Archive for the ‘Tangents’ Category

I had a hell of a time writing my Outside Online story, Before Cheryl Met Oprah: 5 Other Outdoor Adventure Memoirs by Women. When I pitched it, I’d had an idea of the books I wanted to include in the list, but I wanted to be sure I wasn’t overlooking anything crucial — and as I googled and cruised the library stacks and asked friends and colleagues for recommendations, the job got harder and harder. Turns out I was tapping into a seriously rich vein.

Here are some of the female-authored outdoor adventure books that didn’t wind up on the final Outside list, but which have definitely landed on my personal To-Read list:


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A couple weeks back, the New York Times published a piece by Joel Stein, arguing that adults should not read books aimed at youth. There have been plenty of cogent, scornful, and indignant responses, but for my money C.S. Lewis, speaking from the grave, says everything that needs to be said:

Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development.

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Thanks to The Daily Dish for the Lewis quote.

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Awhile back I added Esquire’s Chris Jones to my collection of writers and their origin stories. I got the story of Jones’ big break from his blog, which turns out to be kind of a gold mine for people – like me – who like to geek out on other writers talking about their writing.

Are you one of those people, too? Check these posts out:

How It Begins includes the actual email exchange that led to Jones landing the assignment for The Things That Carried Him, a 2009 National Magazine Award winner for feature writing.

Losing’s Reward is a brutally honest post about Jones’ Roger Ebert profile missing out on the National Magazine Award nominations, and Fear is about, well, the fear and doubt that infect the writing process.

NO lists 20 things that “should rarely if ever appear anywhere near your copy.”

Bonus link: Jones’ Esquire colleague Scott Raab also posted some writing advice on his site awhile back. This is the meat of it:

Writers love to write — and not because it’s easy. Getting it right isn’t easy at all, and that challenge is a big part of why writers love to write. It’s a high, working on your game, a way of being in the world that feels absolutely honest and true.

Anyone, especially in his or her twenties, saying ‘I have no time to write’ because of a job or anything else is full of crap. Writers write. If you can’t find time to write, don’t worry about becoming a writer. You’re not a writer. You’ll never be a writer. Find something else that lights you up.

Same with reading. Anybody who has no time to read isn’t a writer. All the work necessary to learn how to write boils down to reading and writing. This is not subtle or nuanced advice, obviously. I stress it here because of how often I talk to people who seem to think there’s a shortcut. I know no shortcuts.

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I was catching up on some back issues of Harper’s a few weeks back, and this quotation about the author of In Patagonia and The Songlines caught my eye:

He saved travel writing by changing its mandate: After Chatwin, the challenge was to find not originality of destination but originality of form.

Among those who have followed Chatwin, the most interesting have forged new forms specific to their chosen subjects: thus Pico Iyer’s sparkily hyperconnective studies of globalized culture and William Least Heat-Moon’s “deep maps” of America’s lost regions. Perhaps most important were W.G. Sebald’s enigmatic “prose fictions” — particularly Rings Of Saturn — that likewise hover between genres, make play with unreliability, and fold in on other forms: traveler’s tale, antiquarian digression, and memoir. What Sebald, like so many of us, learned from Chatwin was that the travelogue could voyage deeply in time rather than widely in space, and that the interior it explored need not be the heart of a place but the mind of the traveler.

(It’s from “Voyagers: The restless genius of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin,” by Robert Macfarlane, in the November 2011 issue.)

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This is a favorite, much-kicked-around topic of mine, and earlier this week the good folks at The Rumpus added a fresh contribution to the debate.

Messing With Memoir is an essay about the author’s efforts to revise her out-of-print memoir, years after she’d written it, and the ethical issues she grappled with in doing so. Here’s a taste:

I was a much better writer now. Why let that raw, earnest, adverb-friendly, long-sentenced version of myself linger? With e-books and Print on Demand (POD) as a garrote, I could quietly, efficiently off her. In her place I would seat that wiser, more skilled self.

But was it ethical? I had never heard of anyone tampering with their memoir. A memoir is not only an account of your life, it is specifically an account of your remembrances of your life. So now I would be telling that same story fifteen years later. I was re-remembering a memory.

Even more important, a memoir is a reflection of who you are at the time of writing. But now I would be peering backwards at myself from a new vantage point. Isn’t there a different author (older, wiser me) now? And haven’t I now changed my main character by writing her with this new hand? Did this matter?

Touching on the same theme in one of his “Daily Rumpus” emails a few days back, editor Stephen Elliott wrote about “the only true rule of memoir”:

You cannot knowingly tell a lie. In other words, you can be wrong, you can write things you consider to be true that other people consider to be untrue. In fact, it’s impossible to do otherwise. Most truth is not factual; most truth is subjective. But to state a something as fact when you know it is not, ie. I spent this much time in jail, is to break the cardinal rule.

I think that gets it about right.

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I’ve written before about my habit of digging up the “origin stories” of writers I admire. This weekend, while procrastinating on a story rewrite that’s due on Monday, I fell down the internet rabbit hole (it started with a Twitter reference to a writer-on-writer feud, detoured through a bizarre story about a person in a pink gorilla suit crashing a Grantland recruitment meeting, and finally led me to a writer’s blog on writing) and came across a new one, by Esquire’s Chris Jones.

Jones first came on my radar with his incredible profile of Roger Ebert a couple years back. Here’s the story of how he got into journalism. It begins with a big-name former journalist – the Headmaster of his graduate school residence – taking note of his writing and setting him up with a job interview, and ends with Jones landing a gig as a sports writer at the then-brand new National Post.

(Incidentally, Jones started that job at almost the exact same time that I, a self-righteous 16 year-old, scrapped plans to go to journalism school because I didn’t want to work for Conrad Black, who then owned the Post and almost every other paper of note in Canada. By the time I finally circled back around to journalism in my mid-20s, Black was a convicted felon, newspapers were generally considered to be a dying breed, and Jones was a regular at Esquire.)


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NWT writer Richard Van Camp talks writing and the North in this article from the Camrose Canadian:

I’m going to give you the only possible advice any writer can give you: if you want to be a writer, write something you would like to read. Growing up in Fort Smith, my grandparents were medicine people and didn’t speak a word of English. We had some of the best storytellers in the world come to our house. I was raised in a time when families still visited with families. When we had company, my mom would say ‘you boys, come listen to how the world really works.’ We were never sent away.

Nobody is talking about Fort Smith. Nobody is talking about our mullets, nobody is talking about our hickies, nobody is talking about our fistfights in snow and nobody is talking about how we can two-step to anything. Growing up, I had a good eye. I was nosy, I was bossy and so I said ‘I want to start writing down the magic of the North and the romance of the North and the treachery and the heartache.’

I had the chance to see Van Camp read here in Whitehorse last spring, and in addition to being a powerful writer he’s also a wonderful performer. Strongly recommended, should he ever roll through your town.

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I’m going through some old notes and came across an interesting tidbit about Graham Greene and the Victorians.

The context, briefly: A 1966 review in the Times Literary Supplement tackled a new biography of a Victorian general, and the reviewer questioned the biography author’s belief in the general’s “death wish.” Graham Greene wrote a Letter to the Editor in response, and here’s the relevant bit:

The popular writer does not describe a new obsession – he is quick to describe one which had already been obvious for a long time. Men and women did go to Africa to die… In our age – perhaps because of that boring bomb – the will to survive has become the main obsession, and critics demand more objective evidence of the death wish than they demand of the survival wish.

I have only the briefest memories of the late stages of the Cold War, and none of the years when nuclear warfare seemed like a real threat, so I find this idea – that the atom bomb could radically alter our relationship to our own mortality – seriously interesting.

Plus, how great is the phrase “that boring bomb”?

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In the course of some googling, I came across a few useful links regarding editorial and writing rates.

First, from the Professional Writers Association of Canada: What to Pay a Writer. Next up, the Editorial Freelancers Association lists these Editorial Rates. And finally, the Editors’ Association of Canada has an explanation of the various types of editing out there — the listings mostly correspond to the rate categories in the EFA link.

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David Foster Wallace’s “posthumous unfinished novel,” The Pale King, has arrived — let the commentating begin.

Over at Slate, Tom Scocca tears down Michiko Kakutani’s review of the new book, and of the whole notion, more generally, that a deceased author should be evaluated based on work that he never completed.

Scocca, in blistering form:


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