A Guru . . . Say What?

A good workshop makes you think. Last weekend, I spent the day listening to Susan Wiggs talk about her life as a traditionally published author of commercial fiction. Wiggs is an engaging speaker. With three decades of writing experience under her belt, she had plenty of anecdotes to share. And she posed three questions to us.

Question one: who are your writing gurus?

Say, what?

Now, to be fair, the word guru threw me. It doesn’t always conjure up positive imagery. I either think of Jim Jones, the cult leader who inspired people to mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana, or I go in the other direction, to Buddha, who inspires in the opposite way. Whether they’re positive or negative, people follow gurus. Those followers adhere to the guru’s beliefs. They stop thinking for themselves.

That wasn’t what Susan had in mind and I knew it, but I had trouble getting past it. By the end of the day, I still hadn’t come up with anyone I could name as a writing guru. When I got home, I pulled up the definition of guru. 1. A religious teacher or spiritual guide. 2. A teacher and intellectual guide. 3. A person with knowledge or expertise.

And so I continued to think. Many writers are experts in their field. I’m lucky enough to call some of them friends. Maybe that’s why they didn’t fit. They were more friend than guru. I looked at the books on my keeper shelf. A few names stood out, but none of those names resonated as gurus either.

For me, a guru needs to inspire on both a professional and personal level. A guru should be someone I’d want to share a meal with. Someone whose fundamental values I not only respect but would be happy to emulate. I’d want any guru of mine to be big-hearted and warm. Forgiving and empathetic. Fierce and thought-provoking. And given Susan’s criteria they had to be writers.

I mulled for several days. Finally, three names came to mind.

Anne Lamott. Author of Bird by Bird and Help, Thanks, Wow, Lamott is an American novelist and non-fiction writer as well as a political activist, public speaker and writing teacher. Why Lamott? She’s honest. She’s real. She’s humble. And she’s not afraid to use the ‘G’ word. Her belief in God, her spirituality, is a cornerstone of her writing. She’s wildly funny, incredibly down-to-earth and hugely knowledgeable about all things writing. She’d probably make some self-deprecating crack about being considered a guru, but she is one to me. If you haven’t seen it, check out her Ted talk on writing and life: https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_lamott_12_truths_i_learned_from_life_and_writing

Jane Yolen. Winner of the Caldecott Medal, two Nebula Awards and many others, Yolen has written over 300 fantasy, science fiction and children’s books. She’s also a poet, a writing teacher and a book reviewer. Why Yolen? Like Lamott, she too is honest, and real, and humble. As well as sharing her writing with the world, she shares her life on social media. Here’s a recent Yolen tweet: This see-saw day – a rejection of a mss., a sale to Turkey. An old friend dies suddenly. Two younger friends get good news from doctors. Life. She is not all sunshine and flowers. She knows the light coexists with the dark, and she’s not afraid to point it out. Her Facebook author page is filled with tips for writers, personal anecdotes (she shares both acceptances and rejections; yes, she still gets rejections), general encouragement and a healthy dose of political activism.

Jann Arden. Okay, so she’s known primarily as an award-winning singer but Arden is also a writer. Her prose voice is as gifted and as uniquely identifiable as her singing voice. Titles to look for include If I Knew, Don’t You Think I’d Tell You or her memoir Falling Backwards. Like Yolen and Lamott, Arden is also refreshingly honest (some would say too honest; if you’ve been to her concerts you’ll know what I mean), grounded in reality and humble. She’s living a creative life at the same time as she’s supporting her mother and watching her slide slowly into the fog of Alzheimer’s. She knows plenty about living with challenges, about struggling to get where you want to go, and she seems to get that fame is best used as a tool and not used to define a life.

It took me a little while but I found three writers I would be happy to call my gurus. All three of these women have plenty to say about living a creative life. That alone is enough to make them stand out. But it’s the spin they put on that creative life that seals the deal for me. You rarely see Lamott, Yolen or Arden pushing product . . . talking sales . . . hyping someone else’s work in an obvious ‘I’ll do yours and you do mine’ kind of way. Yes, they promote, and, yes, they talk about sales, tours, new books or new albums. But they do it in such a way that it’s only part of a well-rounded life. They stay real. They stay honest. They stay humble.

As all good gurus should.

Comfort Books for Writers

for_writers_onlyBGSometimes all you need is comfort: a warm blanket, a loving hug, a dog cuddle first thing in the morning.

Or a book.

I tried to cull my bookshelves last week. Tried being the operative word. I have more books than I have shoes, sweaters, and probably underwear too (I also have an embarrassing number of spices and condiments in my kitchen – Ras el hanout anyone? – but that’s not relevant to writing unless you care to know how I eat; the short answer is very, very well).

But back to books.  The problem started in early January when we took down the Christmas tree and put away the holiday decorations. You know that delicious feeling of spaciousness you suddenly have in the New Year?

I know it too. It’s one of the comforts of Bloatuary January. Except I didn’t feel it this year. Sometime between October and December, my book pile had babies. I’m pretty sure each title had triplets (Don’t even ask about my Kindle).

I needed to find space. So I went through a couple of bookshelves and pulled some titles to donate to the Goodwill.  In the process, I stumbled over books I hadn’t looked at in a while.  And one of those books brought me so much comfort at the time I read it I decided to put together a list of books specifically written to comfort writers.

These aren’t books geared to craft or business, though many writing books on those subjects also include terrific advice and comforting thoughts.  I wanted books where comfort, insight or advice, was the primary goal. Think of these books as a New Year’s tonic. A writer’s jump start. The equivalent of a warm blanket, a loving hug or a cuddly puppy.

Rejection, Romance & Royalties: The Wacky World of a Working Writer by Laura Resnick.  Sharp, funny, honest and insightful, these essays on the writing life cut right to the heart of the joys, sorrows and rewards of being a writer.  On my keeper pile and never leaving.

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore. Though it’s small enough to fit in a back pocket or a bag, don’t let size fool you. This small book packs a big punch. The Mindful Writer starts by outlining the four noble truths of the writing life and then goes into four key areas:  the writer’s mind, the writer’s desk, the writer’s vision, and the writer’s life. A wonderful source of inspiration and insight.

The Writer’s Book of Hope by Ralph Keyes.   According to Keyes, inspiration isn’t nearly as important to the successful writer as tenacity.  And encouragement and hope are cornerstones to keeping that tenacity alive. Drawing on his experience as both a writer and teacher of writing, Keyes details some of the tactics well-known writers have used to maintain hope, particularly during difficult times.  Enriching and full of encouragement.

For Writers Only by Sophy Burnham. One of the first ‘comfort’ books I ever bought on writing, and still a favorite. A collection of thoughts from many great writers interspersed with Burnham’s own observations on everything from nerves and letting go to audience, productivity, and aloneness.

Writing from the Inside Out by Dennis Palumbo. Since Palumbo is both an author and a psychotherapist, he brings a unique empathy and insight into the writing life. A positive and fresh take on topics like envy, rejection, loneliness and the joy of commitment.  Wise, compassionate and funny.

 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  In spite of the fact that Lamott is one of my all-time favorite writers, I wrestled with whether to include this title because Bird by Bird does have a number of chapters directly relating to craft. However, in most cases they go well beyond craft, and reading them is more like having coffee with your favorite writer friend. That aside, this book is a must have for these three comfort chapters alone: Broccoli, Perfectionism and Radio Station KFKD.

A Most Bookish New Year

dogswindow.jgpActually, it was a bookish Christmas at our house. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. I tend to give – and receive – books for Christmas. I scored big-time this year with new titles by Kristan Higgins, Lisa Gardner, Jodi Picoult, and Anne Lamott. Once Christmas was over (and it was a doozy this year with two very sick dogs,though they were well enough to watch out the window as the company left), I settled in to read.  It occurred to me that I should set myself an annual reading goal – say two books a week, which is an easy target for me.  Ultimately I decided against it. I’m stretching myself with some extra writing goals this year. Reading is my reward; I don’t want to turn it into a ‘should.’  Having said that, I am going to track the number of books I read over the next twelve months. I’m curious to see if I read as much as I think I do. Here’s what I’m reading right now:

At the Gym:

The First Phone Call From Heaven by Mitch Albom

Beside the Bed:

The Perfect Match by Kristan Higgins

On the Kindle:

Man For Grace by EC Sheedy

Books read to date 2014:  4

The Kindle Has Brought Out My Dark Side . . .

kindleI wasn’t desperate for an ebook reader. I wanted the perfect tablet instead. A tablet featuring E Ink and color, one that was easy to hold and reasonably priced. There’s no such thing. At least not yet. But there are plenty of books coming out in electronic form only, and I couldn’t read them easily. So I bought a Kindle Paperwhite.

It does the job. The lighting is terrific; it’s easy to hold. I never run out of reading material, and I don’t have to remember to take a book when I know I’ll be waiting somewhere. It’ll be great the next time I travel.

Friends said owning an e reader would change my reading habits, that I’d never buy physical books again. I don’t think so. A hardcover sits perfectly on the elliptical at the gym and I prefer a paperback in the tub. Plus, what would a cookbook be without those luscious, glossy pictures?

But the Kindle has done something. It’s brought out my dark side (And I’m not talking about how much I’ve spent in the Amazon store, though that certainly has its dark side). No, the Kindle has made me an impatient, stingy reader.

When it comes to physical books, I’m generous about giving a writer time to draw me in. I’ll read quite a long way before giving up on a story. I figure even a poorly crafted book teaches me something. With rare exceptions – that exception being a book that sucks so totally my eyes cross as I read – I pretty much finish everything I start.

Not on the Kindle.  That screen is small. I read fast. If I’m not drawn in with a few swipes of my finger, I get cranky. My mind starts to wander. And if I’m not completely hooked in those first five or six pages (probably the equivalent of one or two pages in a physical book), then I’m hitting delete.

At first I felt guilty. Then I got worried. Maybe I had an arrested case of ADD. Or something worse. Maybe I needed to see my doctor  (I don’t; the Kindle Paperwhite lets you google Web MD).

What I have instead is a new relationship. My Kindle and I need to get used to each other. Maybe my dark side will recede. Maybe I’ll become more generous and patient and revert to my old reading patterns. Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, this dark, guilty business has reminded me of the importance of craft. The critical need for smooth, clear, and irresistible story openings. Openings so compelling the reader can’t stop reading. I’m not the only Kindle user out there. And I may not be the only impatient one.

What I’m reading this month:

On the Kindle – Angelfall by Susan Ee

At the Gym – Stay by Allie Larkin

Beside the Tub – Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott