This week: writer's block and some books.

I've been trying to write. Writers write. Duh.

But the only time I seem to come up with a nice set of words, or a plot line that won't leave my head, I'm either putting little effort in my setting analysis paper, or nodding and smiling at my job. I feel like this -->

School aside, my main problem is that even when I sit down (like now. I could have written the intro to a short by now), the words just stop. I don't know if anyone has this same problem, but it's been getting under my skin since the beginning of October.

Usually I'd turn to my favorite book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, but I shared the writerly love and gave it to another writer, and can't seem to find my back-up copy (yes, I had a back-up copy). There was a bit in this book that talked about getting the words down little by little. I can't do that. I can't force anything. Right now this is easy. Blogging is not an art form to me (though it is to others) it is like writing in a journal. A journal which may or may not be being read by people I know, but still.

Anyway, there's this part of Bird by Bird. I'm pretty certain it is in the back jacket also. This is where Anne Lamott explains her writing process, and the title for the book. She says (paraphrazing) that the night before it was due, her brother started his science project on how ever many birds. I'm guessing since it was the day before the due date, there must have been mad birds. With all these pictures and classifications, her father (also a writer), sits down and helps her bro put them together and he goes something along the lines of, "Okay now. Take it bird by bird." One at a time. Uno por uno. Etc. This becomes her mantra for her writing life, and I've tried to make it mine for the past five years.

It's hard. Writing is really, really hard. And having the desire to write and not letting myself is incredibly whiney of me because I should just sit down and do it.

Instead I'm blogging, and leaving you with another book:

I can burn all hokey Writer's Digest books about the process of writing and keep only this one. It's like having a teacher give you a prompt without having to deal with the actual workshop. The prompts come in three different ways: a plot line, a situation affecting different characters, and a clip of dialogue. I'm flipping to a random page. Write this:

"I can't believe you've taken up jogging. What about out pact?" -pg 106

Wait, here's another one (since I end up flipping the book a few times randomly and then picking one. It is nice to have a writer's block ritual) :

A botanist proves that plants feel pain and exhibit conscious thought. -pg 37

I'm so excited like,

Francine Prose reading @ The Strand Bookstore

At 19.00 on Tuesday night, 07 October 2008, Francine Prose was at the Strand Bookstore, giving a reading from her newly published novel, Goldengrove.

It was a small section of the store on the second floor, in the space where the Art & Photography books were shelved. Zoraida and I arrived minutes before the hour, and found that there were approximately thirty or so chairs available for the reading. We saw that many towards the back of the section were empty, but they quickly filled up a couple of minutes before the start of the event. The owners had placed a platform with a podium for her to speak at, with a sound system used to amplify her voice over the traffic heard from the street.

The event started with a brief introduction made by the owners of Strand, the Basks. They mentioned that Ms. Prose wrote fifteen books of fiction and that she was President of the Important Pen and American Center. The program for the night would be the reading, a Q & A session, and personalization time for books. Then, they introduced the author.

Francine Prose walked up to that podium, thanked the small audience and the owners, and briefly talked about herself in terms of The Strand. She lives only about half a block away from the store and has been a faithful customer at the bookstore for more than thirty years, before her kids were born, buying and selling books. Then she started to talk a little about Goldengrove.

What caught my attention real well was the detail about the beginning. She admitted that her original beginning was the second page of the first chapter, and not the first page of the published novel. During the Q & A, when someone had asked about her inspiration for the novel, she said that it was tied to a family living upstate in New York, a real-life situation that was so “gothic” and “bizarre,” but for reasons of privacy she could not reveal anymore than that. She started to write the novel in 2003, the first chapter in the middle of the night. Then she stopped work on it until 2005, when her mother died. It was in that year that she realized that Goldengrove would carry a grief theme, aligned with her own feelings about her mother.

I listened to her read, aware only that the narrator was supposed to be a thirteen-year-old girl who would later grieve for her sister by carrying on relations with her sister’s boyfriend, an older adolescent who was supposed to be college-bound. “If all the clocks and calendars vanished...,” she read. Goldengrove’s narrator, Nico, was school-aged and referred to her sister, father, and mother constantly in the first several pages that Ms. Prose read outloud to us. The setting is in a small town, happening in 2004 or 2005. There is a defined contemporary moment that occurs when Nico mentions global warming to her older sister, Margaret. Altogether, it wasn’t a long section, and the author could only read so much- it was an event only up to 2030. But, it was interesting to note that the title of the book is the name of the father’s bookstore, a piece of information that was mentioned in the reading.

Then, Francine Prose opened the floor for the Q & A. At first, no one asked anything. She made a light comment made about how people wanted to ask questions but it was a matter of courage and being the first one to raise their hands. Zoraida and I were not going to be two of those types of people, but we did ask our own questions. Questions were predictable and safe, ranging from her name (it IS her real name!) to about her writing the book and Chekov, an author she holds in high regard. In her other book, Reading Like a Writer, she reserved the last chapter entirely for him and wrote of his prowess and technique.

Ms. Prose admitted to creating many drafts. Her method of revision consisted of making manuscripts on the computer, each draft with possibly ten drafts to it. For Goldengrove, she said that there were thirteen drafts saved on the computer. So, technically, she may have made as many as 130 drafts of Goldengrove. To revise for her means to go by each word, then line by line, a “micro to macro” technique. She wrote notes to herself about the characters and what they should be like, but not all those notes would come to fruition right away. In one instance, she made one of the characters sympathetic by the fifth draft. Imagine! Anyway, the second part of that question asked about finishing. When did she know that she was done with the manuscript? She knows she’s done with the book when the last comment is taken out and put back about one hundred to two hundred times. The last sentence of the novel, she said, took three months to complete.

As far as the narrative voice was concerned, she had no choice about making it a thirteen-year old girl. At first, she tried to put it with multiple points of view, using all the other characters besides the young girl, but eventually she wanted the intensity from the thirteen year old. The last chapter, she replied, was told in the view of the same person, but as an adult.

Francine Prose admits that she can’t keep a journal, mainly because she could probably not find a tone to write with. Within adolescent books she looked to for examples and inspiration, she found that there was a natural tone that she herself “couldn’t do.” Adolescent books she referred to were Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, but the one that struck this natural tone in her was The Diary of Anne Frank. She does keep an idea notebook.

In dealing with writer’s block, she replied, “Time is really great for giving you the thing you don’t have.” Whenever she would get stuck with a story, she had to put it away because she couldn’t come up with what to put into it. Eventually something happened, and she would find that she could put it into her story and proceed. And so it goes with her writing.

Further writing questions she answered dealt with genre. She was asked about writing in the thirteen year old point of view versus writing for young adults. Ms. Prose explained that there were differences to account for: pacing, the language, and the complexity of the story. Those would often be subtle differences, but in doing so with subtlety, it could be found out who the story is intended for. While Goldengrove can be read by young adults, the reference to Nico’s name is dated, because it comes from a singer who covered “My Funny Valentine.” But, she does not hold teenagers to a lower standard. She thinks they are underestimated. In terms of the literature available for the young adults of today, she does not read them but she thinks that she may start again as her granddaughter approaches that particular age.

That was when Chekov and other bits about literature were mentioned. Yours truly asked about her second favorite author, because her favorite was clearly Chekov. She said that her list would be huge, but right now her newest favorite was Roberto Bolaño, or at least that's how I felt with the spelling. (If you have a correction, please comment.)

The signing went rather quickly for me and Zoraida. I lamented for the entire reading on not bringing my copy (1st ed.!) of Reading Like a Writer, but I promptly took the opportunity of the night to buy Goldengrove and get it signed by the author. Zoraida purchased a copy of Reading Like A Writer.

We both exited as happy owners of personalized, signed copies. Next time I go attend a reading with Francine Prose, I’m not leaving my book again.

Ban This! September 27 - October 4, 2008

"Every burned book enlightens the world."
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This week is Banned Books Week. An unpublicized week (since we read most of them in high school and English 220 these days) to celebrate and do what you will with books which, at one point or another have been banned and burned from the public.

Keep in mind that (if you're in New York) most of these books are not banned anymore. But in other parts of the country, high school students still need parental permission to read
The Giver. I mean, really?

The following list is a compilation from ALA and The Forbidden Library.

The red highlighted titles are books different members of OTR have read.

  1. The Bible
  2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  4. The Koran
  5. Arabian Nights
  6. Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  7. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  8. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  9. Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  10. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  11. Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
  12. Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  13. Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  14. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  15. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  16. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  17. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  18. Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin
  19. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
  20. Essays by Michel de Montaigne
  21. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  22. History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  23. Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  24. Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
  25. Ulysses by James Joyce
  26. Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
  27. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  28. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  29. Candide by Voltaire
  30. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  31. Analects by Confucius
  32. Dubliners by James Joyce
  33. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  34. Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  35. Red and the Black by Stendhal
  36. Capital by Karl Marx
  37. Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
  38. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  39. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
  40. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  41. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
  42. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  43. Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  44. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
  45. Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
  46. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  47. Diary by Samuel Pepys
  48. Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  49. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  50. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  51. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  52. Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  53. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
  54. Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus
  55. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  56. Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
  57. Color Purple by Alice Walker
  58. Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
  59. Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke
  60. Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison
  61. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  62. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  63. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  64. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  65. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  66. Confessions by Jean Jacques Rousseau
  67. Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
  68. Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
  69. The Talmud
  70. Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
  71. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  72. Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
  73. American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  74. Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
  75. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  76. Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  77. Red Pony by John Steinbeck
  78. Popol Vuh
  79. Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
  80. Satyricon by Petronius
  81. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  82. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  83. Black Boy by Richard Wright
  84. Spirit of the Laws by Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu
  85. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  86. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
  87. Metaphysics by Aristotle
  88. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  89. Institutes of the Christian Religion by Jean Calvin
  90. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
  91. Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
  92. Sanctuary by William Faulkner
  93. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  94. Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
  95. Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
  96. Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  97. General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud
  98. Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  99. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown
  100. Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  101. Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines
  102. Émile by Jean Jacques Rousseau
  103. Nana by Émile Zola
  104. Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  105. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
  106. Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  107. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  108. Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
  109. Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
  110. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  111. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
  112. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume
  113. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  114. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  115. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  116. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
  117. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  118. Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  119. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
  120. The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
  121. Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
  122. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  123. Forever by Judy Blume
  124. Around the World in a Hundred Years: Jean Fritz
  125. Blubber by Judy Blume
  126. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
  127. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
  128. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  129. Maggie, Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
  130. Skin Deep by Isaac Asimov
  131. My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier
  132. Meeting the Mugger by Norma Fox Mazer
I'm pretty sure this list can go on forever. I just fail to understand the reasoning behind these kinds of people:

Whoa, whoa, whoa? According to this highly educated and fit Priestess, I now have a reason to find Daniel Radcliffe and be the the wizard to his Hogwarts.


I don't think I've ever questioned the scandal ratings of a book. Maybe it is because I'm exceptionally liberal, and happen to like reading about the gritty parts of human nature. This does not mean that I doubt the power of literature. I don't read books so that they can tell me what to think. I read books so I can learn to think to myself. Its like word-food.

I mean, yes, there are always lunatics all over the world who are afraid of a little freedom of thought and speech. The Nazis burned tons of books, including The Sun Also Rises, because I'm guessing they had a problem with impotent men. A school in Kentucky banned Le Morte d'Arthur because it was odd and pervy and not written in American, I guess. Darn those Middle English writers and the funny way they spell everything with an extra E and Y!

My favorite example of a banned author who changed my life is Judy Blume. Judy Blume has written children's books about menstruation, masturbation, divorce, racism, and sex since 1970. Most parents I know break out in hives before they sit down and talk about "the dirty" with their teenagers. By that time it is too late, and their young daughter has gotten felt up by half the school and maybe her gym coach because no one ever talked to her about the weird feelings she was developing. You would think that instead of a boring pamphlet from some clinic, most parents would enjoy having a wonderful novel do the job that they're too afraid and awkward to do themselves.

When I was in elementary school, this girl I knew had this book for "young readers" on hygiene and the human body. It had pictures of how the body changes, and during slumber parties we would point and "ew" and "gross" and "wow, that's what a boy's thing looks like" along with all the other girls. She learned about menstruation from a textbook because her mother was too embarrassed to have the "talk." And while the textbook was informative, it was impersonal and cold, and what prepubescent girl wants to learn the real facts from a non-fiction book published in the 60s?

But then there is a book like Lolita. Who wants to read about a pedophile and the little girl he's after? I guess I have no answer except, I do. Because I know it is "literature." And I know that the only feeling I'm left with after reading it is not a need to pray on school girls, but the longing and ache throughout this sick, sick story. It is uncomfortable but, but literature is not about making the reader comfortable. Edgar Allen Poe wanted to make his society squirm and feel disgusted with themselves because he knew that deep in their hearts they were all as filthy beasties. That's no reason to burn, baby burn.

So, in support of all the poor, poor books that have been burned throughout the ages, be good bibliophilicbookworms and read something you never thought you would have.