Writing well means different things to different people. For me, good writing is like that famous quote of Justice Potter Stewart in reference to obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Writer Colum McCann has a delightful take as he notes that “On occasion we write a sentence that isn’t, in fact, correct, but it sings. And the question is: Would you rather be the ornithologist or the bird?”
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent books and articles that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. This particular one is devoted to singing like the bird.
In her classic writing manual Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg suggests that writing is 90% listening. “If you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things,” she advises. “Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot.”
And, she adds, don’t think too much.
Reading the book over my summer break while on a Natalie Goldberg reading binge, it was clear I was late to the party. Writing Down the Bones has been around for 30 years and is credited with changing the way writing is taught and understood. In a series of short, informal chapters, Goldberg speaks to how to uneducate yourself from what you’ve been taught (stop obsessing about those transitional sentences) and immerse yourself in writing what’s in front of your nose. Name things, because names matter. Focus on verbs, which provide energy to a sentence. Write in restaurants and laundromats to get out of your lonely writer mindset.
In one especially helpful chapter, she notes that writing is a communal art.
“Writers are great lovers. They fall in love with other writers. That’s how they learn to write. They take on a writer, read everything by him or her, read it over again until they understand how the writer moves, pauses, and sees. That’s what being a lover is: stepping outside yourself, stepping into someone’s skin. Your ability to love another’s writing means those capabilities are awakened in you. It will only make you bigger; it won’t make you a copy cat.”
In the grace and simplicity of those sentences, one understands the power of this book. If you know someone who likes to write or wants to write, or wants to understand the value of writers, you might ask them if they have read Writing Down the Bones. Many will reply, “Of course.” But on the off chance that they do not know Goldberg’s work, introduce them as I recently did to a friend who came for a visit. After a few short pages, she was enthralled and will perhaps become inspired, as millions of others have been before her.
One Sentence is a new project by the writer Ben Dolnick. It’s a free newsletter that takes one interesting sentence a week and analyzes what makes it so compelling. In just a few short weeks, I’m hooked.
If you like Edith Warton, check out this post. Or Beverly Cleary fans should click on that link. But because I’m a sucker for biographies, I’m going to encourage you to the edition where Dolnick parses the following sentence from the legendary biographer Robert Caro:
“How could they know about the grass?”
“I usually hate biographies. This will, I know, make me sound like a moron, but: they seem as a form almost built to be dull….
However! Robert Caro’s biographies are astonishing.…
This unassuming sentence comes in the very first chapter, the little-is-known-about-his-great-great-grandfather part of a biography that is usually as far as I get. But what Caro does, ingeniously, is to tell this story — of the Buntons and the Johnsons, the two sides of Lyndon’s family tree — not as a story of antiquated names begetting other slightly less antiquated names but as a story of place. And that place, the Hill Country, turns out to be fascinating. Fascinating because it is awful. Almost willfully so, in Caro’s telling — it baits people, it traps them, it destroys them. And the way it does so is with its high and luscious grass.“
Even before Jeopardy! came to its senses and realized that they had made a colossal blunder, The Angry Grammarian, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, wanted to talk about Jeopardy!’s awkward and horrible choice. Yes. Another one.*
“I don’t like shouting, and I didn’t want to emphasize that sentence with an exclamation point. I really didn’t. But you had a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and you blew it with a disastrous decision.
While changing the host, you kept Jeopardy!’s exclamation point. That means I just had to ram an innocent, hardworking apostrophe with an italicized exclamation point — something no one should be forced to do.…
…you could have made everyone happy — and softened the blow of picking a totally forgettable dude-burger to host the most vaunted franchise on television — by doinking that unnecessary punctuation mark off your logo.“
Enjoy your reading (and writing) this week.
More to come…
*Bonus points if you knew which clip was coming before you clicked through.
Image: Writing by free photos from Pixabay.