Archive for June, 2010

Actually About the New Yorker’s Top 20 Under 40

So a few posts back I shared an entertaining article joking about the New Yorker‘s “Top 20 Under 40” list of authors and how to complain about it if you didn’t make the cut.

Now that I’ve finally read the first issue of selections, I find myself embarrassingly willing to do just that.  Not that any of the individual stories seem bad — some appeal more to my tastes than others, which is the nature of lists — but the overall selection seems to be intensely repetitive.  It’s pretty much just a collection of stories that teach us how people don’t really understand one another and relationships end badly, with a heavy focus on educated, middle-class-and-up people’s relationships ending badly.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t say much for the breadth of literature that the editorial board was considering.  I’d just feel better if there had been any stories about things that weren’t people being hard to understand and relate to.

Still, I suppose it was good for what it is.  For what it is.

“The Art of Manliness” Website’s 100 Books for Men

More of a reading list, really, but this blog doesn’t need another category.  In the course of my fashion writing, I’ve had some interaction with a few of the minds behind The Art of Manliness, a multi-author blog that’s everything it sounds like, good and bad.  I can’t fault their dress advice, enjoy the run-downs on some basic world-ready skills that everyone should know (jumping a car battery, shining your shoes, etc.), and find much of the social perspective somewhere between charming and heinous.

Their reading list for men is about an equal balance between timeless classics and horribly dated machismo.  Book lists are always a matter of taste, of course, but I don’t know that today’s gentlemen are actually all that well-served by things like William Alcott’s The Young Man’s Guide or Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  The fiction is a little more even-handed, balancing testosterone-pumped classics like H. Rider Haggard and John Steinbeck with Jack Kerouac and Mikhail Bulgakov, but don’t look for female authors here — there’s four of them, out of the hundred books.  My whimsy-loving mind recoils from the absence of Peter and Wendy (the original novelized form of Peter Pan) or any fairy collections like Grimm’s or the various-colored Fairy Books, but for good or ill, here’s the list:

100 Must-Read Books: The Essential Man’s Library

What do you think?  Glaring omissions?  Wonderful curriculum for America’s youth?  Either way, if you’re planning on writing something that you want men to buy, you might do well to at least read through a few of these and keep their strong points in mind…

Library Shame

I’m a big user of public libraries, in no small part because I live about three blocks from a branch of a very good system.  I wish for books and they arrive, which is kind of magical when you think about it.

The problem with this system (and many will say it’s not a problem at all, including me during my peppier days) is that you quickly get to know your librarians, and they more slowly come to know you — your borrowing habits, literary tastes, habit of forgetting to hand them the library card and then the books to check out (stupid system; you can’t reach your wallet with an armful of books), silly hats, and so forth.

All well and good, sez I, if you’re checking out the great works of Western literature — or better still, in this day and age, the great works of post-colonial literature; those librarians are progressive, and dead white males earn you no points with some.  But when you show up with an armful of paperback romance, or a fantasy comic book from recent decades, there’s that quiet, irrational shame.  What if he only reads post-modern metaphysical literature, you think, what if her mother was run over by a truck full of paperback bestsellers?

(It’s possible that I did not sleep enough last night.)

My comfort to fellow sufferers of library shame is thuswise:

First, librarians too are human.  They are just as likely to enjoy a really bad book as the rest of us — probably more likely, since they tend to be active readers, and are by necessity exposed to all the options out there.  At the point where they’re making purchasing decisions (and in many smaller libraries, the nice person checking out books at the counter very likely does have a hand in collection policy), they’re definitely reading bestsellers as well as Proust.  Probably more of the former than the latter, since a) less library patrons are going to want Proust, and b) you pretty much already know what Proust adds to your collection, and don’t actually have to read through it to make a purchasing decision.

Second, librarians see a lot of patrons, and you’re not as memorable as you think.  Relish your invisibility or seek to change it as you please, but be aware that they do the same card-scan, book-scan, book-swipe, have-a-nice-day routine about a hundred times a day (made-up statistic).  Take it from a worker of various small, repetitive, service-sector jobs over the years — they’re not actually seeing and thinking about every title that passes through their hands.

Thirdly, you’re checking out books because you like to read (or because you’re a pretentious ass who thinks it will make you a better person, which it will if you actually read the books but not for the reasons you’re thinking).  So you’re already a librarian’s second-favorite person (their favorite, I’ve found, is a person with a challenging-but-answerable question).  You almost certainly share at least one interest with them (books), and you’re a patron of the service that pays their bills.  They’re unlikely to judge you harshly for your Diane Steele fetish as long as it keeps you coming back.

And finally, it doesn’t matter in the long run unless you somehow wind up becoming personal friends with your local librarian, which isn’t as hard as it sounds — but at that point, you’re friends, and can share secret little sins like paperback sci-fi serials unashamedly.  Expect some toe-curling literary confessions in return.

Got library shame?  Got a cure?  Just got a crush on your local librarian and want to know how to charm one without being creepy?  Drop a comment, and I will share my wisdom…

Keep Calm and Carry On, Printing Errors, and More

My life is not very interesting today, and my writing time is largely consumed by a rough draft for a commercial product, so here’s a picture of the new pocket journal I started to use yesterday:

It’s an image that’s taken off recently, despite being a Ministry of Information poster that never actually got used during the war it was designed for (WWII) — apparently Crown-owned copyright expires in only fifty years, so it’s in the public domain now.  I wonder if that’s why the royal line hasn’t produced any stunning artists lately?  They’re supposed to be bred for that sort of talent, I think…any road, it’s the new journal, and it’s larger than I usually prefer and uses lined paper, but I find it charming all the same.

It came for free, because of a printing error that damaged the pages.  We thought at first that someone had been leafing through it with chocolate on their hands or something, because there was a small brownish smudge on an interior page.  After some leafing of my own, I realized that the same smudge occurred every eight pages, occasionally bleeding through to leave a fainter smudge on the next one — some printing error had dropped a blob of the red ink from the cover on each bundle of pages as they were bound, leaving a rusty, bloodstain-looking smudge on every eighth page.

I find this endearing for several reasons:  first, I like thinking about how books are made, and it tickles me that I can tell every time I come to a new sheaf of pages in the construction.  Second, it’s a small, rusty-brown drop, so I can always imagine that it’s a vital clue in a publishing-house murder (don’t worry, the stains are too thick and clay-like to actually be dried blood).  And mostly I just enjoy the design being iconic of British propaganda despite never having been used for any actual practical purpose.

If I ever fill it with anything useful, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Writing Life: How to Expose Yourself

I’m not going to lie, I’m hoping that title brings in some interesting traffic.  But I am, of course, talking about exposing yourself to different sources of English usage, as advertised in Wednesday’s Writing Life post (and canny readers of this Blogging Basics post have already figured out why I chose those two words to highlight for my link — always lots to learn here, kids!).

As discussed on Wednesday, your brain relies on what you put into it and what it can retain of that to create your basic understanding of the English language, which is never clearer than in your writing.  It’s certainly possible to write slowly and carefully in a deliberately-affected style, but the prose that comes out when you really get on a roll and start banging words out without thinking about them is the construction of your memory and your understanding of How Words Go Together.  We talked Wednesday about the memory side of things; today we’re taking a look at the sources of English usage you’re putting in there in the first place.

This is, incidentally, where the “writers should read lots” advice that makes it into every “How To Be A Writer” bullet-point list comes from, whether it’s properly articulated there or not.  You’re not just building vocabulary and literary references to sprinkle your works with; you’re training your brain to understand every possible way words can come together for specific effects.  But I generally find that writers tend to be good at reading already — it’s an odd career to embark on if you don’t have a preexisting fondness for the written word.  So my advice there is simply to mix your reading up — try genres and authors you’ve never considered before, even if it’s not the kind of work you personally plan on producing — and I’ll leave it at that, moving on to some less-considered sources of English you may want to be seeking out:

  • PoetrySince poetry is, fundamentally, the art of word choice, it’s an excellent example of English usage for your brain to chew on.  I wouldn’t call myself an expert on the subject, but I try to expose myself to some kind of poetry or other regularly — at the very least, I get two a week from The New Yorker. And I should probably be reading more.
  • TheaterSome of the best speeches in the English language were written for the stage.  More importantly, theater is almost entirely dialogue, making it one of the best examples out there of what does and doesn’t work in writing conversations that people want to read.
  • JournalismThe word limits and formatting restrictions of newspaper journalism make for some interesting prose sometimes, and the overall approach is very different from most prose fiction (although there have been some notable exceptions, most famously Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  Being aware of what’s going on in the world never hurts, either — if you don’t mind people thinking that you’re old and boring, I find that the Wall Street Journal has the best writing, but there’s something to be said for just reading the local paper as well.
  • Feature ArticlesTheoretically a subset of journalism, the kinds of feature articles you see on the front pages of special-interest magazines are really a different sort of writing from news reporting.  With a few exceptions, these articles tend to be broad glosses on a general subject, and it’s worth seeing how people cram big ideas down into small, easily-digested paragraphs for a casual audience.
  • BlogsAnd, of course, the internet has generated entirely new forms of writing, including these humble blogs.  Some are good, some are bad, and most are somewhere in between, but they’re all examples of how people in this day and age use their words.  If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to know your audience.

Got another source for written (or spoken) words that you think belongs here?  Drop me a comment, and tell me why it works for you!

Writing Life: Memory and How You’ve Stopped Using It

This started out as a longer post that got into some reasonably scientific brain-talk, which wound up confusing me as I wrote.  I shudder to think what the jumble would have looked like to another reader.  But my fundamental premise for the day remains the same:  writers need good memories, and technology is currently making it easy to let that particular faculty slip.

The first assumption there, that writers need good memories, may be prone to misinterpretation — I’m not necessarily talking about being able to remember a minor character’s name without a bunch of finger-snapping “I know this one,” though that can save you some time too; I’m talking about how well your brain can capture written and spoken words as it processes them.  Your “voice” — the habits of phrase and syntax that you default to as you write — is basically a hodgepodge of everything your brain remembers about How Words Go Together, and the more you remember, the richer your voice will be.

There are two basic ways to strengthen your habitual voice:  exposing yourself to as many sources of English language as possible (another post on that Friday), and remembering more of what you read/hear.  Unfortunately, recall is becoming a less and less useful skill.  In some ways, that’s no bad thing — education, for example, is slowly wallowing its way toward being research-skill focused rather than rote-memorization focused, which will undoubtedly make primary school more fun, and make that guy who knows fifty digits of pi even less impressive.  But it also means that we don’t train our brains to remember details anymore.  Phone numbers are stored automatically, passwords are remembered by our web browsers (and can be e-mailed to us even if we do forget them); Facebook tells us when all our friends’ birthdays are.

Breaking down the different types of memory is where the first draft got muddled, so I’ll skip straight to the simple conclusions:  you’ll be a better writer if you stop relying on machines to remember things for you.  This doesn’t mean that you have to go out and learn some sort of total-recall memory system (though there are some fascinating ones, including methods dating back to the Renaissance and even before) — in fact, one of the best things you can do for your writing skills is get in the habit of writing things down. Not just stories and letters and other prose, but lists, numbers, and anything else that you might rely on a phone or a computer to remember for you.  Just the act of putting pencil to paper activates your memory, as does reading off what you’ve written.  This is how Grandma remembers twenty different friends’ phone numbers by heart — she read them all off a scrap of paper until she didn’t have to anymore.

Since big changes are hard to enact (and don’t I know it), here are a few things you might try slipping into your daily life that can help get your memory back in gear.  Try one or two for a couple months, half a year, something like that, and let me know how it goes for you:

– Stop finding people’s names in your cell phone and pressing the “call” button.  Look at the number instead, and punch it in manually.

– Don’t tell your browser to remember passwords for websites.  Write them down somewhere, or better still, choose mnemonics for each site (a password for a banking site could include the $ sign in some way that’s meaningful to you, for example — mnemonics drawn from personal experiences will also be harder to guess, adding some security)

– Use a pen-and-paper datebook rather than a computer-based calendar system or a smartphone to remind you of important dates.

– Do crosswords, play cards, go to quiz night at the pub, or do something else for fun that requires your memory in an active, involved way.

– Whenever possible, do minor math (figuring tips, etc.) in your head or on paper, rather than using a calculator.  Remembering the way numbers add up and internalizing common numeric patterns uses the same part of your brain that remembers how words go together.

– Read and listen to a wide variety of English usage — more on this tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Personal Pages: Cars, Insurance, and Not a Lot of Writing

I thought for a while about how to turn fender-benders and insurance hassles (the result of neither my driving nor my insurance company, thankfully) into a post about writing, and it just ain’t coming.  So let’s just say it’s been a busy morning and try again Wednesday, eh?  Apologies to the readers.


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