Reading Like a Writer

Over a six-hour-flight across the country, I read for the third time Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

When I landed, dizzy and ravenous, it wasn’t from the jetlag and the meager airplane food, but from a book now highlighted in yellow, green and blue – that’s what reading a book for the third time does.

In this Guide for People Who Love Books And For Those Who Want to Write Them Francine Prose begs us to slow down and pay attention to words, out of which all literature is crafted.

Isn’t summer the perfect time to slow down and even pause?

I highlighted too many sentences and dog-eared too many pages, but here are the ones that struck me most – for different reasons. I hope they will tempt you to read – or read again – this outstanding book. It won’t make writing any easier but will rekindle the joy of storytelling.

On Close Reading: “Writing, like reading, is done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time.”

On Words: “The responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language. There are many occasions in literature in which telling us far more effective than showing.”

Good news that trigger a sigh of relief from the writer.

On Sentences: “Gertrude Stein wished to construct sentences and use language in a way that reproduced, on the page, the operation of consciousness, the chatter of the inner voice that propels us through the day, the voice in which we understand and explain our own lives to ourselves.”

On Dialogue: “If we do want to write fiction set in the world in which we live, it’s useful to study the words of authors who do have an ear for dialogue, for the locutions people use, for the accidental poetry with which humans express and conceal their thoughts and feelings.”

On Details: “Details aren’t only the building blocks with which a story is put together, they’re also clues to something deeper, keys not merely to our subconscious but to our historical moment.”

On Gesture: “Mediocre writing abounds with physical clichés and stock gestures.”

image(7)“Too often, gestures are used as markers, to create beats and pauses in a conversation that, we fear, may rush by too quickly without them.”

Ouch.

On Learning From Chekhov: “Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means…The wider and deeper your observational range, the better, the more interestingly and truthfully you will write.”

And from Chekhov himself, one quotation: “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything. The stupider they are, the wider they conceive their horizons to be. And if an artist decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees – this in itself constitutes clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.”

On Reading for Courage: “The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.

If the culture sets up a series of rules that the writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.”

That is some relief.

Francine Prose also talks of her experience, when away from home and afraid of running out of books she decided to read Proust in French. She discovered that reading a masterpiece with a dictionary is in itself a lesson in reading word by word.

I really liked that one.

At the end of her book she has compiled her own list of Books to Be Read Immediately. All illustrate the eleven chapters of Reading Like a Writer.

I’m glad a few are from French writers and I certainly hope for a long summer.

My favorite sentence from Reading Like a Writer: “For now, books are still the best way of taking great art and its consolation along with us on a bus.”

Or on a plane.

When the Foothills Burn

Since Mother’s Day, countless fires have started in the Sierra foothills where I live. Although only one home in the vicinity of mine has been entirely lost to the flames, all fires have scarred our foothills and its inhabitants.

People, first puzzled, then nervous, are now on the edge. Firefighters and the police have confirmed that the fires – at least the majority – are the work of an arsonist or several arsonists.

Although we have received very little rain and snow this season, temperatures are mild for the season with only very few days above 100. Most days are also breezy, a pleasure for outdoorsy people like me but an enemy for the firefighters.

Yesterday afternoon, sections of Highway 41, the major road that gives access from the south valley to the north toward Yosemite, were blocked due to several blazes.

As if it weren’t enough, a much more important fire started then, in Mariposa. From my home, forty minutes away, the smoke bloomed like a nuclear mushroom or the eruption of a volcano. Simultaneously a heavy grey tarp clouded the once blue sky. When night fell the flames shot like angry devils’ orange tongues, behind the mountains and toward the sky.

The distinct acrid smell of fire only crept later at night, and we closed all windows. Evacuation of the area lasted most of the night and this morning the sun is a smear above the blurred mountains.

Who knows what started this raging fire. For now, concern for the residents who have been evacuated is on the locals’ mind. That and worry, too. Will the firefighters be able to contain the fire? Will it be a horrific fire season in the west? Colorado has already received more than its share. Is it California’s turn?

None of the pictures my family took last night could depict the ravenous hunger of the fire and agility of the flames as rightly as the video and pictures taken by residents and published in the Sierra Sun Times.

No words can match them.

Time, Solitude, and Writing

The other day I met a teacher who told me that she would take a year off to write a book. Otherwise, she added, I will never find the time to fulfill my dream.

A pang of envy hit me and dream-like visions popped to my mind. Waking up at the crack of dawn, with no one keeping me away from a long day of productive writing. A pot of steaming tea and my laptop for only companions while my fingers, moved by feverish and unrivaled inspiration, would hit the keyboard.

Do you really think it works like that?

I tried to hush the realistic thoughts that, in the back of my head, told me of another story.

Does your writing really get easier, more enjoyable and, more importantly, better when you have a lot of free time and solitude?

Annoyed to be hauled away from my fantasyland I wished the best to the teacher.

But as soon as she walked away I re-entered fantasyland.

A secluded lake cabin with a canoe moored at the dock, loons waking me at sunup with their melancholic song, and unmatched sunsets painting the sky and water in Impressionist-like brushstrokes. Perfect setting for a writer.

You got that in the summer, remember? Has your creativity benefited from this luxury?

Shut up! I have done a lot of work at the lake. In fact, yearlong I ache to write at the lake where my family has a cabin.

Still.

My realistic me had a valid point.

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Regardless of the place – a bungalow, a condominium, a city or a country home, I always found the time to write when my four children were all living under the same roof. I was taking care of them and the house, working part time from home and also teaching occasional French classes, and although I was often overwhelmed and sometimes tired, there was an edge inside me that pulled the best out of me.

My writing wasn’t good at all, and I didn’t publish anything. But with little kids in school I found myself in a perfect position to learn as well. Those were crazy years in terms of work but they were packed with eagerness and excitement. They led to the acquisition of a new language and culture and to better writing and to publication.

Years later, with my children leaving home, one after another, to attend college, I should relish the time their absence offers me. And I do – sorry, my beloved children. But I am also very much aware that the idea of having more free time doesn’t always lead to better writing and certainly not to increased productivity. In fact, more time can equal to more laziness.

Ouch!

The everyday pressure can kill creativity if we reach exhaustion. But limited time triggers stress, which has positive effects as long as we don’t overdose.

A few days ago the teacher decided that she would not take a year off to write but instead transition to a part time teaching job.

I applauded her decision. For someone who had been working away from home for almost twenty years, limitless time could have been overwhelming.

As for myself, I still envision the solitude – tea included – and will always look forward to the lake, the canoe, and the loons.

But I know that lack of time and complete solitude are not what keep me away from writing. Fear of the challenge, of the opinion of others, and the rejection of agents and editors are what prevent me from writing.

That and laziness.

Good! 

Sometimes all I need is some time – not too much – and solitude – my honest thoughts – to move on to the next page.

 

 

Ça ne Fait pas Mourir

This week, after reading the Storyteller – Jodi’s Picoult’s latest novel – I swallowed Lone Wolf, her previous novel. She is called a writer of commercial fiction. Nothing wrong with that if it means being a woman who writes a new book every year – I dare anyone to do it – and has millions of readers.

In my opinion her work is much more complex than it looks like. You know how what is seamless appears effortless? That would be a book from Jodi Picoult.

Lone Wolf is layered and compelling, and I would hate to summarize the plot and development. But if I had to, I would say that the story explores the mess that a terrible accident creates within a family and consequently questions the right to die.

Today Seth Godin asks his readers to share his daily post. Perfect timing.

In French we say, “Çalonewolf ne fait pas mourir de parler de la mort.” Or “talking about death doesn’t make anyone die.”

La Tarentule Est de Retour. Déjà ?

Quelques jours après mon emménagement dans la Sierra – en plein été – ma voisine, native de ce coin de Californie, m’a présenté la flore et la faune de la région.

J’ai tout de suite adoré la flore. La faune, je dois dire, m’a un peu dépassée.

Les biches et leurs faons, qui n’aime pas ? Les lapins et les cailles – symbole de la Californie, les cailles – sont adorables. Les coyotes ? Un peu moins. Les lynx et les lions des montagnes? Hum. Les vautours ? Lucky Luke en version live.

Et puis un beau jour la même voisine m’a annoncé l’arrivée de l’automne. J’étais très impatiente, d’une part c’est ma saison préférée, et d’autre part il avait fait si chaud pendant si longtemps que je rêvais d’enfiler un pull ou au moins un sweat-shirt.

« Vous savez, » m’a-t-elle dit, « le premier signe de l’automne ce sont les tarentules. »

Les tarentules, moi, je n’en connaissais que le nom. Je n’ai pas peur des araignées mais les tarentules?

« Elles sont inoffensives, » m’a assuré la maitresse de l’une de mes filles en caressant le dos de l’une de ces créatures.

« J’en suis certaineL1000688, » ai-je répondu. Mais j’ai refusé d’approcher la bestiole velue.

Les années ont passé et j’ai fini, comme les locaux, par accueillir avec chaleur les tarentules qui marquent la fin de nos longs étés chauds et secs.

Mais hier soir, quand en arrosant mes géraniums, j’ai aperçu l’une de ces demoiselles au pied de ma porte fenêtre, je me suis demandée si le réchauffement de la planète n’avait pas perturbé les changements de saison.

Jugez-en par vous même !

 

 

 

On Heat Wave, Headaches, and Bilingualism

A heat wave is crushing Central California with record-breaking temperatures. Yesterday afternoon as I drove down to the store to get ice cream, my car thermometer read 106 degrees Fahrenheit – slightly above 41 degrees Celsius – so my friend and I decided to meet at 7:00 a.m. for our weekly Sunday walk instead of our regular lazy 8:00 a.m.

The sun was already a solid disk burning in the east when we started the slow ascent of our favorite neighboring mount, and I lowered my baseball hat to shield my face.

Bunnies, birds, squirrels, and deer were busy searching for water, and I made a mental note to refresh my birdfeeders. I polished my mug of tea and kept my water bottle handy.

This weekly walk with my friend is a pause in our busy lives. We fill it with news about our families, common friends, school, and just plain neighborhood gossip. Today as we treaded our way up to the summit of our little mountain, we were quiet, focused on our breathing and the surrounding nature, outstandingly beautiful despite the heat.

Two hours later as I drove home thinking of the hike, words associated to my reflection rushed to my mind in a mixed of French and English. I had no explanation to this strange phenomenon, which I attributed to the combination of heat and effort. A light headache started to pound my head and I wondered about what was happening to me.

I remembered then of a book of poems another friend gave me a few years ago. She thought that Philip Levine’s work would appeal to me because his parents’ immigrant roots play a role in his writing and also because he taught for many years at the California State University in Fresno, the major town south of my home, where I regularly attend events and conferences. He is still the final judge for the yearly Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. I searched for the book, which I found on one of my crowded shelves. I haven’t read every poem, but for an obvious reason my mind had registered the following lines:

“The young man who brought them

together knows both Spanish and English,

but he has a headache from jumping

back and forth from one language

to another.”

On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane from The Simple Truth: Poems by Philip Levine.

I do remember of the tiredness linked to my learning of English and of those annoying headaches in my early days in this country. They happened after a long day spent with English speakers – I never had headaches when I lived in France and only spoke French. When I became proficient, then fluent in English and stopped mixing the two languages, they vanished and never reappeared.

Look like my thoughts suffered from a minor heatstroke this morning.

Fortunately colder weather is forecasted.

Meanwhile this book of poems is a perfect companion for a day spent inside, under a fan, sipping iced tea.

 

L’Appel de la Route

Une dernière célébration de fin d’année dans un lycée voisin. La fille d’une de mes amies termine sa scolarité et je suis allée la féliciter.

Les températures jusqu’à présent ont été très agréables dans mon coin de Californie. Il faut dire que 30 degrés Celsius ne m’affolent plus. Mais une vague de chaleur est attendue pour ce week-end et tout le monde se réjouissait de pouvoir être dehors à 9 heures du soir sous une brise légère.

Dans les collines au pied de la montagne, le décor ne pouvait être plus parfait pour souhaiter bonne chance aux élèves qui s’embarquent pour une nouvelle étape de leur vie.

Ce lycée est petit – un peu moins de 80 garçons et filles étaient à l’honneur. Les lycées américains tout comme les collèges et les universités ont une mascotte, liée à leurs équipes sportives. Celle du lycée d’hier soir est le mustang.

Et comme rien n’arrête jamais un américain et encore moins un californien, les élèves sont arrivés, deux par deux, conduits par un chauffeur au volant d’une Mustang décapotable.

40 voitures de toutes les couleurs roulant l’une derrière l’autre sur une pelouse fraichement coupée avant de déposer aux pieds du tapis rouge les garçons et les filles revêtus de leurs robes et chapeaux aux couleurs de leur lycée c’est un spectacle presqu’irréel.

Dans l’assistance – parents, grands-parents, famille et amis – il y avait des Stetson et des Wranglers, des petits frères un peu guindés dans leurs costumes cravates, des mamans en robes légères, des copains en jeans et T-shirts et des papas en shorts et chemises blanches.

Les discours, musique et chansons jouées et interprétées par les élèves se sont succédés pendant deux heures.

La nuit était tombée – il fait nuit noire avant 21h en Californie – et tout le monde a rejoint sa voiture après la remise des diplômes, des bouquets de fleurs et des lancers de ballons dans le grand ciel étoilé.

J’ai marché jusqu’à ma voiture, résistant à l’envie folle de rouler de longues heures à la rencontre des montagnes qui semblaient m’ouvrir les bras dans la nuit bleutée.

L’appel de la route est toujours très fort pour moi aux Etats Unis. L’espace est si grand là où je vis que la tentation de partir plus loin est irrésistible.

La citation de Theodor Seuss Geisel, mieux connu sous le nom de Dr. Seuss, ne me quittait pas. Elle avait été affichée sur un écran géant par le lycée, en guise de message de clôture.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

Oh, the Places You’ll Go ! est un super livre à offrir à un garçon ou une fille qui entame un nouveau chapitre de sa vie. Que ce soit pour marquer la fin de l’école élémentaire ou le lycée, voire l’université, le message marche toujours.

Quant à moi, des tas d’idées de voyage et d’aventure gambadaient dans ma tête et des fourmis démangeaient mes pieds.

J’ai glissé un CD – le dernier album d’Alex Beaupain que j’adore – dans mon auto radio et je suis tout de même  rentrée chez moi.

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D-Day and Forgiveness

In a timely manner, I finished The Storyteller from Jodi Picoult – her latest novel – the night before the commemoration of D-Day.

Although the book has little to do with the liberation of the occupied European countries by the Allies, it is a haunting and uplifting story about punishment, justice and forgiveness, set in contemporary New Hampshire, decades after World War II and yet charged with the aftermaths of this brutal period of time.

I grew up in Normandy, and June 6 is D-Day for everyone there.

What happened on the beaches of Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold, and Sword when the Allies gave their historic assault against the Germans remains very much alive along the Normandy coast. In the smallest villages, monuments, cemeteries, and memorials remind us of this period of history.

But for me, my parents incarnate this memory.

Although young during the war, they never forgot the war and D-Day.

My mother remembers of the deafening noise and of the brutal loss of her young uncle shot by the Germans as the Allies entered her village.

My father recalls the sea, which remained red for days.

As a kid growing up between two parents who had lived through the fears and privations of the war and the jubilant liberation of France – chocolate, chewing gum, and cigarettes, included – I had no choice but to embrace their eternal gratitude toward the Allies, and especially the Americans who liberated their small villages.

In a natural way, my parents had a harder time with the Germans. Although they didn’t oppose the fact that I took German in middle school, they didn’t like it when I practiced my vocabulary out loud. And they initially said no to a German pen pal. For me and my friends World War II was old news. Not for our parents and grandparents.

French and German presidents worked hard at rebuilding friendship and restore trust.

It was as hard for my parents. But one summer as we were camping along the Atlantic coast I met young German boys and girls. My parents watched us talk and laugh, and things changed.

Although they never set foot in Germany but came several times to the U.S, the main reason is my family who lives in the States and not their reluctance toward the German people.

Does it mean that they forgave the Germans who stole four years of their childhood?

“I won’t forget the war,” my mom said when I asked her. “Neither the Germans. But you must move on in order to live.”

“You cannot live in perpetual resentment,” my father agreed.

Anne Lamott has a lovely and perfect definition – hasn’t she plenty? – for forgiveness.

“Forgiveness,” she writes, “means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.”

As for my parents, when they stopped calling the Germans all kinds of names and said yes to a German pen pal and didn’t mind the song 99 LuftBallons, that I played 24/7 when the same pen pal sent it from Germany, I knew they had both reached forgiveness and also understood that past should not dictate future.

I have never seen any picture of my parents on D-Day.

I imagine my mother with the face of a lovely teenage girl and my father with the winning smile of a handsome boy.

Allies who landed in France on D-Day are now in their late 80s and 90s. Among them many are Americans.

I owe them my free childhood and youth in France and my deep affection for my adoptive country.utahbeach

And I am indebted to my parents who showed me what forgiveness looks like.

And it’s never as easy as it seems.

On Checking our Work and on Sequel

Perhaps because the need to publish tugs at us more than ever, but more likely because I ignored the sage who says, “Read your work twice – even better let it rest for a day or two – before sending it out,” I realized that I didn’t give credit to Cathedral Peak in my last post.

But because a sequel is a perfect way to get reacquainted with characters previously introduced, here is an additional shot of Cathedral Peak.

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John Muir was right when he compared his ascent of Cathedral Peak to a church visit.

Religious or not, believer or not, nobody can remain unmoved when such natural beauty surrounds our mortal bodies.

 

When Words Can’t Replace a Visual

My family makes fun of my sense of direction. Truth is I’ve always mixed right and left. Yes, I make mistakes when I give directions or follow them.

But my family is wrong in the sense that I still have a sense of direction. I just don’t trust north, south, west, and east as much as my photographic memory.

I never forget a place where I have been once. A leafy boulevard, a narrow alley tucked between brick buildings, a town square with an old carousel, and, of course, a library will be forever etched in my mind and I will find them again as long as I’ve seen them once.

In the same way, I don’t remember names or phone numbers but I never forget a face I saw once.

My memory is very visual and I trust it very much.

My eyes are my GPS and my memory.

And they could be the reason why I don’t use cameras and don’t take pictures.

At a time where Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and their siblings are all the rage, I’m an oddity.

Don’t get me wrong: I love photographs as much as I love artwork.

I admire the work of many photographers through exhibits in galleries or on their blogs and websites, and I envy the fact that they can convey through a single shot so much emotions while a writer needs so many words to get to the same result.

I admit – with a sigh -that sometimes words just can’t replace a visual.

When the situation arises, I trust a few people to get their cameras, iPhones, iPods, and iPads ready.

I met my hiking friend in tragic circumstances. An elderly driver killed her husband. In the course of an hour she was a widow. Clueless, I asked a common friend how I could help.

“Hike with her,” she said. “That’s her favorite hobby. And you do like hikes, too.”

That’s how our walks/hikes routine started.

Unlike me my friend doesn’t write but she takes pictures.

Yesterday she and I and two teen boys hiked to Cathedral Lakes, two jewels, nestled off Tioga Road in the heart of Yosemite National Park’s High Country.

The 8 miles round-trip trail starts at 8 500 feet. The Lower Lake is situated at 9 290 feet and the Upper Lake at 9 600. The two lakes are 0.5 miles apart, but you have to retrieve your steps from the Lower Lake to reach its sibling, so you add an extra mile in the mix. The first mile is uphill but the majority of the trail is moderate. We met snow as we climbed. There is something unique when sun and snow meet. Because snow was melting the ground was marshy. We crossed countless seasonal streams and small falls. The access to the Lower Lake was as challenging as plowing through a first draft. As exciting and emotionally charged, too.

In memory of our first hike together, I asked my friend for her permission to post her shots. My son agreed to be there, too.

Sometimes – oui, oui, it happens – I’m speechless and let the visual do all the work.SAM_1393 - CopySAM_1404SAM_1416SAM_1407SAM_1413(1)SAM_1421SAM_1422SAM_1431

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