Favorite Books: On Writing

If you know me, then, chances are, you’ve heard me make a Stephen King reference. I honestly love the man. While known for being horror royalty, there’s a depth and creativity in his writing that often gets overlooked. All of his stories have elements that are scary, but most of his work is not at all what I would classify as horror. Definitely weird, sometimes quite macabre, he’s the master of asking himself the question, “What if…?” and then taking his readers on the ride to find out.

Eight years ago, fresh off my first King novel, The Gunslinger, I found myself completely obsessed with finding out how in the world he came up with his ideas. Luckily, he wrote a book that answered my question and so many others I hadn’t yet realized I had about writing and the development of stories.

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This sounds dramatic, but reading On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was life-changing for me. This was before I had started writing again, before I took my first writing course, before I had written more than a few pages here and there of anything of substance at all. I was still firmly in a place where writing, though I loved it and ached for it, was so daunting that I didn’t even try. But every time I turned the page I felt a little more capable, the fire of passion burned a little brighter, the whole idea of writing for a living started to seem obtainable. It was exhilarating.

On Writing is the one and only book that I have ever read, and, upon completion, literally turned right back to the first page and started over immediately. It’s that good.

I’m sure some of you are like, “Really, Kelsey? A book about writing?”. YES! A book about writing. And let me tell you why. He tells his story from about three years old and onward and how life formed him into a writer. He explains how ideas and inspiration have happened for him, how two seemingly unrelated things can be pure story magic if you can see how they fit together. Only in the last third of the book does he cover any technical rules or tips for the mechanics of writing. The perfect amount to be helpful without feeling like reading a textbook. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves writing or appreciates the craft, anyone who loves reading, or anyone who is curious about the kooky guy who writes a shit ton of books that all seem to get made into movies.

Speaking of, if you’ve only ever seen the movie versions of his stuff, do yourself a favor and amend that. There couldn’t be a better example of books being better than the movies than almost the entire catalog of Stephen King films.

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I’m re-reading On Writing for the fifth time right now, and I’ve found that it’s become meaningful to me in a different way. When I first read it, my life was pretty chaotic. My marriage wasn’t doing very well, I was a new mom trying to figure out how that worked, I was preparing to move across the world from everyone I knew, and…, and…, and…etc. I was entirely overwhelmed by all of it. I felt like I was watching tiny, little bits of myself chip and fall off everywhere I went and the rest of me was starting to crack under the pressure. Something about reading this book when I did helped to ground me. Change was a hurricane, and I was still along for the ride, but rediscovering my love for writing kept me tethered to something real and something completely my own. When I was reminded that I had the capability to do something special with my talents, even if it seemed like a dream far off into the distance, I felt powerful again. Well, maybe not quite yet, but I remembered I could be powerful. And when you’re in the middle of an upheaval of that magnitude, just knowing something like strength exists within you is enough to get you through.

Because of this book, and the dozens of others I’ve read since, Stephen King will always be my writing spirit guide. When I find myself feeling wobbly or in serious doubt about my work, I look to him…and to the tattered pages of this book.

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The Immortalists: A Book Review

Let me start by saying thank you to my readers who voted for this book. I don’t think I could have picked a better title to launch my book review section of this blog. It’s not a long read at just shy of 350 pages, but the storytelling is rich and inviting. I think this will quickly become my favorite part of blogging because I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to talk about writing! But don’t worry, no spoilers will be uttered here.

The Immortalists begins with the four Gold siblings at various points along the bridge from childhood to adolescence. It’s the summer of ‘69 in New York City’s Lower East Side and in quiet understanding that the separation of age is threatening the closeness of their youth, Simon, Klara, David, and Varya embark on a quest to find the Woman on Hester Street who can tell you when you’ll die.

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Author Chloe Benjamin has managed to tell each sibling’s story, how they choose to accept or reject their prescribed fate, with such incredible honesty that to reach the end and remember that they are fiction is to accept a pang of grief. Each of the Gold siblings has an individualistic nature that seems to clatter and bang against their shared upbringing like rough seas against a levee wall. They each equally hold dear and at arm’s length their shared history and escape into their own versions of living, eventually leaving New York in search or in avoidance of their destinies.

I was most impressed with the underlying theme of communication. In small, easily overlooked ways Benjamin reveals the missed opportunities and understandings that are all too recognizable in our own lives. She quietly points to the differences in how we see ourselves and how others see us, gently prodding at the egocentric nature of us all. This book is filled with moments like this that invite reflection, without demanding it.

She spends time with each of the Golds, sharing their lives and the ghosts that haunted them in separate sections of the book. I’m not always a fan of this form of storytelling as it often feels disjointed and difficult to attach to the characters when only chunks of their stories are told, but this is not the case here. Benjamin skillfully allows small flashbacks to fill in the holes that feel more like the natural reflection of life than the storyteller trying to make it all connect. It almost feels like a series of novellas, each with their own arc. Writer and performer, Joselyn Hughes says, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” Benjamin executes this perfectly, allowing the impression you have of one sibling based on the perception of another to be altered entirely in raw and organic ways once you’ve entered their consciousness in the next section.

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I will warn you, there are some very graphic sex scenes in parts of this book. At first, I was disappointed to find them because I felt it was gratuitous and angling for shock value, but as I continued to read, I realized how important those moments were to the development of this particular character. There was an urgency in them that I came to realize was all too important to the story. While quite explicit, there’s something I appreciate about just how raw and real Benjamin writes these scenes. No apologies. I have to admire that in a writer.

The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more time with Daniel. His storyline started with the same richness and revelation as the others but rushed to its climax. I’m not a fan of fluff and filler, but there was a leap made that I don’t know that I was quite ready for.

People who like the show This Is Us will love this book as it follows a similar slow reveal of the varying perspectives of family members, the stories we tell ourselves, and how they become our reality. The book jacket calls it a “family love story” and I can’t think of a better term to describe it. It’s beautifully somber and yet hopeful. I finished it with a sigh.

I look forward to reading more material from Chloe Benjamin for her sharp descriptions of benign things and her spatial awareness of how stories can best unfold. This is some soul-bearingly intimate writing, and I can’t wait for more.

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Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

Food, Gloriously Written Food!

Turkish delight, butterbeer, fried green tomatoes, lembas bread. Oh, the world of literary foodstuffs. I’m a sucker for a good book and a good meal, so when I stumble on some food so well written that I can’t help but pout about what I’m missing being stuck on the reality side of the page…my friends, that is heaven. I’m sure if you thought about it right now, you could easily reflect on some kind of snack or feast referred to in a book that made you salivate.

I didn’t have a clue what Turkish delight was until I was an adult (a rosewater flavored gummy sweet), but Edmond’s anticipation, and, let’s face it, his willingness to betray his siblings for another taste, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe had more than piqued my curiosity at this treasured tasty.

As an American, I had many a moment reading Harry Potter as a child where I wondered which foods served at Hogwarts were English traditions or Rowling’s own magical creations, but please bring on the pumpkin pasties and the butterbeer!

I’m sure I’m not alone in this particular sensation. Where the imagined becomes real. The words have triggered an incredible physical reaction that wakens longing, hunger. There should be a word for that particular feeling. If you know it, please share!

My best friend ensured that my first encounter with raw oysters included a glass of champagne because…well, Hemingway:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

 

It is no surprise to me that a common term for someone with a deep, unrelenting, desire to read is “voracious”, an adjective which means – wanting or devouring great quantities of food. Books and food are kindred spirits. They each nourish and feed the mind, body, soul. Good food, like a good book, inspires and satiates all at once. You are left feeling deeply satisfied and equally wanting more. You feel genuine sadness that it is over, but grateful for the experience…one that never really ends because now it’s part of you. That food will turn into energy for your body, and the memory of flavor will linger, subtly altering your tastes and desires for food in the future. That book and its words will sit in your skull until leaping forward to be remembered and questioned and needle its way back into your subconscious, evolving self.

I’ll keep it short and sweet today, this last day of the year, and leave you with a bit of sweetness. As a young girl, maybe eight or so, I was reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved books. It was winter, and I had just finished the first volume, Little House in the Big Woods. When Texas got a rare treat of snow that stuck and a scant few inches blanketed our yard, I begged my mother to make Maple Syrup Snow Candy, just like Laura did in the book. I can still picture the small, plastic blue bowl that she helped me fill with the clean top layer of snow we delicately scooped up, not wanting to collect the dirt and grass hiding millimeters below. Mom warmed some syrup up on the stove, then helped me drizzle it in my precious bowl of snow. The magic and sheer delight I felt will live with me forever. Something from a cherished book had come to life before my eyes and I could almost smell the wood smoke from the stove in Grandmother Ingalls’ cabin.

If you’re lucky enough to have snow on the ground, here’s a recipe I found that you can try. She even has a few quotes from the book. 

Happy New Year, my friends. I hope it’s filled with delicious food and delightful books. ❤

The Beginning

Let’s start at the very beginning — a very good place to start. In the beginning, there were words. Well, not really words so much as grunts and whoops, but the sentiment is the same. Grunts, whoops, and yes, words are all about communication. Those guttural utterances began an evolution of communication that we are still experiencing. And we aren’t just doing it collectively as a species, but also individually. Each of us began much the same as our ancestors, squawking and crying out to convey our needs and emotions. We learned, over time, to manipulate the muscles of our mouths and throat to create spoken words. We learned the words our society had given to things around us. Actions, places, feelings, desires, the real, and the imagined. The transition from mere sound to weighted words happens in the blink of an eye all to convey meaning and purpose to the world around us and of the world within us.
That’s where I come in. From a young age, I recognized the magic of words. How each one was a piece to a puzzle that, once completed, could reveal a dazzling picture with such detail and nuance that whole worlds could spring to life in my mind as if they were real places I’d been or people I’d met. The small, rickety bookshelf in my room quickly filled with my tiny collection of universes. Imagine being able to survey and select whichever universe you wished to visit. A small gesture of the hand, and it would open to you, invite you inside, and you could fall in and lose yourself in the cosmos created out of nothing, born from someone else’s mind.

I quickly discovered that I didn’t want to be a mere observer of these worlds. No sideline sitting for this girl. No, I wanted to become a Creator. I wanted to learn how to craft a realm of humanity that didn’t exist anywhere else but my consciousness and then pull it from myself and pour it onto a page for someone else to witness.

And so I’ve crept toward that goal, little by little, for most of my life. Sometimes at an agonizing pace when I doubt I moved much at all, and sometimes sprinting so fast I can’t make my fingers, pen, mind move fast enough. I’ve learned so much about the craft of wordsmithing and barely scratched the surface. I know rules, and intimately how to break them. But most of all, I’ve learned how deeply I truly love the act of writing. I love that when I close my eyes and release the floodgates words appear. They tumble out of the recesses of my mind and I rush to find something with which to catch them before they fall through my fingers like a sieve to be lost in puddles of creativity at my feet. Sure, I could still splash in them, but they won’t ever carry the great force of momentum as they did at the start.

I think of this blog as a playground. Not the playground that just popped into your head when you read that, but what a playground really is. Mine has swings and slides and plenty of space to run and jump and play, but hidden in those innocent actions is an exercise of development. Every time I pump my legs and bring that swing up higher than I’ve ever dared before, I learn my limits are beyond what I expected. Each time I practice at the monkey bars and make it one rung further, I’ve stretched my endurance and bolstered my belief in myself. Here, you are watching me play — but you are also watching me grow. There will be triumphs, and there will be failures, but through both – and everything in between – there will undoubtedly be growth. And words. Always words.