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Archive for the ‘Tangents’ Category

I picked up this little booklet on a whim at the public library last week. It’s the transcript of a Q&A with Stegner, Pulitzer-winning novelist and the founder of Stanford’s creative writing program, and in the same way that fiction writing advice often crosses genre boundaries and offers help to nonfiction writers, this book — aimed at writing teachers — is equally thought-provoking for any writer looking to improve their work.

I’ll likely post a few quotes from it over the next couple weeks. To start with, here’s Stegner on that essential question: Can writing be taught?

[T]here are limited things that a teacher can do, apart from encouraging the environment of interest and criticism within which writing can take place. How can anyone “teach” writing, when he himself, as a writer, is never sure what he is doing?

Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing. Any voyager may be lost at sea, like John Cabot. Nobody can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All he can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few of the dos and don’ts of voyaging…

In my experience, the best teaching that goes on in a college writing class is done by members of the class, upon one another. But it is not automatic, and the teacher is not unimportant. His job is to manage the environment, which may be as hard a job as for God to manage the climate.

I’m only partway through and I’ll be interested to read what’s left — I spent my high school years enrolled in an intensive creative writing program and I’ve always thought that its greatest value lay in its ability to expose me to new writing styles and genres and to make me attempt them all, and then to force me to edit the results mercilessly.

No single piece of advice from any of my teachers sticks out: Mostly I remember being forced to read, read, read; write, write, write; edit, edit, edit. It wasn’t always a fun process, but it certainly got me writing more — and eventually, writing better — than I ever would have on my own time.

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I’m slowly working my way through Raban’s Passage to Juneau, a travel narrative about a sailing voyage from Seattle through the Inside Passage to Alaska. Early in the book, he reveals the role that his boat played before the trip:

Though I lived in a house overlooking the canal, and could see from the upstairs deck whether or not the boat still floated, I usually spent several weeks a year, and sometimes months, aboard the ketch. When a concentrated bout of reading was called for, or a wrong chapter needed righting, or when my Furies dogged me to distraction, I’d take off for the nearby scribble of islands and let go the anchor. With the floor sashaying underfoot, the chain grumbling on the sea-bottom, and the view from the boat’s windows revolving slowly on the tide, I found the equilibrium that I was prone to lose on the unstable land. On winter mornings, the mud foreshore hoar with frost, forlorn gulls circling under a misty sky, I’d fire up the heater, light the lamps, and work with an intense single-mindedness that evaded me at home. The creaks and groans, the smell of paraffin and diesel, were conducive to thinking and remembering. Afloat, the boat was an unplace — a bubble world, off at a useful tangent to the insistent here-and-now of the American shoreline.

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It’s funny: I went years without hearing about DFW, and now, in the weeks since I finally started reading his work, I see his name everywhere.

Wallace comes up in that Jon Krakauer interview I posted last week (apparently Krakauer tried and failed to read “Infinite Jest” at Everest Base Camp) and in this Financial Times piece about the art of writing a great sentence.

Best of all, just after I started reading Consider the Lobster I came across a long, previously unpublished interview with Wallace, which appeared on Slate’s Scocca blog in several parts. It focuses on his nonfiction writing, and it’s a really great read.

David Foster Wallace on Nonfiction, 1998:
Part 1: “I’m Not a Journalist and I Don’t Pretend To Be One”
Part 2: “My Big Problem With Magazines Is That They Tend To Have Word Lengths”
Part 3: “There’s Going To Be the Occasional Bit of Embellishment”
Part 4: “I Will Slice Open My Head For You”
Part 5: “It’s Not Very Good for Me When People Treat Me Like a Big Shot”

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Five Years Ago This Week…

…my first ever travel story was published in The Ottawa Citizen. Time flies, huh?

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Over the course of a few weeks last year, from mid-November to late December, I read my way through David Foster Wallace’s second essay collection, Consider the Lobster — and I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts and write something coherent about it ever since. Trouble is, I was so overwhelmingly impressed by the book that I can’t seem to get beyond an initial layer of breathless fangirlism to whatever more, er, thoughtful thoughts may lie underneath.

Wallace and his writing had initially passed me by entirely. My first clear recollection of his name coincides with his 2008 suicide: co-editor Jim Benning wrote a brief obit post for the World Hum blog, and over the next few days I followed a trail of links and wondered how I’d missed hearing about the writer whose death had lit up the internet.

Over the next couple of years, I continued to see Wallace’s name pop up here and there, on World Hum and beyond; I even wrote a couple of Wallace-related blog posts myself. But apart from a few excerpts, I still had yet to sit down and give any of his work a proper read.

With “Consider the Lobster,” I’ve finally remedied that. And boy, am I glad I did.

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Thanks to Matador Nights co-editor Kristin Conard, who posted this interview with Jon Krakauer in the comments of my Origin Stories post.

Here’s Krakauer on his early writing efforts:

I knew that you couldn’t make a living simply writing about the outdoors, so I made an effort from the beginning of my freelance career to write about other subjects. Since I had been a carpenter, I felt like I could bullshit my way writing about architecture for Architectural Digest. I had been a commercial fisherman, so I had queried Smithsonian about a commercial fishery in Alaska, and they went for it. I queried Rolling Stone early on about firewalking, walking on hot coals, and agreed to write it on spec.

I tried writing for local Seattle magazines and found that it was just as difficult to get published locally as it was nationally and the local magazines paid literally ten percent as much, so I said fuck the local stuff. I was setting quotas that I would write ten query letters a week, and I definitely worked hard, but I got lucky. Because I wanted to pay the rent, I didn’t have any grandiose ambitions of being an artiste; I wanted to pay the fucking bills, so I worked really hard.

I realized that what I wrote for Rolling Stone had to be pretty different from Smithsonian, and I gave them whatever they wanted, I wanted to sell the article. It was useful, as a writer, to try out different voices and it was also smart, as a businessman.

The whole thing’s worth a read – there’s also some interesting stuff about the emotional process of writing Into Thin Air, and returning to climbing, in the wake of the Everest disaster.

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For a few months now — heck, for maybe a year or two — I’ve been feeling a little bit oppressed by my internet connection. Yes, it’s the way I make my living, and yes, it’s a weird and wonderful world in many ways, one that has connected me to a lot of great people. But it’s also basically a constant in my waking life. I live alone and I work from home and I don’t have a television, so a frightening percentage of my day — generally including meals and whatever down time I’ve allowed myself — takes place in front of my laptop.

I work on the internet. I do most of my recreational reading on the internet. I watch TV and movies on the internet. I look up recipes on the internet, I pay my bills on the internet. I do much of my communicating with friends and family, again, on the internet.

It’s time for a break.

So, starting tomorrow, and inspired in part by my friend Frank Bures, who instituted internet-free Mondays for himself last year, I will be going offline on Wednesdays. Not entirely, of course — at least, not right at first. I’ll allow myself a first-thing-in-the-morning and a mid-afternoon email check, on the off chance that an editor has dropped a fabulous assignment in my lap, conditional on a rapid reply. (Hey, it could happen.) But beyond that, I’ll be unplugging for the day.

Wednesdays will still be work days. I’ll read (actual books and magazines!) and write (yes, still on my laptop) and maybe head up to the archives if I’ve got any research on the go. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Wednesday turns out to be my most productive day of the week. I’m looking forward to it.

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Origin Stories

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for a great essay about how the author “got his start” as a writer.

Jeffrey Tayler told his origin story (to borrow a phrase from the world of comics) earlier this year on World Hum — Inspiration, Travel Writing and L’Esprit Frondeur — and one of my all-time favorite essays is Ian Frazier’s variation on the theme: Out of Ohio, which is behind an online paywall but is also available in The Best American Travel Writing 2006, as well as in Frazier’s essay collection, Gone to New York.

I know there are lots more. Anyone who’s been to the Book Passage writing conference has probably heard Tim Cahill talk about Rolling Stone’s founding of Outside Magazine — Cahill, being the only staffer at Rolling Stone who actually liked to go outside, became a key player there by default. And I seem to remember reading something by Jan Morris, once, about winding up at Everest Base Camp covering the Hillary expedition thanks to a similar default situation: Morris, a rookie newspaper writer, was the only reporter in the newsroom young and fit enough to make the trip.

Anyone else know of any travel writing “origin stories”? I’d love to see a link — or some clue about where to track them down in print — if so.

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My Year of (Rarely) Writing

Over at Nerd’s Eye View, my friend Pam recently wrote a post about the best of her year in writing. After listing her favorite posts of 2010, month by month, she invited her loyal readers to share the keepers from their own blogs or print writing efforts — which was right about the time I realized that I didn’t actually write a whole lot this year.

Sure, I kept up my regular output of short blog posts at World Hum (true fact from the World Hum back end: I’ve logged nearly 1400 entries since I started writing for the site in September 2007) and I posted the odd update here, and I wrote a couple of service-y destination pieces for new-to-me online outlets, but relative to past years that’s a pretty paltry output. (Another true fact: I’d estimate that in 2009 my paid writing efforts cracked the 100,000-word mark.)

Even beyond the reduced volume, it’s clear that I really didn’t do much of the sort of writing I love best this year — ie first-person narrative. There are five 2010 features with my name on them in the World Hum archives: two interviews (one with Stephanie Elizondo Griest, editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and one with Susan Van Allen, author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go), two World Hum Travel Movie Club collaborations with Eli Ellison (our conversation about Eat, Pray, Love and our round-up of the best travel-themed Elvis movies), and one list, the 2009 edition of my always arbitrary and thoroughly biased Travel Movie Awards.

All of those were a lot of fun to do, as were the collaborative group feature efforts that I helped out with — like the 100 Most Celebrated Travel Books list, or our first Travel Statshot, or our monthly Great Travel Twitter Tweets lists. I’m also really proud of the stories by other writers that I edited this year, most of which I linked to here over the course of the year.

Still, taking this inventory after reading Pam’s post has led me to a rather obvious New Year’s promise to myself: In 2011, I resolve to write more. Not only that, but to carve out some time to write the things I most want to write. And unlike an assortment of resolutions I’ve made and broken in the past (often involving reading the classics, learning new languages, or going to the gym more often) this is one that I plan on sticking to.

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A Few Good Films

When I decided to move to Whitehorse last fall, I made a few (just a few) conscious sacrifices — among them, I knew that I was giving up access to a wide selection of movies on the big screen. This may not seem like a big deal in the era of NetFlix and illegal downloads, but for me it was an important item on the pro/con list. I’ve been a serious movie-goer ever since my allowance got big enough to cover my admission*, and I knew going in that Whitehorse’s two small theaters deal almost exclusively in kids’ movies and bad action/horror flicks, respectively. But I decided I could live with seeing my preferred films on DVD a few months late, and off I went.

So with all that in mind, a year later I was surprised to find that I’ve actually seen a handful of the movies in this list from the Atlantic: 13 Movies to See Before the Oscars. I caught “127 Hours” in New York City in November, but the other three — “The Social Network,” “Winter’s Bone” and “The Kids Are Alright” (all listed as additional worthy films below the main slideshow) — all screened right here in Whitehorse**.

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