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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

What I'm Reading: Vol. 10

Over our month in Arizona, I didn't have many opportunities to read, but I did manage to finish The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Tyler's grandma Tutu had mentioned the former as one of the selections of her book club. I'll admit that I was a little skeptical as the only thing I knew about Elizabeth Gilbert was her book Eat, Pray, Love (a success, but never a book I was interested in reading); however, I was pleasantly surprised. The book chronicles the life of a fictional Alma Whittaker, a botanist's daughter who comes to the theory of natural selection around the same time as Charles Darwin. Overall, it was very well-written and an interesting take on how people can come to similar conclusions despite their different paths to those ideas. I'm curious about the rest of her novels now. Also, the end of the book really resonated with me, when the protagonist explains her feelings on life to a younger man:

"I do truly believe I am fortunate. I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant. This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so -- for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities [....] You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others -- why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion... but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history -- added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life."

The next book I read was The Writing Life and I've grown to adore Annie Dillard. A friend of mine in France had recommended her to me and when I started my online writing class, her book was on the list of recommended reading. Although I don't know if it will actually help me write, it was inspiring and an interesting insight into one writer's struggles. There were some great lines.

On audience:
Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?

On letting go of your favorite pieces of your writing:
Every year the aspiring photographer brought a stack of his best prints to an old, honored photographer, seeking his judgment. Every year the old man studied the prints and painstakingly ordered them into two piles, bad and good. Every year the old man moved a certain landscape print into the bad stack. At length he turned to the young man: "You submit this same landscape every year, and every year I put it on the bad stack. Why do you like it so much?" The young photographer said, "Because I had to climb a mountain to get it."

On how long it takes to write a book:
To comfort friends discouraged by their writing pace, you could offer them this:
It takes years to write a book -- between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it, still, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books? [....] Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cats. There is no call to take human extremes as norms. 

On books that 'want to be movies':
Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor. I cannot name what, in the text, alerts the reader to suspect the writer of mixed motives [....] Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens. [....] The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be. They like, or require, what books alone have. If they want to see films that evening, they will find films. If they do not like to read, they will not. People who read are not too lazy to flip on the television; they prefer books. I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.

On what it takes to be a writer:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?" 
"Well," the writer said, "I don't know.... Do you like sentences?"
The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentence, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of the paint."

On life:
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. 

I feel like I need the last one as a motivational poster. What's your favorite quote about writing? For my online writing class, we are supposed to post the first paragraph of our independent, creative project onto the discussion board... and I haven't started. Excuse me while I go play fetch with a very impatient puppy, staring at me through the window with stick in mouth.

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