The Writer's Life

Jan 01, 2012

Introducing A Reader’s Life

For the last two years, under the banner of A Writer’s Life, I’ve been tweeting daily writing tips - gleaned from all over: interviews, biographies, personal experience. We’ll shortly publish the first collection, 365 Writing Tips, on the Internet. Time for a change – actually more of an addition - and since reading is half of a writer’s job, I’m next putting up daily tweets under the banner, A Reader’s Life (while not abandoning the tone and direction of what I’ve been doing) It might as easily be called Pot Luck or Pot Pourri or Bran Tub because I’m dipping my hand into whatever material of any kind - cultural, political, sporting, current news, old newspapers - in which I’ve been immersed, or of which I’m fond, or by which I’m stimulated. Or simply want to share. Books, and any art form; discoveries and happy returns; new or favorite writers, poems, music, paintings - all will have one thing in common: a capacity to ignite in me the desire to get back to the desk and work, work, work. 

I’ve always had a rag-bag mind, like the drawer in every kitchen where we keep bits of string, old postcards, interesting bottle-tops, screws that have fallen out of something but we don’t know what – everyday miscellanea. Recently, to try and organize that mental drawer, I attempted the exercise of trying to write down – as it came to me – any quotation, reading memory, word origin, movie scene, painting or painting detail, music playing in my mind – in any one day. Failed. Then I tried any one hour. Failed again! I couldn't even count the number of sound-tracks rolling through my brain – was it a 16-track desk, a 32, a 64? Don’t know, still can’t count because new ones come in as I’m counting. I suppose I’m just not Zen enough!

What I think I’m trying to say here is – I have no idea what will appear every day in A Reader’s Life/A Writer’s Life until I write it. It could be anything from anywhere – a useless fact (if there is such a thing), a recollection, a quotation, a bygone day, a snatch of a song. When I have written it, I hope you’ll enjoy it, and maybe find in it the vibe that caused me to send it out from my Twitter page in the first place. And please share yours with me on Twitter or make comments here. Have a wonderful 2012!


May 29, 2011

The Writer's Life: Among modern novelists, few have as many gifts as Martha McPhee.

Her prose even splits the difference between the novel and the screenplay. Read the opening paragraph of Dear Money (I also devoured L’America): The story begins, of course, with real estate. The heady days of 2003. Pond Point, the old Victorian cottage tied together, it seemed, with twine, standing as it does before the dunes with a swath of sea grass like a moat, sweet pea shoots, their blue flowers dancing in a late afternoon breeze blowing offshore. The beach. Miles of sand, flanked by rivers, one large, one small, spilling into the Atlantic. Little islands floating just offshore, connected at low tide by sandbars that reach to them like arms.

May 25, 2011

The Writer's Life: Dept. of “Now Read on” openings: L’Étranger or The Stranger/Outsider by Albert Camus:

Ever in print since it was published in 1942, L’Étranger has been repeatedly listed among the top books of all time by those who make such lists - newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, etc. Here’s the alluring first sentence: "Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don't know. I got a telegram from the Home: 'Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.' That doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday."

May 16, 2011

The Writer's Life: Great Remarks Dept.: John Updike on the reader at whom he aims.

Updike said, When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a country-ish, teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.

Apr 24, 2011

The Writer's Life: How to write the opening of a novel: Here’s an excellent example – from Charles Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend.” Note how he tells us what a man is by telling us what he isn’t.

How to write the opening of a novel: Here’s an excellent example – from Charles Dickens’s “Our Mutual Friend.” Note how he tells us what a man is by telling us what he isn’t.

“In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.

The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as he watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror. “

Mar 30, 2011

The Writer's Life: “Tolstoy” by Henri Troyat; here’s a compelling extract:

“He labored away at his manuscript, full of mistrust, anger and weariness. He made revision after revision. He felt that he was taking two steps backward for one step ahead. ‘There are days when one gets up feeling refreshed and clearheaded,’ he said. ‘One begins to write; everything is fine, it all comes naturally. The next day one reads itover, it all has to go because the heart isn’t there. No imagination, no talent. That quelque chose is lacking without which our intelligence is worthless. Other days one gets up, hating the world, nerves completely on edge; nevertheless, one hopes to be able to get something done. And indeed it doesn’t go too badly; it’s vivid, thereis imagination by the carload. Again, one reads it over: meaningless, stupid; the brains weren’t there. Imagination and intelligence have to work together. As soon as one or the other gets the upper hand, all is lost. There is nothing to do but throw away what you’ve done and start over.”

Mar 25, 2011

The Writer's Life: What has Jell-O got to do with writing? Or coat hangers? Hilma Wolitzer, a remarkably fine writer of novels and writing advice, had this to say in her thoughtful and oh-so-useful book, “The Company of Writers.”

“I used to compare writing stories with cleaning out my closets. In both instances I was trying to make order out of chaos – in one, by discovering and organizing what was in the back of my mind, and in the other, by discovering and organizing what was on the backs of my shelves. Editing a manuscript to trim its excesses was not unlike plucking out those stray wire hangers and single socks. I confess that now I’m a lot less preoccupied by household chores [or analogies]. I haven’t made Jell-O in decades, not since a spectacular pink-and-green arrangement I was unmolding for dinner guests slithered down the kitchen drain. Like Dorothy Parker, I decided not to eat anything more nervous than I am. But Jell-O appears in every one of my books, as an homage to my domestic past. And because it’s colorful, shimmery, and layered with surprises, it makes a perfect all-purpose metaphor. Whatever you do in your “real” life may also be distilled into fictional material. Despite Hardy’s edict about the “uncommon” in fiction, I now believe that all experience is extraordinary in some ways. It’s just a matter of recognizing its literary potential.”

Mar 21, 2011

The Writer's Life: How do you package, in very beautiful writing, a hard moral point that’s important to you? Read this –

“Spring” by Gerard Manley Hopkins; he wrote it in May, 1877, and it’s very famous. The rhyming structure takes you along the familiar path of ABBA ABBA, i.e., first and fourth lines rhyme, as do second and third in the first, eight-line segment;and CD CD CD in the last six lines, i.e., every alternate line rhyming. But all that’s as nothing compared to the beauty of the language – savor this poem, even if you know it well; read it aloud to yourself. As to his moral hope/ despair at the end – bear in mind that he was a Jesuit priest of the Catholic Church and he felt his beliefs as others feel pain.


Nothing is so beautiful as spring—

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush

Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring

The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush

The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush

With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?

A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning

In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,

Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,

Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,

Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

Mar 15, 2011

The Writer's Life: Who wrote: “The past is an old armchair in the attic, the present an ominous ticking sound, and the future anybody’s guess”?

Answer: The great New York humorist, James Thurber. This is Thurber on genius, from his letters: “One of the things I most resent is the idiotic use of the word ‘genius’ for me, and when it came up… the other day I said I was a reporter with not enough genius to get off newspapers and make more than forty a week until I was thirty-two. Anybody with the slightest critical ability knows that a genius would not have to slave over his prose so long, or over his drawings so little.… First drafts of my pieces sound twelve years old and only get going on the fourth rewrite. I have never cut off an ear or stuck my hand in a fire…”

Mar 12, 2011

The Writer's Life: Who said: “To the timid and hesitating everything is impossible because it seems so”? And said what about novelists?

Answer: Sir Walter Scott, who wrote Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Bride of Lammermuir and stacks more. On novelists: “Every successful novelist must be more or less a poet, evenalthough he may never have written a line of verse. The quality of imagination is absolutely indispensible to him; his accurate power of examining and embodying human character and human passion, as well as the external face of nature, is not less essential; and the talent describing well what he feels with acuteness, added to the above requisites, goes far to complete the poetic character."

Re: Joyce, from the beginning:

With Tremendous Sadness

Delay in the Podcast

Re:Joyce Episode 368 – Cavalcades & Comets’ Tails

Re:Joyce Episode 367 – Theatrical Turns & Toxic Gas

Re:Joyce Episode 366 - Gesundheit!

Re:Joyce Episode 365 – Soubrettes & Silken Thomas

Re:Joyce Episode 364 - Be Italian

Re:Joyce Episode 363 - Blond as Blazes

Re:Joyce Episode 362 - Sisters in Time

Re:Joyce Episode 361A - Baker’s Dozen

Re:Joyce Episode 361 – Coins, Licorice & Ice-Cream

Re:Joyce Episode 360 – Courting Couples & Cabbage

R:Joyce Episode 359 – Missionaries & Malahide

Re:Joyce Episode 358 – Kid Gloves & Butter

Re: Joyce Episode 357 – The Dancing Master

Re:Joyce Episode 356 - On the Rocks

Re:Joyce Episode 355 -Last Eddies

Re: Joyce Episode 354 - Rude & Lewd

Re:Joyce Episode 353 – MUMMERS & MYSTERIES

Re:Joyce Episode 352 - Mockery & Belief

Re:Joyce Episode 351 - Kings & Princes

Re:Joyce Episode 350 - Banishment & Catastrophe

Re:Joyce Episode 349 - Fairytales & Lapwings

Re:Joyce Episode 348 - Naming Names

Re:Joyce Episode 347 – Plays & Players

Re:Joyce Episode 346 - Fathers & Sons

Re:Joyce Episode 345A - Plato & Aristotle

Re:Joyce Episode 345 – Feelings of Greed

Re:Joyce Episode 344 - Cornjobbers & Gross Virgins

Re:Joyce Episode 343 - Family Fortunes

Re:Joyce Episode 342 - Giglots & Gombeens

Re:Joyce Episode 341 - Insults and Insinuations

Re:Joyce Episode 340 - Parodies & Pints

Re:Joyce Episode 339 - The Colors of Mockery

Re:Joyce - Episode 338: The Buck Returns

Re:Joyce Episode 337 - Lords of Language

Re:Joyce Episode 336 - Moles & Wild Oats

Re:Joyce Episode 335 - Mummies & Dirty Looks

Re:Joyce Episode 334 - Name-Dropping

Re:Joyce Episode 333 - Hermetists & Tongue-Twisters

Re:Joyce Episode 332 - Errors & Bosh

Re:Joyce Episode 331 - Green Room Gossip

Re:Joyce Episode 330 - Ghostly Stuff

Re:Joyce Episode 329 - Buttocks & Beggars

Re:Joyce Episode 328A - Manuscript Matters

Re:Joyce Episode 328 - Erotic & Esoteric

Re:Joyce Episode 327 - Rocks & Hard Places

Re:Joyce Episode 326 – Flesh and the Fear of Flesh

Re:Joyce Episode 325 - Seeing Eyes & Striplings

Re:Joyce Episode 324 - Tarts & Garters

Re:Joyce Episode 323 - Hiccups & Horse Races

Re:Joyce Episode 322 - Gossip & Grog

Re:Joyce Episode 321 - Bottoms Up!

Re:Joyce Episode 320 - Seafood & Stuff

Re:Joyce Episode 319 - Blushing & Boxing

Re:Joyce Episode 318 - Cheese & Wine

Re:Joyce Episode 317 - Street Eating

Re:Joyce Episode 316 - Swillings & Smells

Re:Joyce Episode 315 - Pincushions & Pantaloons

Re:Joyce Episode 314 - Parallax & Poetry

Re:Joyce Episode 313 - A Two-Headed Octopus

Re:Joyce Episode 312A - The Dancing Soul

Re:Joyce Episode 312 - Mooching Loonies

Re:Joyce Episode 311 - The Hidden Hand

Re:Joyce Episode 310 - Plumpness & Pigeons

Re:Joyce Episode 309 - Different Women

Re:Joyce Episode 308 - Character Driven

Re:Joyce Episode 307 - Pastry & Pregnancy

Re:Joyce Episode 306 - Wide Eyes & New Moons

Re:Joyce Episode 305 - Frogs & Stays

Re:Joyce Episode 304 Fun in High Hats

Re:Joyce Episode 303 - Wit & Social Disease

Re:Joyce Episode 302 - Gulls & Guinness

Re:Joyce Episode 301 - Lestrygonians

Re:Joyce Episode 300 - Falling Winds

Re:Joyce Episode 299 - Plum Lines

Re-Joyce Episode 298 - Fundamental Osculation

Re:Joyce Episode 297 - Dubliners Redux

Re:Joyce Episode 296A - The Blooming Year

Re:Joyce Episode 296 - Tara to Troy

Re:Joyce Episode 295 - Ancient Orators

Re:Joyce Episode 294 - Mastermystics & Morale

Re:Joyce Episode 293 - Paradise & Powerful Men

Re:Joyce Episode 292 - Silver Tongues & Skin-the-Goat

Re:Joyce Episode 291 - A Murder Story

Re:Joyce Episode 290 - Lists & Limericks

Re:Joyce Episode 289 - Of Soup & Sin

Re:Joyce Episode 288 - Tobacco & Tweeds

Re:Joyce Episode 287 - A Little Mazurka

Re:Joyce Episode 286 - Flossing & Fretting

Re:Joyce Episode 285 - Part Two

Re:Joyce Episode 285 Part One - Welsh Combs & Feathery Hair

Re:Joyce Episode 285

Re:Joyce Episode 284 - Barristers & Bosky Groves

Re:Joyce - Episode 283: Pensive Bosoms & Purple Prose

Re:Joyce Episode 282 - Stories & Soap

Re:Joyce Episode 281 - Spellingbees & Slithery Sounds

Re:Joyce Episode 280A - The Mysterious Mr. Macintosh

Re:Joyce Episode 280 - Keys & Clankings

Re:Joyce Episode 279 - Flatulence & Debt Collecting

Re:Joyce Episode 278 - A Stately Savior

Re: Joyce, Episode 277: Blow Ye Breezes

Re:Joyce Episode 276 - Dented Hats & Dislikes

Re:Joyce Episode 275 - GreatGrandfather Rat

Re:Joyce Episode 274 - A Touch of the Immortal

Re:Joyce Episode 273 - What’s in a Name?

Re: Joyce, Episode 272 - Frying Pans & Fires

Re:Joyce Episode 271 - Trestles & Tweed Suits

Re:Joyce Episode 270 - The Mysterious Man in the Macintosh

Re: Joyce Episode 269 - Ageing & Fertilizing

Re: Joyce, Episode 268: Jealousy and Diplomacy

Re:Joyce Episode 267 Of Boats and Pumps

Re:Joyce- Episode 266: Lilting Sepulchres

Re:Joyce Episode 265 - It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas!

Re:Joyce - Episode 264A: Weaver’s Work

Re:Joyce Episode 264 - Boots, Beds & Bald Heads

Re:Joyce - Episode 263.1 - Stiffness and Mutes

Re: Joyce Episode 263 - Cemetery Thoughts

Re: Joyce Episode 262 - A Little Murder

Re:Joyce Episode 261: Canal Water Preferably

re:Joyce Episode 260 - Deadly Thoughts

Re:Joyce Episode 259 - The Fifth Quarter

Re: Joyce, Episode 258: Kellys & Cattle

Re: Joyce, Episode 257: Fast Cars & Hairy Ears

Re: Joyce, Episode 256: Malice Aforethought

Re: Joyce, Episode 255: Re: Hearses 

Re: Joyce, Episode 254: Street Smarts

Re: Joyce, Episode 253: Vino & Veritas

Re: Joyce, Episode 252A: A Baker's Dozen Special Edition

Re: Joyce, Episode 252: Tales of the Riverbank 

Re: Joyce, Episode 251: Moneylenders & Mirth

Re: Joyce, Episode 250: Sombre Pedestals

Re: Joyce, Episode 249: Silent Ripostes

Re: Joyce, Episode 248: Second Thoughts

Re: Joyce, Episode 247: Art Versus Life

Re: Joyce, Episode 246: Bleak As Blazes 

Re: Joyce, Episode 245: Points of Interest  

Re: Joyce, Episode 244: Sadness & Woe

Re: Joyce, Episode 243: Pecking Orders & Pomposity

Re: Joyce, Episode 242: Dogs’ Homes & Gasworks

Re: Joyce, Episode 241: Carriage Trade

Re: Joyce, Episode 240A: Reading Joyce

Re: Joyce, Episode 240: Cease to do Evil

Re: Joyce, Episode 239: Breadcrumbs & Bastards

Re: Joyce, Episode 238: Fidus Achates

Re: Joyce, Episode 237: The Road to Hell

Re: Joyce, Episode 236: Funeral Pace

Re: Joyce, Episode 235: Farewell the Lotus

Re: Joyce, Episode 234: Lingering Lotus-Eaters

Re: Joyce, Episode 233: Sports & Porters

Re: Joyce, Episode 232: The Throwaway Factor

Re: Joyce, Episode 231: Waxes & Warts

Re: Joyce, Episode 230: Skinfood

Re: Joyce, Episode 229: Poppysyrups & Poisons 

Re: Joyce, Episode 228: Pestle and Mortar

Re: Joyce, Episode 227: Furtive Hands

Re: Joyce, Episode 226: Browbeatings & Buzz

Re: Joyce, Episode 225: Whispers of Remorse

Re: Joyce, Episode 224A: Throwing the Book at Him  

Re: Joyce, Episode 224: Eunuchs & Liqueurs

Re: Joyce, Episode 223: Mozart or Muller?

Re: Joyce, Episode 222: Beer, Wine & Spirits

Re: Joyce, Episode 221: Character & Assassination

Re: Joyce, Episode 220: Bread & Bleeding Statues

Re: Joyce, Episode 219: Cannibals and Corpses

Re: Joyce, Episode 218: Swimmers & Sodalities

Re: Joyce, Episode 217: Jesuits & Jossticks

Re: Joyce, Episode 216A: The Birth of Dubliners

Re: Joyce, Episode 216: Pools and Swirls

Re: Joyce, Episode 215: Stout Fun

Re: Joyce, Episode 214: Cool Waters

Re: Joyce, Episode 213: Martha & Mary

Re: Joyce, Episode 212: Pinpoints

Re: Joyce, Episode 211: The Flowers That Bloom

Re: Joyce, Episode 210: Matters of Correction

Re: Joyce, Episode 209: Petals & Pussycats

Re: Joyce, Episode 208: Taws & Dobbers

Re: Joyce, Episode 207: Nags & Nosebags

Re: Joyce, Episode 206: Stage Stars & Sadness

Re: Joyce, Episode 205: Soft Soap & Smallpox

Re: Joyce, Episode 204 A: Location, Location, Location

Re: Joyce, Episode 204: Funeral Tricks  

Re: Joyce, Episode 203: Portmanteaus & Potted Meat

Re: Joyce, Episode 202: Silk Stockings & Esprit de Corps

Re: Joyce, Episode 201: Foosterings & Fallbacks

Re: Joyce, Episode 200: Rich Fantasy

Re: Joyce, Episode 199: The Real McCoy

Re: Joyce, Episode 198: Soldiering On

Re: Joyce, Episode 197: The Language of Flowers

Re: Joyce, Episode 196: A Touch of Eureka

Re: Joyce, Episode 195: Leaves of Life

Re: Joyce, Episode 194: Hatbands & Heat

Re: Joyce, Episode 193: Funeral Music

Re: Joyce, Episode 192A: Love & Ulysses

Re: Joyce, Episode 192: Hitting the Streets

Re: Joyce, Episode 191: Bowels & Bells

Re: Joyce, Episode 190: Mona Lisa Molly

Re: Joyce, Episode 189: Of Cabbages & Combs

Re: Joyce, Episode 188: Take it Easy, Mr. B.

Re: Joyce, Episode 187: Bath Times & Braces