looking at.

I’m a member of the Canton Region of Ohio’s NaNoWriMo participants, also known affectionately as Cantowrimo. Our municipal liaison has kept the Canton group going strong for 15 years. I enjoy attending write-ins, but just knowing the group is there keeps me honest and motivated.

This year for the first time I’ve been asked to join a local middle-grades writing class as an experienced NaNoWriMo participant and cheerleader. We’ve had two classes so far, and the kids are a true inspiration with their massive word counts and clever story ideas.

NaNoWriMo might just be for you, too.

Write on and on and on.

NaNoWriMo-shield-logo-abbrev

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month

SOURCES

About NaNoWriMo: https://nanowrimo.org/about

Press Release – September 25, 2017: https://d1lj9l30x2igqs.cloudfront.net/nano-2013/files/2017/09/Press-Release-2017.pdf

8 Best-Selling Books Written During NaNoWriMo That Show You It Can Be Done: https://www.bustle.com/articles/192069-8-best-selling-books-written-during-nanowrimo-that-show-you-it-can-be-done

7 Time Management Lessons from People Who Write a Novel in a Month: https://www.fastcompany.com/3038045/7-time-management-lessons-from-people-who-write-a-novel-in-a-month

Last Week of Camp: Ready to Start

This month, in addition to reading, writing and revising poetry, I’ve been learning story craft as a way of participating in Camp NaNoWriMo, April’s more relaxed version of the annual National Novel Writing Month program. (Camp is also held in July.) In this post, I explore some of what I’ve been doing and learning as I ponder the mysteries of motivation.


The more relaxed approach that is Camp NaNoWriMo suits me fine since I’m just now fleshing out my story outline, and with less than a week before the “event” technically ends. I count this as an accomplishment for one who has never considered herself much of a storyteller and who is new to the practice of novel writing.

It certainly helped to have fewer of us participating in write-ins in person and to be a host for some of them each week–more pressure to make progress, I guess.

The pace of completion of this detailed outlining step in particular makes me impressed with myself, mainly because I tend to second-guess the value of the stories I think of telling. By outlining my intentions, I’ve given weight and form to a story that has not even been written yet.

Why should such a small step impress me? Why does being “impressed” matter?

It’s true that November’s NaNoWriMo more thoroughly facilitates the steady, somewhat high-paced push of “writing with reckless abandon” for thirty days straight than do her spring and summer cousin events. Camp is also flexible in terms of content, genre, form, purpose, and word count, whereas November’s goal is always 50,000 words by midnight on December 1.

Camp-Nanowrimo-No-Sign-300px-RGB2_400x400In both cases, “winning” is a formality and having some semblance of a recognizable tale when you reach the 50K happens only by the honor system.

No one reads the final product you upload for official validation to be classed among the winners. It’s all self driven.

In this way, for me at least, being “impressed” with myself or feeling good about my progress is crucial to furthering it.

My approach to Camp has been to study how stories are formed: brainstorming, researching theories, story structures, tools, and techniques, then outlining, profiling main characters, and then expanding that outline into a full, novel-length set of plot points.

It’s this last step that I was able to start and finish in one four-hour sitting, yesterday during our region’s Sunday write-in at Panera.

Now that I’ve reached this milestone, I am much more excited to move forward with composition of the story itself. I know what story I’m trying to tell, and I know the frame work within which I must work. I even know some of the symbolism, foreshadowing, irony and other literary elements I want to incorporate, and am starting to see exactly how I can accomplish them.

In other words, the fact that Camp NaNoWriMo is ending has less of a subduing effect on me than it has at the end of the last several Novembers. It’s easy to lose steam as the holidays approach, and I felt rather lulled into passivity by the achievement of “winning” NaNoWriMo each time. My stories became less important in themselves, so abandoning them was no great tragedy.

Still, it is a let-down. Some people are “pantsers,” writing by the seat of their pants without much forethought or planning, and certainly no outlining. I have tried that approach and found it unsatisfactory, so this Camp I used as a stepping stone toward becoming a bona fide “planner” of stories (who also happens to write them).

Aided also by regularly blogging and committing to taking my poetry more seriously, I may not even need something like Camp in order to finish this new story. But if I do, July awaits. . . .

I’ve always been better at planning than doing in many ways, so I was reluctant to begin my experience during my first NaNoWriMo in 2011 with too much planning.

Truth be told, I couldn’t help indulging in excessive research on the front end the first year. I found the subject of the Native Americans and particularly the Salish language quite fascinating as I prepared starting in September to write, during November, a story about a white teen raised by ranchers in Montana who comes across a mysterious wolf mask carving on her recently deceased parents’ ranch and begins her adventure. (I wonder what ever happened to that first novel’s protagonist, Emily. Perhaps I’ll return to the text of What the Wolf Knows some day and find out . . . by finishing the story.)

Whichever approach I take, though, I find that it’s practice and experience–and just going for it–that ultimately propel my development as a story writer.

So, although in some ways, my structured approach to a story beginning was rather formulaic, it served as its own kind of “going for it.” I’d never outlined a story so thoroughly before, after all. And it was only after writing a few rough novels, all four of which remain effectively incomplete stories today, that I had the confidence and motivation to teach myself how to plan them well and thoroughly, too.

I’m still in the process of planning the story, but after yesterday, I’m better prepared to write the story I planned. I had already begun some composition of the back story, but now I’m ready to charge ahead to write the main plot.

When you’re not in school formally and you don’t work at, with, or for an organization with a built-in structure for your work, i.e., when you’re a writer out there essentially on your own (albeit with a local support community and the Internet’s bounty), it’s helpful to have events like NaNoWriMo and its Camp cousins to assist with each new aspect of the creative project’s undertaking.

I realize each task can be useful if I know–that is, if I establish for myself–its purpose and see where it can lead me. Because I understand that writing is a multi-part process that is often cyclical in nature, I know that I may alter the plan just as I re-write some of the story.

As I often tell the students I tutor, each phase or step of the writing process holds importance and something to teach, just as each writer has a story inside waiting to be told.

There is hope, then, that eventually I, too, will bring all the pieces together and not only tell but also share my stories.

Every active writer has self-developed approaches, processes, and unique needs to stay motivated and be productive. This has simply been a slice of what mine look like right now.

“Stories matter.”  #CampNaNoWriMo2016

Happy writing.

Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 10 of 10

To conclude my Wild Verses series, I circle back to the sea again (and to a bit more coral, which appeared in the first sample of this series). “Green Turtle Picture” is an unfinished poem I first drafted in April 2009 and revised in August 2014 for writing group. This excerpt begins with stanza two and ends toward the poem’s second half.

Under water, 
a green turtle looks at the camera.

The inanimate, animal expression
accuses. The cold stare—
framed by cold, clear-blue water,
and clustered blue-green coral,
locked within the same 

space as its cold-blooded frown and 
terrible, wrinkled neck, 
its hunched, armored back 
an echo of my subluxation and chronic dorsal 
inflammation—that look, rising above 
the shadows on its flippers, belly, tail,
imposes, penetrates, disturbs. I want
 
to look away, bury 
head into body like it can,
retract the mind down 
into the heart
and let the two mingle, and educate each other. 
Give purpose 
to small humps below necks.
But I can’t. I am out in the picture 

of reality, exposed
to the danger of capture, of shocking
spotlight ogling a creature as it faces 
the unfamiliar.

copyright C. L. Tangenberg

TurtleTeeth_honeymoon_Cozumel


I hope you’ve enjoyed this 10-post showcase of my nature verse writing, begun last month. To start from the beginning, go here.

My post about Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush” featured the first sample I plan to build on for a series of favorite bits of nature poetry by famous poets.

The full series:

  1. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 1 of 10 – ice and coral
  2. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 2 of 10 – the lizard
  3. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 3 of 10 – competition
  4. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 4 of 10 – lightning
  5. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 5 of 10 – danger
  6. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 6 of 10 – in the soil
  7. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 7 of 10 – under sea
  8. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 8 of 10 – feeble competition
  9. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 9 of 10 – the hawk
  10. Wild Verses: Bits of Nature Poetry, 10 of 10 – the turtle

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A novelist and a photographer walk into a theater…

In service of writer-to-writer, artist-to-artist encouragement, this excerpt in particular inspired my reblogging. It contradicts the notion that daring or interesting life experiences are required to fuel good writing, and it reinforces a belief I have held that a structured environment can be the best home for beauty’s thriving:

“As Mann herself said—riffing on Flaubert—’You should have an ordinary and organized life so that you can be extraordinary and original and outrageous in your creative life.’ (Admission: I didn’t know this Flaubert quote, and, as a fiction writer with a very ordinary and organized life, found it enormously comforting.)”

the literate lens

Mann1 Outside Symphony Space

Over the three years I’ve been writing The Literate Lens, few events have screamed “blog post!” as loudly at me as the one I attended last night at Symphony Space, in which Sally Mann, the acclaimed photographer (who, by her own admission, rarely leaves her Virginia home), was in conversation with Nashville-based novelist Ann Patchett.

I’ve loved Mann’s work ever since she blazed into the headlines with her 1992 book Immediate Family—I’ve followed her since into some strange and dark territory, and knew, from the essay excerpt published in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago, that her new memoir Hold Still would be fascinating. I also loved Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, which can roughly be described as a sort of contemporary feminist version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. A photographer-turned-memoirist in conversation with a novelist—needless…

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