The Stories that Lie Between Book and Reader

Pamela Paul, My Life with Bob:

“It’s hard not to wish that everyone – my friends, my family members, writers I know and don’t know – would keep a Book of Books. What better way to get to know them? You could find out so much if you could get a read on where other people’s curiosities lie and where their knowledge is found: What are you reading? And what have you read? And what do you want to read next? Not knowing the answers to these questions means you miss a vital part of a persona, the real story, the other stories – not the ones in their books, but the stories that lie between book and reader, the connections that bind the two together.”

I’ve tracked my reading publicly for nearly 20 years, on Goodreads since 2008 and before that on a hand-coded HTML page on my personal website. I can’t imagine not tracking the books I read now. It’s second nature to record what I’m reading, when I started and when I finished. And to look back on what I’ve read and look forward to what I might read next.

Between book and reader

For Pamela Paul, her Book of Books (aka Bob) is meaningful and private because that’s what reading was for her. “Reading time became my time and place, another dimension where events operated by my own set of rules. … What you read revealed what you cared about and feared, what you hoped for because you didn’t have it, what questions you wanted answered without publicly unmasking your ignorance. I guarded this information fiercely.”

When she first wrote about Bob in the New York Times Book Review along with a photo of Bob’s first page, “I had revealed my inner life in a very public way,” she writes, “but at least, I reasoned, I’d done so in a safe place, among fellow readers.”

There is an element of intimacy to my Goodreads page (which is a very safe space, especially compared to many other social media), but it’s the kind of intimacy which I’ve long been comfortable with online. The exposure is indirect. It’s an easier, more obscure way to show what I’m interested in, how I’m feeling, what I’m concerned with. It lets me avoid saying something outright in a blog post, Facebook status, or Instagram caption. But it’s also true that some books I read have nothing to do with my life or have no impact on me.

A fuzzy kind of picture emerges from the sum of the books I read. My reading says something about me, but only as much as, say, photos do. What my home looks like, what kind of clothes I wear, how I wear my hair. These are ways to reveal a portion of my identity, but not any deep truths. They aren’t enough to tell whether we’d get along, whether I’d be a good friend, or what I believe in.

There might be such a thing as knowing too much about what other people read. It’s possible to place too much importance on books. Many very wonderful people read one type of book or only the most popular books or no books at all. Books are special, but there are so many things we consume that help make us who we are. I have the privilege and luxury of making reading a priority in my life. What you read or don’t read doesn’t define you or reveal some deep truth about you. It’s just one aspect of every complicated human being.

I Don’t Want to Know Why I Write: Orwell and Deborah Levy

Last month I read Deborah Levy’s short literary memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing, which uses George Orwell’s essay “Why I Write” as a point of departure.

Things I Don't Want to Know - Deborah Levy

I read Orwell’s essay years ago in school, like you do. But I rediscovered it recently via an article on Open Culture around the same time as seeing something about Levy’s book in relation to the upcoming follow-up The Cost of Living, the second part of what she calls her “living memoir.” 

Orwell says some very kind things about writers:

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”

The four qualities or motives of a writer, according to Orwell, are sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. In more peaceful times, Orwell says, he may have been the type of writer with only the first three qualities. But the fourth, political purpose, became the motive that he says ultimately brought his writing to life.

“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.”

These four motives form the chapter titles in Things I Don’t Want to Know, but Levy doesn’t write much about writing itself. She writes about femininity and motherhood, the utopia a woman creates when she makes a home for husband and children. At a time in her life when she finds herself unhappy and crying on escalators, she takes a solo trip to a hotel in Majorca. Maria, the woman who runs the hotel and runs away while Levy is visiting, attracts her scrutiny. While there, she recalls a time in her childhood in apartheid South Africa with the women in her life during her father’s imprisonment. 

Levy connects these pieces of memoir to say something about what the world holds for women, in particular for women who write. For women who deserve more than what they have, who are looking for more and better in their lives, searching for the life they have a right to have. These connections form an idea of why she writes and what qualities and experiences have made her a writer.

“We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics, from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off. The way we laugh. At our own desires. The way we mock ourselves. Before anyone else can. The way we are wired to kill. Ourselves. It doesn’t bear thinking about.”

There is a violence in facing what is really going on in a life, and this is what drives Levy in her writing. She considers her novel Swimming Home: “I realized that the question I had asked myself while writing this book was (as surgeons say) very close to the bone: ‘What do we do with knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we don’t want to know?’”

I haven’t read Swimming Home, but it seems like the source of writing here is not quite addressed by Orwell’s four motives. They aren’t enough to explain that sense of, as a woman, writing in order to face what would otherwise be impossible to bear. What do you call the quality that works to make real the parts of life we would otherwise try to ignore? This is perhaps beyond history and aesthetics and politics and egoism, at least in the way Orwell means. Her questions continue:

“Should I accept my lot? If I was to buy a ticket and travel all the way to acceptance, if I was to greet it and shake its hand, if I was to entwine my fingers with acceptance and walk hand in hand with acceptance every day, what would that feel like? After a while I realized I could not accept my question. A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.”

Those last words quote Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot.”

Sheer egoism, historical impulse, aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose are perhaps the central factors that motivate a writer. But Levy explores how, for a women writer, it might be more complicated than Orwell suggests.

You can read an excerpt from and a review of The Cost of Living, an interview with Deborah Levy and an essay on her writing day, which I quoted previously here and in which she gives a quote from E. M. Forster as her writing mantra: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

Be Awkward, Quick, Insolent: If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland

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If You Want to Write - Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, written in 1938, is a precursor generally to the various books on the writing craft which I love so much and more specifically to The Artist’s Way (which I wrote about here). The three central messages of the two books are the same. Anyone can be an artist. Everyone has heaps of creativity inside them and probably need help to get access to it. And the only way to make real art is to find your true self, be kind to it, and tell the truth.

Unless you’re prepared for a fully loaded dose of affirmation, inspiration, optimistic encouragement, earnestness, and repetition, proceed with caution! If that doesn’t scare you, watch out for the old-fashioned conversational tone and slightly odd punctuation and grammar. Writers of the present century, aspiring or otherwise, are more likely to enjoy contemporary books on the writing craft.

Even aside from all of that, it might have been a bit much for me to read If You Want to Write so soon after finishing The Artist’s Way. Like Julia Cameron’s book, If You Want to Write is more about discovering that you can write, even if you think you can’t or aren’t good. The focus is on working toward becoming what you might call good, whatever that may be for you. It’s not about crafting beautiful sentences or a compelling plot or engaging characters. It’s about finding the thing inside of you that you want to write and getting it out on the page in an honest and truthful way. Reading two similar books about this so close together has pushed me to a saturation point.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some nuggets of insight to be found. Here are some of my favourite parts.

Being careless

Before Julia Cameron came along, Brenda Ueland had her own version of the morning pages:

“Write every day, or as often as you possibly can, as fast and carelessly as you possibly can, without reading it again, anything you happened to have though, seen or felt the day before. In six months look at it. A drawer full of paper will have accumulated. You will see that what you have written with the most slovenly freedom — in those parts there will be vitality, brilliance, beauty. By being careless, by taking it off on paper as fast as you can, you will not write what is dutiful and boring to you. You will not lumberingly over-explain, as they all do in political speeches and articles on economics. You will go straight to the point— be awkward, quick, insolent. Oh, this over-explaining! It is the secret of all boredom.”

I also like this advice about writing as though you will throw away what you create: “I don’t think we trust our imaginations enough, use them rightly. Self-trust is so important. When you launch on a story, make your neck loose, feel free, good-natured. And be lazy. Feel that you are going to throw it away. Try writing utterly unplanned stories and see what comes out.”

All should work

“Everybody in the world has the same conviction of inner importance, fire, or the god within,” she writes.

“The tragedy is that either they stifle their fire by not believing in it and using it; or they try to prove to the world and themselves that they have it, not inwardly and greatly, but externally and egotistically, by some second-rate thing like money or power or more publicity. Therefore all should work. First because it is impossible that you have no creative gift. Second: the only way to make it live and increase is to use it. Third: you cannot be sure that it is not a great gift.” 

Personality and the true self

A lot of what Ueland has to say about writing is about finding your true self and writing from there, not putting on a character or trying to be someone you’re not. But how, she asks, “to single out your true self, when we are all so many selves?” Her answer:

“The only way to find yourself is by recklessness and freedom. If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one. In fact, when you are in a fury it is a wonderful time to write. It will be brilliant — provided you write about what you are furious at, and not some dutiful literary bilge.

Gradually by writing you will learn more and more to be free, to say all you think; and at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.” 

Learning about yourself is what gives your writing that coveted personality:

“The personality behind the writing is so important. This is what I call the Third Dimension. On the paper there are all the neatly written words and sentences. It may be completely objects, with ‘I’ not written there once. But behind the words and sentences, there is this deep, important, moving thing — the personality of the writer. And whatever that personality is, it will shine through the writing and make it noble or great, or touching or cold … or supercilious or whatever the writer is.”

Planning before writing

A friend asks Ueland if she has planned the book and made an outline. She vehemently answers in the negative. “For when you begin to plan such a huge edifice of words,” she writes, “your heart fails you. It is too hard, it will never get done, it is too complex and frightful. No, write what comes to you now. More will come later. The river will begin to flow through you.”

I’m not sure this is useful advice for all writers. Sometimes it helps to know the big picture before you begin to write each chapter. Many writers are very capable of dealing with an ambitious work. There’s no need to tell them that it should seem difficult if they don’t actually feel that way.

It’s obvious from this book that Ueland followed this advice while writing it. Each chapter is a thing by itself, without much sense of a cohesive whole, and there is a lot of repetition and even some contradiction. It’s still readable, but a little haphazard. If You Want to Write itself isn’t a strong argument for not planning before you start writing.

“No, I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it. You write, and plan it afterwards. You write it first because every word must come out with freedom, and with meaning because you think it is so and want to tell it. If this is done the book will be alive.” 

This advice is useful for starting with an exploratory first draft. But it’s not going to help people who already have an idea of what their book is about but need to do the work to figure out how to put it together. Planning is helpful for avoiding that scramble in the dark every time you sit down to write.

But it’s equally true that if you don’t know what you’re writing and how you’re going to start, outlining and planning isn’t really going to get you anywhere. Sometimes you just have to stop making excuses, stop living inside the hazy world of your grand ideas, stop pretending that one day the story is going to write itself. Sometimes you just need to get down to the work.

The way to make it better

Although so much of the book is about finding your inner artist and facing the fear that you can’t write, If You Want to Write also has some excellent concrete advice about writing.

How to get better: “Don’t be afraid of writing bad, mawkish stories for that will show you many things about yourself, and your eye and taste and what you really feel and care about will become clearer to you. If you write a bad story, the way to make it better is to write three more. Then look at the first one. You will have grown in understanding, in honesty. You will know what to do to it. And to yourself.”

How to revise a story: “When you have written a story and it has come back a few times and you sit there trying to write it over again and make it more impressive, do not try to think of better words, more gripping words. Try to see the people better. It is not yet deeply enough imagined. See them — just what they did and how they looked and felt. Then write it. If you can at last see it clearly the writing is easy.”

How to be interesting: “The secret of being interesting is to move along as fast as the mind of the reader (or listener) can take it in. Both must march along in the same tempo. That is why it is good to read your writing aloud to yourself. As soon as your voice drags, cross that part out.”

Related

There is another book about writing with a lot of similarities to If You Want to Write that came out just a few years before, in 1934: Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (available as a PDF), which I first heard about via Writing about Writing. Here’s a preview:

“There is a sort of writer’s magic. There is a procedure which many an author has come upon by happy accident or has worked out for himself which can, in part, be taught. To be ready to learn it you will have to go by a rather roundabout way, first considering the main difficulties which you will meet, then embarking on simple, but stringently self-enforced exercises to overcome those difficulties. Last of all you must have faith, or the curiosity, to take one odd piece of advice which will be unlike any of the exhortations that have come your way in classrooms or in textbooks.”

If You Want to Write, Here’s the Book for You at Literary Hub.
Brenda Ueland at Wikipedia.
Buy the book directly from Graywolf Press.

How Writing Has Been Going Lately

I wrote the first drafts of two novels last year. I wrote them quickly — the first in three and a half months at around 800 words a day, and the second in less than two months at about 950 words a day. I started the draft of a third novel in early December. I expected it to come out as quickly as the other two, but so far it hasn’t. 

Writing lately

Writing lately has been slow. I try to work on it every day, and sometimes I fail. My average pace is somewhere around 200 words a day, and I’m nowhere close to the end of the story. There are many days where I’ve written nothing at all and other days where 300 words feels like a feat of incredible strength. It’s been months since I’ve written several hundred or a thousand words in one session.

That sounds like a lot, but on a day like that, the majority of the words are terrible. The volume is important, though. The point is getting inside the writing, moving forward, thinking of new ideas while in the thick of it, not from the outside. In the middle of a thought about something else finding insight into what is really going on in a scene. There need to be a lot of words because it’s often only at the end of a long stretch of sentences that something good or useful emerges.

Most mornings I type up a few sentences and call it progress. I feel lucky if I manage more than one paragraph. Sometimes that tiny beginning turns into something bigger and I get a few hundred words down in a morning, but most of the time it’s just words that reiterate something I’ve already written, that add a silly thought on top of another silly thought, that carry on a conversation with nothing in it. I don’t feel like it counts as progress.

Shifting form

Part of my problem with writing lately is that the story doesn’t even feel like a novel anymore. Somewhere along the way, the part I’m working on turned into a short story. Part of me wants to continue the novel, while another part wants to cut out this piece and work it into a thing that stands on its own. 

I’m meandering on the outskirts of the story, looking backward at what I’ve already written, wishing I could make something of that, rather than continuing to move ahead. But having begun a novel that shows signs of going somewhere, I am compelled to continue it. Yet having a vision in my head of a short story, I am compelled to consider what it would mean to have a short story finished, done, without having to commit to an entire novel yet again.

A novel is fundamentally different from a short story. I can’t hold them both in my head at once. I’m finding it impossible to have it both ways. So I creep cautiously along, barely making any headway. And I keep thinking: what if it were a short story, something I could submit somewhere for publication on its own?

Writing lately

One step at a time

It feels so important, the piece of fiction you choose to be the first thing you send out into the world with your name attached to it. So I’m trying not to think about it. There are no limits to the kind of writer I can imagine myself being. I have not chosen a voice, a genre, a geography, a set of themes, a primary concern. Those choices shouldn’t be important. I feel nearly as likely to publish a contemporary romance novel as a book of prose poetry or an obscure literary novel or a self-help book. And with thinking about what I want to try to get published first, I feel like I have to choose. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. Is that why I’ve been slowing down?

After all the first drafts I’ve been writing lately, I really just want to finish something that I can put in front of other people. I don’t know what will happen after that, but that’s the first step. I have a sentence-generating itch in my fingers that won’t go away, not even on those zero-sentence mornings. The inevitable feelings of inadequacy and frustration and fear should make me want to quit. Instead they’re the motivators for continuing to work at it until I make something that I can maybe, if I squint and tilt my head and not think too hard, be proud of.

Organizing Our Books

I’ve been thinking lately about organizing our books. Alberto Manguel, in an excerpt from his forthcoming book Packing My Library on the Paris Review blog, writes about the experience of reshelving the books of one’s personal library:

“In the act of setting up a library, the books lifted out of their boxes and about to be placed on a shelf shed their original identities and acquire new ones through random associations, preconceived allotments, or authoritarian labels. Many times, I’ve found that a book I once held in my hands becomes another when assigned its position in my library. This is anarchy under the appearance of order.”

The last time we moved, eight years ago, we had 900 books. The packing and unpacking was undoubtedly a gruelling exercise, but it was so long ago that now I can only think fondly of the experience and wish to do it again. Not the move, of course, but the opportunity to make our books seem new again.

A few of our shelves

A few of our shelves.

Our books have occupied the same space almost since we moved in: a series of self-assembled bookshelves that line all three walls of the open room we call the office. Not counting the sundry volumes scattered about on desks, coffee tables, nightstands. We’ve had significant turnover in the ranks over the years – we gave away or exchanged some 300 books and bought another 600, leaving us now with 1200 books. (I keep a nearly-meticulous catalogue of our book collection.)

That might seem like a lot of books, but Alberto Manguel dealt with 35,000 volumes when moving from a house in France to an apartment in Manhattan. I can’t imagine ever owning that many books. That is, I can, but I shouldn’t.

I do have some book collector in my genes (my mother is on a quest to own the complete Airmont Mass Paperback Classics and Reader’s Digest World’s Best Reading, for reasons I still don’t understand; but I can’t really make fun of her because she took me to the used book stores where my personal library was first begun), but I also have allergies and not a large home and aspirations to minimalism and a devotion to the public library system. The number of books in our house will surely continue to grow, but I hope to keep it with reasonable bounds. (What counts as reasonable is subject, of course, to whim.)

Our bookshelves are in a kind of order, part careful and part random. Nothing is in alphabetical order or sorted by colour. We have books by (and about) our favourite authors shelved together (Austen, Baker, Davis, Dillard, Eliot, Powell, Pym, Pynchon, Markson, Moore, Murakami, Sayers, Strand, Wallace, and the list goes on), but there many exceptions. We have some rough genre categories: poetry, books about writing, English classics, graphic novels, my growing collection of self-help/spiritual/business books. The New York Review of Books books have their own shelf. The various Penguin classics paperback editions stay together. Large hardcovers live in the oversize bottom shelves. Art books and box sets like Proust and Harry Potter and Tolkien and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy live on top of the bookshelves.

Establishing a new order

We’ve reorganized the books in bits and pieces over the years, collapsing and expanding groups, keeping the favourites at eye level and the lesser volumes close to the ground. The books we like the most live on the shelves behind our desk chairs. The ones we like the least live in the far corner, almost inaccessible behind unhung art in dusty frames and an old lamp.

But bits and pieces aren’t enough. What I’m looking for is stacks on the floor, on the dining room table, on the kitchen counters. What I’m looking for is that clarifying excitement of handling each book, one by one, off the shelves into stacks, then off the stacks and onto the shelves.

Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting” (pdf), Manguel writes:

“Unpacking … is essentially an expansive and untidy activity. Freed from their bounds, the books spill onto the floor or pile up in unsteady columns, waiting for the places that will later be assigned to them. In this waiting period, before the new order has been established, they exist in a tangle of synchronicities and remembrances, forming sudden and unexpected alliances or parting from each other incongruously.”

I’m looking for a new world order in our land of books. It would be such a new world, such a sea change, that it would be impossible to choose an organizational principle or style in advance. The occasion would require a complete rethinking of what order even means.

Writing a library into existence

I like the connection Walter Benjamin draws between writers and book collectors:

“Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method. At this point many of you will remember with pleasure the large library which Jean Paul’s poor little schoolmaster Wutz gradually acquired by writing, himself, all the works whose titles interested him in book-fair catalogues; after all, he could not afford to buy them. Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”

(If you, like me, have no idea who Schoolmaster Wutz is, he’s a character in a short work of 18th century German literature.)

I’m lucky enough to own the works whose titles interest me and whose contents satisfy me, while also daring to try to write the books that I wish were listed in book-fair catalogues.

Further reading

Alberto Manguel is the author of many books about books, including A Reader on Reading, A Reading Diary, A History of Reading, and The Library at Night. (I have not yet read a single one of them, which seems ridiculous.) More recently he was appointed director of the National Library of Argentina (a role held by Jorge Luis Borges), where his doings have become a subject of contention.