Why every writer should read Moby Dick, and some handy tips about how to enjoy getting through the whole thing.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I started Moby Dick three or four times before I actually finished it.  That was in 2014, and since then, I’ve had this strange sort of longing for it, sort of like how, early on, Ishmael describes his longing for being on the water. I’ve never read another book that feels so much like an experience to read, and I think it’s an experience all writers can benefit from. [I would say all people, but I don’t like to take my generalizations too far–I’m a writer, so I’ll just stick to speaking for that section of the population.]  I’m about 2/3 way through my second read and it’s better the second time, but you only need to read it once to be in the “Yeah, I’ve read Moby Dick,” club.

Why Read Moby Dick:

  1. Because it’s bold. Melville takes formulaic risks here that still read as courageous, even 160 years after it was published, even after post modernism. It’s amazing that anyone published this beast at all, and the fact that it will probably be read for all time could give writers a kind of boost to break the rules, to take readers in uncomfortable, stylistically forbidden places. No matter what we do, we probably won’t do anything as wacky as what Melville does in this book. So we might as well just try out whatever strange idea comes to us.image1 (2)
  2. Because it flopped when it came out. It’s like the “Starry Night” of literature, a reminder that you have to write honestly from your gut, write what you care about, and risk scathing criticism. It’s a 138 (including the preludes and epilogue) part reminder that fortune is not guaranteed, but we have to write what we believe in anyway.
  3. Because it’s a masterpiece. Now, I’m not really a big believer in “the canon,” and I get how we need to stop letting the white supremacist patriarchy tell us what’s good to read. Even so, part of why this is a masterpiece is because of its ahead-of-its-time critique of white supremacy/empire.  Sure, there are some times Melville’s 1851 white male POV is showing, but for the most part, he challenges and deconstructs power a century before Derrida and Foucault ever thought to. So read this alongside your Toni Morrison novels and you might find out that they’re dialoguing more than you’d have predicted.

How to Read Moby Dick:

  1. Slowly. This novel is like a 500 page + Lydia Davis flash story, and every sentence needs to be savored as much as possible. Don’t pick this up and say, “I’ll give myself two weeks.” I think the best idea is to read it a chapter a day, which means, give yourself months. Read it while you’re reading other things. The faster you read, the more you’ll miss. And if you miss the wordplay and fascinating sentence construction, you’ve missed 95% of what’s good about it.
  2. Underline sentences that you’ll copy by hand later, and you’ll improve your ability to write a good sentence.
  3. Remember that it’s funny.  It’s best read in a playful state of mind.
  4. There’s a lot of wisdom in this novel. Melville’s love and fascination for humans is apparent, and looking for it enhances the reading experience. It’s a spiritual text, delving into the deepest questions of why our lives are the way they are, who’s running things, and what motivates humans to do the things that they do.
  5. Trust the form. I’m not going to lie and say that this book is never tedious. It’s a book about whaling, and in many ways recreates both the boredom and excitement of being at sea. The form is useful because it makes reading the book a meditative practice. You’ll need to concentrate as hard as if you’re writing, and trust me, anything that builds concentration is handy for writers, especially writers of longer works.



Steve Almond Takes Us to Town

Most of the time, writing requires a lot of chugging along, and a lot of resistance towards hating other people.  Especially people who do well in the field.  It’s because we have this illusion that when other people get things, those things must have fallen in their laps without any effort.  Of course we know deep down this isn’t true (more likely, we resent the fact that we haven’t made the time to work as hard as other people), but this ridiculous idea translates into our own entitlement and prohibits us from enjoying other people’s work. Even when that work is really, really good.

In a recent article from Poets and Writers, Steve Almond tells the truth about how jaded we’ve become as writers.

He says,

…entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.

The more we write, the more we understand how hard that process actually is. The more we write, the harder it is to write.  It’s so easy to get discouraged, and discouragement makes it hard to appreciate what other people are writing.

(I’m speaking for myself, anyway.)

Let’s just acknowledge that we’re discouraged and try not to take it out on other people.

Grace and peace to you, other hardworking writers…

Oil for the Writing Lamp

I’ve been listening to and enjoying a lot of New Yorker fiction podcasts lately. If you aren’t familiar with them, they work like this: an author who was published in the New Yorker at some point reads and discusses another author’s story, which was also published in the New Yorker at some point. Editor Deborah Treisman conducts wonderful interviews at the end of the stories. Most run about 30 minutes, which makes them great for dog walks or housework, or short commutes.  For me, these have been a post-MFA staple.

I’m sharing this one, where Jennifer Egan reads Mary Gaitskill’s story, “The Other Place,” because I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m a big fan of Egan, ever since she came to Tallahassee and I heard her discuss her writing process, which was to write out the entire novel by hand on legal pads and then craft it while she typed it up. I’ve tried this. It doesn’t work for me at all, but I love the idea. Listening to her, though, makes the writing life seem “possible,” and that is always refreshing.

The story she reads forces the reader into dark and ugly spaces (surprise! if you are familiar with Gaitskill at all…), but it does so with a wild amount of understanding and compassion.  Let me use the word “masterful” when I describe this story.  And Egan’s insights are smart.

Here are some other stories/discussions I love:

Boyle Reading Barthelme

Erdich reading Oates

Oates reading Ozick

Bitterness and Writing

There is a lot of wisdom in this edition of “Fury”–VIDA’s advice column for concerned writers.  In #15, Grateful VIDA-Lovin’ Lady complains about how her MFA program didn’t prepare her for the real world.  I could sort of relate.  We go to school hoping we’ll be a bit more prepared to be a writer, and that means, have insight into how to publish.  Sometimes it seems like people are leaving us out so we won’t be successful (*seems* being the operative word here). Teachers are often hesitant to give details about this, and though the article guesses this is because teachers don’t want to be discouraging, I also think it’s because publishing has changed an awful lot since the early 90s, when many (most of my) professors were getting their MFAs.  The writer complaining about her MFA program says she’s ditched writing poetry for Children’s books, and she expresses a lot of bitterness towards her program for not better bolstering her poetry career.

VIDA responds:

…complain about them all you want  … populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing. Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.

What a great reminder. I mean, why did we get degrees in the first place?

Here’s the thing about breaking into writing as a profession: there is not one path.  Listen to interviews (Bookworms, especially), and you won’t hear the same story about how writers broke through.  I asked each of my professors something about the writing profession and got widely different responses.  Why? Because, again, there is not one path.

A huge part of being a writer, and I’ve probably said this before, is figuring out what you have control over and doing your best with that small portion of your career.  Trust me, that small portion is a lot of work. Writing grants, submitting stories, working to pay for writing conferences, etc. Also, consistently trying to improve our craft.

Write your best, keep growing, and keep seeking.  Maybe I’m too much of a mystic, but I think that if we put forth the effort, our work will find a way to reach people.

The Fury writer (response from VIDA) was correct in naming luck, talent, and perseverance as the magic ingredients for a writing-success-cocktail. If you are thinking of getting an MFA, remember that nobody is going to persevere for you.  Nobody is obligated to make you famous or show you how to be famous.  If we approach our writing and careers generously, we will probably have a better chance at laying out a path to publishing.  Bitterness is probably the thing I’ve seen kill most writers.  Not a realization or feeling that they aren’t good enough, but a feeling that someone else didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Here’s what bitterness is: feeling bad because you didn’t get something you feel entitled to.

Here’s the way to avoid bitterness: Feel entitled to nothing.

Understand that if you’re writing because you feel entitled to have the world acknowledge your words, chances are, you’re probably not writing anything the world really needs. Write because you want to contribute to a conversation.

Ben Marcus on Reading Like a Writer

Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.

I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read.  It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.

Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels.  I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.

Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore?  Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor.  The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.

Books are the best teachers.


Thought for Day 30: Don’t Be That Person

I’m thinking a lot about awareness, lately. Self awareness.  Knowing my flaws, being able to take criticism, and working towards self-improvement.  Of course, as you can tell from the way I’ve been writing these blog posts, I believe that most life wisdom can also be translated into writing wisdom.

If you’ve been in a workshop, you know what it’s like to spend 45 minutes talking about someone’s work and then listening to the author for 15 minutes defend their work against all points of criticism.

Don’t be that person.

It doesn’t matter if the story “actually happened.”

It doesn’t matter if the characters dictated the story in some mystical writing process.

Part of serving the work is improving the work.  A huge part, actually.  I’ve seen writers get slaughtered in workshop and then limp around–I’ve been one of these.  I’ve been slaughtered in workshop and then limped to the bar.  I was less mature then.

It’s a matter of maturity, of course, but an ideal writer already knows what the flaws in the story are before anyone reads the draft.  An ideal writer takes unanticipated criticism home, sleeps on it, and then, when the emotional response has dissipated, re-reads the story to see if the critic is right.

Writers must be ruthless at self-improvement–self-writing-improvement.  A professional chooses story over ego. The critics aren’t always right, but a writer who defends their work to critics is always wrong.

Thought for Day 25: What to Write About

This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.

I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers:  hack and precious.  I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards.  I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god.  See what I mean:

Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.

Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:

A hack writes hierarchically.  He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others.  He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write?  What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?


Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one.  Hence, my poverty.

I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack.  I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative.  That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer.  If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted.  I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place.  I didn’t care that much about the characters.  The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.

Today’s thought is about what to write.  Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know.  I don’t like that phrase much.  Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.

If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it.  You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write.  That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know.  Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”

No. Write what you’re obsessed with.

Write what you need to know more about.  Write about what makes you curious.

My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”

There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read.  I needed something funnier.  I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.

I spent a day grieving.  Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure.  It’s awful.

I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me.  But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy.  I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*

Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot.  A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)

*That paragraph is for the record.  Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.

Thoughts for Days 23 & 24: Your Inner-Artist is a Child & Don’t Flake

Today’s two thoughts are related.

1. Your Inner-Artist is a Child.*

*If you are one of those people who hates children but likes puppies, please free to think of your inner-artist as a puppy instead.

2. Don’t Flake (on your child).

Okay, so number one comes from Julia Cameron’s philosophy on being an artist.  She says that you need to treat your inner-artist (the writer inside) like a child.  Like a child, your writing needs to be nurtured, not just yelled at sometimes.  You must find ways to make corrections without hurting the child too much.  You are aware that you can abuse the child and that the child can grow up all messed up because you let someone else come too close to and abuse it. You have to protect the inner artist child. You also need to have fun with the child. You are aware that your child needs time to play. You need to let the child be funny sometimes and serious at other times. You are also aware that sometimes your child is crabby but that time-outs are a little more civil than beating the child up for punishment.  You must feed the child.  You must give the child a nap to reboot. 

Most of all, you acknowledge that your child is growing–it’s not right now where it is going to be one day.

Once we have that idea down, it’s really important that we learn how not to flake on this child.

This is thought two, by the way. 

Maybe we shouldn’t make promises to our inner-artists.  Maybe we shouldn’t say, “Just you and me, we’re going to work together all day Saturday” if we are going to something else all day–like play with Facebook instead. But the better case scenario is that we teach the child that we can make promises and keep them.  That teaches the child to trust what we say.

Imagine if you had a child who was waiting for the two of you to interact and you were just getting drunk every time you said you were going to hang with them, or just hanging out with your friends all the time instead, saying, “I’ll get to you next week! Next week! I promise!”

I have a special sensitivity about flakes, which comes from the facts that a) I’ve dated a couple and they drove me up the wall and b) my dad taught me to hate flakiness as a profound statement of disrespect.  My dad is always, always on time.  He was also a fireman for thirty years.  In Detroit.

Anyway, in grad school it’s really very easy to be a flake.  We all, from time to time, say we’re coming to something and do not show.   Maybe we just forgot, but we probably didn’t.  We’re just too busy and stressed and too lazy to give the host of the party a heads-up that no, we’re actually not going to make it over.  Again, thanks to my dad, this drives me up the wall.  I hate feeling like anyone is wasting my time.

(I have learned, however, that bringing a book wherever you go is a really good antidote to feeling like your time is wasted while you’re waiting for someone or something to happen.)

I do my best not to flake.  I really do.  I try not to say I’m coming unless I know I can be there.  I try to apologize to those whose readings I’ve missed.  If I change my mind about whether I can go to something, I try to let the host know as soon as possible.  If I have to pull out of an event, I try to set up an appointment right away.  I really try to be where I said I was going to be at the time I said I was going to be there. 

Unfortunately, I do have a gene from my mother’s side of the family that gives me a poor sense of time. Great sense of rhythm, poor sense of time.  Several of us on that side are naturally late to everything–especially the ones who dedicate more time to their artistic side (we are all artists on that side of the family, although not everyone puts that art into practice. Ebbs and flows for most of us.) 

It’s like a war against my genes inside–I feel awful for being late but then, ah! I can’t help it! I’m late! 

It’s stressful.

All of this is to say that I had a pretty humbling experience this week when I came down hard on someone for being a flake and then realized that I am a flake to myself.  To promise myself I’ll do something (like start jogging this summer and quit smoking, or to stop eating sugar because it destroys my mind and makes me crazy) and then not do it is the same as flaking on myself. 

I promise myself I’ll write and then I don’t.

If you’re a writer, I think you understand what if feels like to neglect your writing.  It’s more than guilt.  It feels like this kid is inside:

He’s ready to go. He’s got his cape on and everything.

Our inner artist children are also probably quicker to forgive us than most grown-ups.   If we do neglect the child, we can apologize, move on, and recognize that our pattern of behavior is deeply going to affect the child.

But we can change the pattern. We can always change the pattern.

Thought for Day 21: Needs

This thought is connected to the one that came before it.

You have what you need right now to make the current “play” for the game.

I think a lot of us avoid trying to reach our writing dreams because we think we aren’t equipped with what we need to be a writer.

If you’re writing, you’re a writer.

That aside, a writer does have needs.  Right now, you have what you need to fulfill your needs.  Dizzy?  Here is what I mean.

a. A writer needs time to write.

Maybe you don’t have time to write at this second.  Maybe you have just enough time to plan when you’re going to write next.  Do that.  And when it comes time to write, do that.

b. A writer needs to learn how to write professionally if he or she wants publications.

There are rules about publishing.  If you don’t know how to punctuate dialogue the way editors want it punctuated, your story is going to get tossed out of the slush pile and into a trash can.  You have to learn that rule and others, proofread your work, and make it professional. There are books that will teach you how to do this.  There are graduate writing programs.  There are conferences.  If you’re serious about your writing, you will go after this knowledge.  But not having the knowledge doesn’t mean you don’t have what you need to get it.  The knowledge is out there.  Start asking around.  You have what you need to start getting that knowledge right now.  Do it.

c. A writer needs community.

Part of that is because of the previous point–you need people who will help bring your writing up to a professional level.  Part of it is because the world outside of your writing world doesn’t give a care at all whether or not you write today.  In fact, the people who love you the most don’t care if you write today (unless they spend enough with you to know how evil and crazy you become after three days of neglecting your writing). Honestly, and sorry if this sounds elitist–most of the world doesn’t really care much about literature.  Part of the reason you’re a writer is because you do care. This makes you odd.  Find other people who love literature. They are out there, and there is a ton of them.

A community will reinstate your love for what you do and give it purpose.  You might need to go back to school in order to get a community.  You might have to search around on the internet for some kind of online community.  Search for it, though.  There are communities all over.

When I lived in Bangkok, I found it to be a place where it was harder for me to access a writing community than, say, Detroit.  I could have done that, though, if I had searched, because there are writing communities in Bangkok.  I had what I needed, though; the online writing community helped my writing improve a lot.  It got me ready for my graduate writing programs, which was the next level.

d. A writer needs to read.

You’re online. You have plenty of stuff to read just because you are sitting at your computer.  Read literary magazines online.  Read forums for writers, writers’ blogs that discuss what they are reading at that moment.  Listen to Michael Silverblatt’s show on KCRW called Bookworm.  That will help you figure out what to read.

Bottom line: know what your needs are. Also, know you have everything you need right now to get what you will need next, step by step.