Books bought, books checked-out, books read: End of Summer, beginning of Fall 2011

An update to my pollysyllabic spree:

Books bought

  • The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman
  • Year’s Best SF 14

Books checked out

  • In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
  • Healthy Aging by Andrew Weil

Books read

  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
  • Embassytown by China Mieville
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Chronicling Texas’ Hill Country

Hill Country Chronicles
By Clay Coppedge
The History Press (2010, $19.99)

Texas’ Hill Country covers about 25 counties in the central part of the state, including Travis County, home to Austin. It’s a region as thick with legends and characters as it is with Ashe junipers, better known as cedars to those who live here.

The region, its legends and characters, and even the cedars get covered in Clay Coppedge’s Hill Country Chronicles. Coppedge, a journalist and freelance writer, has put together a collection of essays that tell the story of this rugged and sometimes forbidding land, an area pivotal to Texas’ history.

Coppedge is a storyteller at heart, and some of the best pieces in the collection are those in which he tells the stories of the region’s characters, such as outlaw Johnny Ringo. If the name rings a bell, that’s because Ringo is associated with the Clanton Gang and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz. Although Ringo gained notoriety as an outlaw, some sources claim he never fired a shot in Tombstone.

Ringo did fire a shot or two, as Coppedge writes, while making a stay in Burnet, Texas, where he was arrested Christmas Day for firing a shot across the city square. Texas’ Hill Country was also where Ringo probably earned his reputation as an outlaw during the Hoodoo War, a bloody feud over cattle between recent German settlers and their American-born neighbors.

Ringo, Coppedge writes, shot and killed Jim Cheyney, a resident of the area, after Cheyney had invited Ringo and his partner Bill Williams in for breakfast.

Coppedge also delves into Texas heroes such as Jim Bowie, telling the story of how Bowie may have come into possession of his namesake knife. “A good bit of evidence suggests that the real Bowie knife of legend and lore was designed and made in Arkansas blacksmith named Thomas Black . . . . Black’s design was long and heavy and was distinguished by an evil little upturn at its tip and scooped top blade.”

Coppedge’s stories range far and wide through the region. He writes about its people, its places — Luckenbach,  for instance, the blink of a town made famous by Waylon, Willie and the boys — and its critters: from armadillos and unappreciated mules to the state dinosaur, the Pleurocoelus. And he does it often with dry humor and insight, which makes the book worth a read.

Getting My How-to Write Fix

The first how-to write fiction book I ever read was Rita Mae Brown’s Starting From Scratch. That book led to an addiction to how-to write books. I gobbled them up.  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (which introduced me to creative nonfiction/literary journalism), Josip Novakich’s Fiction Writer’s Workshop, and on and on and on.

In The Atlantic‘s current fiction issue, writer Richard Bausch critiques writing instruction manuals in an essay “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons”.

“My quarrel,” he writes, “is with the implication in the how-to books market that one can merely read them to find the magic secret for writing well enough to publish.”

Bausch argues the writer’s manuals promote being a writer without the need to do the work. He tells a story of a student who “with great pride” said “he had ‘over a hundred books’ in his library — I [Bausch] could see that I was meant to be impressed by the number, and that he considered himself a vastly well-read type of guy. He went on to say that many in his collection are how-to books . . . . He did not come to writing from reading books, good or bad. He came to it from deciding it might be cool to walk around in that role.”

The argument is similar to the one John Aldridge makes in Talents and Technicians, a critique of MFA writing programs. Aldridge argued that MFA programs created cookie-cutter writers whose prose was so similar the only difference was the byline. The writing programs, Aldridge said, produced writers for the sake of being writers. These writers didn’t come from reading other writers; it came writing in the writing programs.

Bausch addresses this argument:

I know an assumption exists in certain quarters that writing programs do damage, mostly by causing a so-called cookie-cutter effect, everyone sounding the same. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and you need only look at the work to know it. Allan Gurganus, Jane Smiley, T.C. Boyle, and I were all at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at roughly the same time. Allan and I had classes together. We hung out. I went horseback riding with Jane Smiley . . . and we talked about everything under the sun, including writing

You would have trouble finding four writers who are more different.

If a cookie-cutter effect ever develops, it will come from people keeping to the manuals and how-to books.

And writing that comes from those whose reading is confined to the how-to books is cramped and obvious.

My experience with how-to books has, overall, been decent. I don’t view them as negative, cookie-cutter mills. Bausch says there are classics in the genre such as Gardner’s Art of Fiction. These books, he says, deal with the “aesthetics of the task.” But, I’ve never viewed the manuals as substitutes for reading and learning to write from reading novels, essays, poems or plays.

Bausch says the manuals steer would-be writers away from reading and learning from other writers. Reading the manuals has helped me become a better reader, even better, I think than the reading I did in graduate school. I read deeply and learned to analyze texts in grad school, but  much of that analysis was fueled with theory.

After reading a manual I could go back to the books I loved and pick up on the techniques the manuals had taught. I could see what was bad and what was good. Those books also introduced me to writers such as Bausch and Boyle.

The other thing I learned from were the exercises and prompts. I learned to apply the techniques, and I would practice the techniques, not only at home, but at work when I was writing feature stories. Those exercises were important, too, because they got me to place ass in chair and write.

Of course, the manuals are full of the standards: write what you know; use active voice; show, don’t tell.

But many also go beyond those standards with practical advice like considering journalism as a way to make a living and actively write.

Still, the manuals won’t make you a writer, any more than an MFA program. They can only give you a tiny amount of instruction. Some of it useful, some of it trash.

John McPhee’s New Book Gets Personal – latimes.com

When I began my journalism career close to 10 years ago I knew nothing about the terms literary journalism/creative nonfiction. I knew the term “new journalism” coined by Tom Wolfe; I had read his collection of pieces by “new” journalists like Hunter Thompson and Joan Didion. I had also read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, wherein Zinsser argued that nonfiction was the new American literature. I longed to write the kind of nonfiction Wolfe and Zinsser were describing.

After I started writing at the newspaper, I started making attempts — however mangled — at “new” journalism, which I had learned by then was also known as literary journalism. At the same time I was discovering and reading great talents such as Susan Orlean and John McPhee. Both were inspiring.

McPhee is a favorite. He has a new book out — Silk Parachute. The L.A. Times recently interviewed him:

John McPhee’s new book gets personal – latimes.com

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Scene v. Exposition

We all tend to use too little scene in creative nonfiction. We especially forget the possibilities of representative scene. Even when we’re reporting a typical rather than specific event, use of scenic elements . . . conveys a sense of character and situation far more effectively than summary does.

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola

I’ve just started reading Tell It Slant and early on I’m pondering, When do you use exposition and when do you use scene?

When writing newspaper features — and to some extent freelance magazine features — I often felt limited to exposition. At times, when I had the space, I would beef a feature up with mini scenes, usually with short descriptive passages of place or a brief — very brief — description of a person. I rarely had dialogue. Much of what I wrote was expository or quickly dashed-off narrative summary, often out of necessity.

I was envious of writers I read at larger papers, or at alternative weeklies, who seemed to be given the space and time to write detailed, compelling features, alive with scenes, dialogue, characterization. And envied even more New Yorker writers like John McPhee (talk about detail) or Susan Orlean.

And yet, with my recent forays into creative nonfiction I find myself slipping into exposition and narrative summary more than scene. Often I’ll start out with scenes and then slip for pages into exposition. When I read and revise, I see the exposition, and in the back of my mind I think I should cut it, revise it, build a scene, but then, at the same time, the exposition seems to fit so well with the essay. And I think of some the essays and booklength works of nonfiction by writers such as Larry McMurtry or the wonderfully lyrical Diane Ackerman and those writers rely heavily on mixes of scene and exposition.

And I wonder, When should a scene be used, and when should you use exposition?