Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

What Book(s) Made You a Better Writer? (09/15/02)



Featured writer: Elizabeth Hannon



Contributors this month:
Betty Winslow
Christine Walker
Elizabeth Hannon
Jane Merryman
Jane Merryman
Jodi Hottel
Ken Rodgers
Maggi Sullivan Godman
Rodney Merrill
Sandra Soli
Susan Bono


Elizabeth Hannon



I entered first grade at the age of five, after clearing the hurdle of circling the clothespins in one picture which were alike and those in another which were different. Somehow this odd puzzler (who cared about clothespins, hell if they stuck a sheet to the line we used them!) qualified me for school without the preparatory role of kindergarten. I was labeled "a good reader" from the start. It became a pattern to press ahead with words, circling the adult stacks of the De Pere Library hoping to dodge Mrs. Butell, braids coiled tightly round her head, holding in her thoughts except for those about "what is appropriate for a girl your age to read." By 8th grade it was "The Autobiography of Malcolm X", "The Hobbit", handed to me with a knowing look by my mother, and anything I could sneak past the hawk nose of Mrs. B.

All books, even mysteries, which my mother put in the same category as daytime soap operas, "not for us", created a backdrop of images, characters, triumphs, catastrophes, love and loss, evil, grace, transcendence, failure, possibility that helped mold this writer's heart. If I could read about something there was the chance I too could move into a wider world than the one I saw from the backside of a frontage road in small town America. Anything was possible, anything. To be a good reader seems an essential element, baking soda in the cake mix, for any writer.

Given this, two books demand a bow on this stage. Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse" by Louise Erdrich. I have written, "It is fitting during a time of tumult and terror to open a book by Louise Erdrich and be reminded of the beauty of the natural world and the thin membrane, which holds the human heart." The same applies to Marquez whom I read while on a weeklong adventure in the Boundary Water's Wilderness Area.the more than 300 lakes that mark the border between Minnesota and Canada. I took Marquez at dawn to the water's edge so we both could watch the fog lift from Lake Saganaga and be gifted by the sight of twenty or more loons fishing communally, the mothers carrying small fluff-ball babies on their backs. I felt as if Marquez stood beside me gesturing with a sweep of his arm, "see, it's all true, all you hold in imagination."

Both these books taught me, forced me to unravel any falseness within my writing, just find the bum thread and pull. To be a better writer, they whispered, you had to risk knitting a sweater for a loon, or you yourself turning a red eye to the lifting sun and feeling your crazy webbed feet running on water, running on water before ever opening wings.

Elizabeth Hannon

Santa Rosa, CA


Betty Winslow



I've read many books that have helped me become a better writer - Writing Articles About the World Around You (Marcia Yudkin), Creative Writing For Those Who Can't Not Write (Kathryn Lindskoog), WriterSpeaker.com (Carmen Leal), Write His Answer (Marlene Bagnull), Writing.com and The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches, and Proposals (both by Moira Allen) all come to mind - but I'd have to say the book that has helped me the most has been the Bible.

I see myself in its stories about mankind, in all my pride and sin and selfishness, and I see the Lord in all His glory and grace, and each time I read it I come away with more of an understanding of His love for us and His longing for our love, as well as His desire that each of us lay down our ways and follow His, not because He is a tyrant, but because He is our Creator and He knows better than anyone how we should live.

And with each reading I am more determined to be a better writer, so that no matter what I write about, the joy of living, the wonder of the world around me, and the love I have for God come shining through. Writers can't just write, they need to live. I have shelves and shelves of great books that teach me how to write, but only the Bible teaches me how to live.

Betty Winslow

Bowling Green, Ohio

wife, mother, writer, K-8 school librarian, and head-over-heels-in-love Christian


Christine Walker



The title of the book beckoned; the subtitle confused. It was "The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers." At 48, did I qualify as "young?"

I had started writing a short story that refused to be contained within thirty or even ninety pages, and was surprised and scared to realize I was writing a novel. I had never aspired to do so. I became possessed.

My husband thought I'd manifested a separate personality. A strange woman was sleeping in his bed, or rather mumbling to her characters, scribbling in the dark, getting up at four in the morning to pad to the studio in her flannel slippers, and staying on the computer long until noon everyday for two months. In the afternoon and evening, I was too sleep-deprived and caught up in my fictional world to be of much use to anybody. My first draft flowed, and I rode the current, but eventually I longed for a boat and rudder.

Miraculously, a cheap 1985 paperback edition of John Gardnerąs classic was on our bookshelf (had it been there for a decade and I hadnąt noticed?). I fanned through its amber-edged, crisped pages seeing chapter heads such as "Aesthetic Law and Artistic Mystery," "Interest and Truth," "Common Errors," and "Fiction as Dream." I sat down with it and read into the night.

Gardner describes the vivid and continuous dream, that goal of writers and hope of readers. He tells us it is the business of the writer to make her readers "see and feel vividly" what her characters see and feel. He says that "discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act." He cleverly illustrates errors, such as careless shifts in psychic distance and imparts lessons in technique, such as the enlightening admonition that "fiction is made of structural units: it is not one great rush." To a new novelist, young or older, he hands the key, then he kicks the door wide open.

I've read it now more times than I remember. The pages are notated and tabbed with Post-its. During the past six years, I've completed two novels and amassed a shelf full of excellent books on writing, but I'm still mining Gardner's wisdom and appreciate more than ever his humor and humanity. He may be rather old-fashioned in our thrill-seeking times to profess that the "primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs," but I can't think of a better way to spend a writing life than pondering those very things, even if the musing keeps me up at night.

Christine Walker,

Sebastopol, CA

Author of "A Painter's Garden: Cultivating the Creative Life"

Her website is www.compozarts.com. (It covers painting, writing, and husband Dennis' music--click on to hear a snippet of his nature & music compositions, or their children's songs, or Chris reading from A Painter' Garden, or see her newest monotypes and paintings.)


Elizabeth Hannon



I entered first grade at the age of five, after clearing the hurdle of circling the clothespins in one picture which were alike and those in another which were different. Somehow this odd puzzler (who cared about clothespins, hell if they stuck a sheet to the line we used them!) qualified me for school without the preparatory role of kindergarten. I was labeled "a good reader" from the start. It became a pattern to press ahead with words, circling the adult stacks of the De Pere Library hoping to dodge Mrs. Butell, braids coiled tightly round her head, holding in her thoughts except for those about "what is appropriate for a girl your age to read." By 8th grade it was "The Autobiography of Malcolm X", "The Hobbit", handed to me with a knowing look by my mother, and anything I could sneak past the hawk nose of Mrs. B.

All books, even mysteries, which my mother put in the same category as daytime soap operas, "not for us", created a backdrop of images, characters, triumphs, catastrophes, love and loss, evil, grace, transcendence, failure, possibility that helped mold this writer's heart. If I could read about something there was the chance I too could move into a wider world than the one I saw from the backside of a frontage road in small town America. Anything was possible, anything. To be a good reader seems an essential element, baking soda in the cake mix, for any writer.

Given this, two books demand a bow on this stage. Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse" by Louise Erdrich. I have written, "It is fitting during a time of tumult and terror to open a book by Louise Erdrich and be reminded of the beauty of the natural world and the thin membrane, which holds the human heart." The same applies to Marquez whom I read while on a weeklong adventure in the Boundary Water's Wilderness Area.the more than 300 lakes that mark the border between Minnesota and Canada. I took Marquez at dawn to the water's edge so we both could watch the fog lift from Lake Saganaga and be gifted by the sight of twenty or more loons fishing communally, the mothers carrying small fluff-ball babies on their backs. I felt as if Marquez stood beside me gesturing with a sweep of his arm, "see, it's all true, all you hold in imagination."

Both these books taught me, forced me to unravel any falseness within my writing, just find the bum thread and pull. To be a better writer, they whispered, you had to risk knitting a sweater for a loon, or you yourself turning a red eye to the lifting sun and feeling your crazy webbed feet running on water, running on water before ever opening wings.

Elizabeth Hannon

Santa Rosa, CA


Jane Merryman



Sometimes I wish I could write like this author or that one, but wishing doesn't make it so.

What writer has influenced me?

When Hafiz tells me that



Today the vegetables would like to be cut

By someone who is singing God's Name

and

Listen: this world is the lunatic's sphere,

Don't always agree it's real,

Even with my feet upon it

And the postman knowing my door

My address is somewhere else

and that

You are a divine elephant with amnesia

Trying to live in an ant

Hole



I am reminded to lighten up and see the extraordinary in the ordinary.

Jane Merryman

Petaluma, CA

I hike; therefore I am.


Jane Merryman



I wish I could name a haunting novel or a brilliant essay that has influenced my writing, but nothing leaps to mind. I've often wished I could write like this one or that one. However, wishing doesn't make it so.

Recently I picked up a work-a-day, how-to book that has changed the way I write: Getting the Words Right: How to Rewrite, Edit & Revise, by Theodore A. Rees Cheney. He got my attention when he advised to eliminate all forms of the verb to be, or try really hard to. I went back over a piece currently on the front burner and yellow highlighted all those forms. Shocking how many lit up the page. Eliminating them meant finding real verbs, with strength and flavor, and sometimes rewriting, which always came out better.

Just for fun I took the highlighter to an essay by M.F.K. Fisher. In some paragraphs she has veritable logjams of was and were. Still, I wouldn't advise her to change a thing.

Jane Merryman

Petaluma CA

I hike; therefore I am


Jodi Hottel



As I peruse the shelf where I have set aside my books about writing, my eyes are constantly drawn to the books of three writers in particular. All three write with passion and intensity about the art of writing. All three are able to express the ineffable about the craft of writing in metaphoric language. All three observe the world in idiosyncratic, fascinating detail. And all three are able to offer valuable advice about the craft of writing without using formula or prescription.

Annie Dillard's The Writing Life is uneven reading for me, but no one else can imitate her wry perspective or her far-flung insights. I doubt I'll ever be able to meet her enthusiasm and curiosity for the inchworm (p.7-8), but I certainly am awestruck by the workings of her mind and want to emulate her writer's eye for burrowing detail.

Maybe my recommendation of Stephen King's On Writing is surprising, maybe not. Whenever I mention it to fellow writers, someone invariably gushes in agreement. I was very much taken by King's honesty, humor and guilelessness. Autobiographical material conveys his odd journey as a writer. What buoys me up as a writer, though, are his words of encouragement to others practicing the craft.

Mary Oliver's two guides to poetry, A Poetry Handbook and Rules for the Dance, are my greatest inspirations. I want to write like her. She makes me believe that anyone can write nobly, if one is dedicated to writing. Even if you aren't really a poet, I still encourage you to read ch. 17 "Then and Now" in Rules for the Dance. It's less than three pages long. She writes, "No poet ever wrote a poem to dishonor life, to compromise high ideals, to scorn religious views, to demean hope or gratitude, to argue against tenderness, to place rancor before love, or to praise littleness of soul. Not one. Not ever." (p.104)

Jodi Hottel

Santa Rosa, CA


Ken Rodgers



Re: books: I don't think any of them helped. Lots of beer and whiskey with a few joints thrown in. That's my notion.

Ken Rodgers

Sebastopol, CA


Maggi Sullivan Godman



When I discovered Natalie Goldberg's "Wild Mind", I knew I had struck gold. For years, I'd struggled with the question of what to write about, followed by what to say, once I'd decided on a topic. Natalie solved that problem for me with her rules for writing practice: "Keep your hand moving; don't cross out; don't worry about spelling and punctuation; go for the jugular--if it's scary, it's full of energy."

I read the book, read it again, tried some of the topics in my new notebook, using a fast writing pen. Wow! I thought. It works! I kept doing the ten minute writing practices. I started talking to people who were writers or were interested in writing. Soon we had formed a weekly writing group, where we wrote, read aloud, then wrote some more.

As the notebooks stacked up, I noticed that some of the timed writings looked like the beginnings of stories or memoir or poems. So I began to thumb through the pages, pulling out bits and pieces that looked promising, and revised, rewrote, polished.

Sending work out for publication felt daunting, but hey! what did I have to lose? So the next book, the one to start on the publication process, was "The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses," edited by Len Fulton and published by Dustbooks. Talk about a wealth of information for the beginning writer! "The Wall Street Journal" has called the Directory "The Bible of the Business!" and it's true. It's a wonderful resource, complete with both a regional index and a subject index for ease of use.

I haven't finished a novel yet, but I've had some success in publishing creative non-fiction and poetry, and best of all, have learned how much fun it is to hang out with writers. And Natalie and Len, you were my inspiration. Thanks to you both.

Maggi Sullivan Godman

Sutter Creek, CA

maggisg@cdepot.net


Carol Bly's The Passionate, Accurate Story:

  by Rodney Merrill

a book that changed my writing forever

If I am not mindful of it, my writing can turn quite repulsive. Then people react to it as they might a vomiting baby: they are sympathetic and really want to help but they can no longer bear to look at it. The problem, I think, is bitterness.

Before reading Carol Bly's book, The Passionate, Accurate Story, bitterness was the only context I had for childhood memories. Bitterness, I've discovered - largely by reading my own writing-is a self-centered, hostile resistance to reality. I've also discovered that what you most resist most persists.

Such stories gave me momentary satisfaction but seemed to fuel the pain. I became more bitter, more hostile, and further diminished with each telling. The reason, I think: bitter outpourings stimulate pity in listeners when an emotionally wounded storyteller most needs acceptance and understanding.

While re-writing my essay, "Baking Powder Biscuits" for the zillionth time, I found Carol Bly's book, The Passionate Accurate Story. From it, I learned that the darkness is best appreciated when set against the light. My childhood was, in fact, not all darkness, but also light and shadow. A telling of this story that aspired to more than whimpering had to account for this larger truth.

Conceding the contradictions of reality, I remembered that the stepmother who brutally beat me also discovered now and then that she loved me and with few emotional resources, did her best to show it. I remembered that the stepmother I feared and hated was also the mother I cherished and loved.

That "Ma" was more to me than her misdeeds was a life-altering revelation for me. This realization allowed me for the first time to place her within her own life, to regard the facts of her existence as they acted upon her: one whose starry-eyed childhood dreams had matured into a bleak corporeality of relentless poverty, brutality, and impersonal alcoholic sex.

This is (Carol Bly might say) the passionate, accurate story. None of it excuses my stepmother's brutality. Nor does it diminish the suffering that brutality inflicted on myself and my brothers and sisters. It only replenishes the color missed and depth lost to the monochromatic film and astigmatic lens of a melancholic memory. It simply adds a drop of compassion to a too bitter cup. It merely confesses that, however few and fleetingly, small resplendent moments of love and grace do visit even the most wretched life.

I do not recant my wretched childhood. I did go hungry. I was severely beaten. I was degraded and wished unborn. And I was terribly scarred by such treatment. But, other things happened too. Wonderful, sacrificial, redemptive things. And that's the point.

Re-writing "Baking Powder Biscuits" with the help of The Passionate, Accurate Story has taught me that there is a vast difference between tending to your wounds and merely picking at them.

Rodney Merrill

Astoria, Oregon


Sandra Soli



Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, One Writer's Beginnings and The Eye of the Story by Eudora Welty.



My favorite book is OWB by Miss Welty. With chapters "Learning to See," "Learning to Listen," and other commentaries, she gives us insight into her own vision and passion for language as well as sensible, workable advice for our own vocation.

Sandra Soli,

Poetry Editor

Byline Magazine

www.bylinemag.com


Susan Bono



One of the most helpful books in my collection is the one I resisted the longest: Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo. A few years ago, my friend Laurie insisted on loaning me her copy saying, "I know. You think this sounds like a therapy book, but it's not like that." Smart woman, that Laurie, but I still didn't quite trust her.

So the book sat in one of my piles until she called to ask me when she could have it back. That provided the incentive to take a peek, and what I found there shocked me and changed the way I think about writing.

I'd long held as my ideal the image of the wild-eyed, disheveled writer willing to forsake family and friends for art. I'd even used the belief that I wasn't excessively passionate enough to explain why I wasn't writing more often. From the very beginning of the book, DeSalvo systematically trashed that notion.



"We must not use our creativity to create chaos by working in a frantic, undisciplined way. Nor should we use it to separate ourselves from the people we love. Rather, we use our writing in the interests of our stability, which often means balancing our responsibilities to ourselves and to others. It sometimes also means making compromises. It never means giving up our writing or the people we love."(pg. 100)



I had read plenty of books that exhorted me to find time to write every day, but no one had ever told me to make sure to stop on time, useful if laundry and dinner are also on the schedule. This was one of DeSalvo's many suggestions for cultivating a discipline that allows writers to balance all aspects of their lives. When I am more conscious of the need to honor my inner and outer selves, I am happier, more productive.

Since then, I have failed to heed her solid advice many times, but each time I return to her teachings, I know them to be absolutely right for me. I have since come across other books that are grounded in this philosophy of developing a safe writing environment and a strong writing practice. The one I am enjoying now is Finding What You Didn't Lose: Expressing Your Truth and Creativity Through Poem-Making by John Fox, CPT. These writers, when I listen to them, are like kind friends keeping me on the path by whispering encouraging reminders in my ear.

Susan Bono keeps marking her calendar in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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