What writing matters?

“Articles fade after a week; people keep books.”
– Adam Grant

There’s a rich history work that is available, on every conceivable topic, and in many different forms. But what is it about Plato that holds up so universally, whereas some authors who wrote merely fifty years ago are all but forgotten? Or why do some books stay in a personal library for life?

What writing is it that matters? Where do we go to drink from the well that never runs dry?

My favorite authors include Seth Godin, Neil Gaiman, and recently John McPhee, Alan Watts, and Mark Adams. I struggled through Kerouac’s On the Road, but I greatly enjoy reading his poetry.

And of course, there are others. And I’ll keep buying books, reading what I can, and scribbling along on here and in my notebooks as I do. Will this writing matter in 100 years? Honestly, no. But someone’s writing will, and that means something.

Spooky spooky books

Spooky

October 2019

Books Bought:

  • Meet me in Atlantis: Across Three Continents in Search of the Legendary Sunken City – Mark Adams
  • Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000-Mile Journey Around WILD ALASKA, the Last Great American Frontier  – Mark Adams
  • Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
  • The Pine Barrens – John McPhee

Books Read:

  • The Final Solution: A Story of Detection – Michael Chabon 
  • Riding the Bullet – Stephen King
  • Joyland – Stephen King
  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife – Mary Roach
  • Sometimes the Magic Works: Lessons from a Writing Life – Terry Brooks (unfinished)
  • Book of Sketches – Jack Kerouac (unfinished)
  • Tools of Titans – Tim Ferriss (unfinished)
  • Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender – David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D. (unfinished)
  • Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel – Rolf Potts

Ahh, October. For nearly a decade I’ve said that October is my busiest month of the year. I usually seem to be involved in a theatre production, working on my own projects, and making time for Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights. My first Horror Nights was in (oh dear lord) 1993. I’ve only missed a couple of years since, and most years I go multiple night.

So, onto the reading. Final Solution and Riding the Bullet were both short reads. Not much more than stories, really. I took on Joyland next. Having finished Joyland, I have this notion about Stephen King. What he writes are human stories about growing up and loss. What he uses to relate to his reader are horror and suspense.

I’ve not read many of King’s books (Salem’s Lot; It; Desperation are three that I remember reading previously), so this assessment of mine is based only on what I have read. But it seems to me that King’s writing focuses on the human connection between his characters in the face of immense horror. Joyland didn’t have immense horror, but enough of the supernatural element to provide a chill. And the serial killer’s identity is one that leaves you guessing until the end.

Mary Roach’s Spook was something I had seen at Barnes & Noble in the Science section last year I think. Good overall, it was a quasi-historical examination of how we’ve been looking for proof of the afterlife for centuries. Proof is something that, when used to speak of afterlives, can only be used in a loose sense.

Various experiments were described, such as weighing the newly deceased. audio recording, sensory experiments in high-risk operations, etc. I learned about the Society for Psychical Research, whose focus is the study of events and abilities classified as paranormal or psychic in nature.

Her determination at the end was really the only place it could go, given the research she did, but I suppose it does leave you wanting more. Assuming you are interested in afterlife studies.

Other than that I perused a number of books. I read a bit of Kerouac, Ferriss, Hawkins, and Potts, as well as Terry Brooks’s Magic. I like books on writing craft, and since reading Draft No. 4 by McPhee, I decided to look to some other writers. I also made it through the first couple of pages of Mark Adam’s Meet me in Atlantis, as well as a book Seven Schools of Yoga, by Ernest Wood. Both will likely be on November’s reading list, time permitting.

Of the four purchased books, three came in used. Into the Wild and Pine Barrens I got at a library book sale. Tip of the Iceberg was new but discounted. Again, I’m counting my pennies. But, it speaks to my love of the last American frontier – Alaska. Sadly I no longer see mountains in the clouds when I look up at them. I suppose that means that it’s time to go back…

And with that, another Halloween season has closed. I carved a pumpkin this year, the first in many years. I also ate candy intended for trick-or-treaters. They still had plenty though. And I read. They weren’t all that spooky, but they were fun.

 

The first books of Autumn

September 2019

Books Bought:

  • Coldheart Canyon – Clive Barker
  • The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test – Tom Wolfe
  • Dooms Day Book – Connie Willis
  • The Best Plays of 2000-2001 – Edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins
  • The Photographer’s Handbook – John Hedgecoe
  • Holidays on Ice – David Sedaris
  • Four Metaphysical Poets: An anthology of poetry by Donne, Herbert, Marvell, and Vaughn – Richard Willmott
  • HTML & CSS: design and build websites – Jon Duckett
  • Japanese Ghost Stories – Lafcadio Hearn

Books Read:

  • Tools of Titans – Tim Ferriss (unfinished)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury
  • The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury
  • From the Dust Returned – Ray Bradbury
  • Draft No. 4 – John McPhee
  • Book of Sketches – Jack Kerouac (unfinished)
  • Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender – David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D. (unfinished)
  • Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel – Rolf Potts

To start, I went very lean on purchasing books this month. But, Michael, there are nine books on the list! And, we know from reading these posts, you don’t always remember all the books you purchased!

True enough. However, the first eight books were picked up for a grand total of $3 (well, $2.60, and I told the woman to keep the forty cents). I perused two libraries this month, and purchased books from their Friends of the Library book sale. Three paperbacks for a dollar, and no more than $0.50 each on the others. I had planned on not buying any more, but books bring me great joy, as does shopping for and reading them.

Ghost Stories was an impulse buy, but purchased with rewards so no money was switching hands. It was a lean month for me in general, with not a lot of money coming in from gigs or otherwise. On lean months, I try and not overindulge. But I’m also a compulsive book shopper…

Anyway, that more or less explains the purchases. Dooms Day Book looked familiar to me. Rather, the author did. Connie Willis. I looked on the inner flap, but couldn’t see why I knew the name. After returning home, I saw in a stack of books Blackout, by Connie Willis. A sci-fi book with time travel and historical themes, both Blackout and Dooms Day Book explore similar adventures.

A few of the others I picked up as text books – Photographer’s HandbookBest PlaysMetaphysical Poets, and HTML & CSS. I didn’t want to add many narrative books to my stack – I have a large stack of to-reads. But books that I could flip through and study as I needed – something I didn’t need to read cover-to-cover – that was easy enough to justify.

In the reworking of my website, the web design book was a nice find, especially only at a dime.

In the reading column, I’ve mentioned before that I took a deep dive this month into Ray Bradbury. This was spurred on my a dream in which a dark carnival came to town, so I listened to Something Wicked This Way Comes on audiobook. Then I checked out Halloween Tree (audiobook) and From the Dust Returned.

I noticed in these books that Bradbury has a way of using descriptive language that is metaphorical and highly symbolic, utilizing long sentence chains to expound upon the descriptors.

Once, as a boy, sneaking the cool grottoes behind a motion picture theatre screen, on his way to a free seat, he had glanced up and there towering and flooding the haunted dark seen a women’s face as he had never seen it since, of such size and beauty built of milk-bone and moon-flesh, at to freeze him there alone behind the stage, shadowed by the motion of her lips, the bird-wing flicker of her eyes, the snow-pale- death-shimmering illumination from her cheeks.”

“They went down the steps in single file and with each step down the dark got darker and with each step down the silence grew more silent and with each step down the night became deep as a well and very black indeed and with each step down the shadows waited and seemed to lean from walls and with each step down strange things seemed to smile at them from the long cave which waited below.”

At times this language presents a unique challenge – following along the metaphorical rabbit hole and trying to keep up. The way in which Bradbury’s mind worked must have been nothing short of magical. And that’s why I go to books – for the magic they contain.

Some books I just opened and read for inspiration. Book of SketchesTools of TitansLetting Go, and Vagabonding. Potts’s book I’ve read twice before. Once in 2003, and again in 2016. I think I first learned of it from an interview on NPR. I couldn’t find that interview online, but here is a collection of interviews Mr. Potts has done over the years.

I didn’t fully understand my wanderlust in 2003. In 2016, fresh off a breakup and contemplating future life choices, I decided I would travel to Europe. I thought it would be three months, but instead expedited the trip by shortening it – one month in Europe, and I’d leave in three weeks. The first thing I did was take Vagabonding off the shelf and give it another read.

This dogeared copy has copious notes, highlights, underlining, and scribbling in it. Tucked away in its folds are recipes, airline itineraries, shopping lists, phone numbers, and fortune cookie fortunes. And as I prepare (mentally, practically, and financially) for the next adventure, it will no doubt receive new bits of scribbles and other scree.

Kerouac’s Book of Sketches influenced my style of journaling, perhaps more so in 2017 when I first picked up a copy, but even still.

“7 Feb ’17
Sitting in the car at church.
Early, which is unusual for me.
I stopped at the library, after
my first workout in weeks.
I love the shelves upon shelves
of books.
I don’t know what it is about
them.
Walking through the aisles, I’m excited
at one I’ve read.
Look at some I’ve never heard
of.
Try to pronounce names, places.
Ideas roll over me at the sheer
volume of pages,
Waiting to be held. Read.”

That was the day I found Book of Sketches. That’s when I started writing in my small Moleskine using a more poetic flow, rather than straight prose. My other journals still see me writing in normal patterns. When I remember to write in them.

I committed to more reading this month, and did better than I had the previous month. I also wanted to write more, and read John McPhee’s essays on writing contained in Draft No. 4. When it comes to writing, I’m of two minds – the first being akin to Just Do It. When Stephen King was asked what of pencil he used to write, his response was, “Blackwing 602 #2 pencil, longhand”. (You can read a full page on writing advice over at Seth Godin’s blog.) Because Mr. King shows up every morning at the same time, writes, and then calls it a day. He has a routine, and that’s where he has built his writing practice.

At the same time, knowing about other’s routines and their processes for writing is both interesting, and occasionally helpful. Like how Rolf Potts in Vagabonding describes his take on reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People for the first time: “…a charming mix of common sense (“be a good listener”), good advice (“show respect for the other man’s opinions”), and antique notions (“don’t forget how profoundly women are interested in clothes”).

Writers and their habits are similar – sometimes you can come away with good advice for your own work. Other times, it won’t apply to you. So, no, the type of pencil Stephen King uses doesn’t matter to me. However I did like learning that Neil Gaiman used a fountain pen to write in his journal. As a matter of fact, now that I’ve written with fountain pen for a few months, I can’t imagine going back. (I am trying not to deep dive down the fountain pen rabbit hole. A friend of mine has, and I don’t know when I’ll see him again.)

Back to McPhee, his communicating of his process is straight-forward and highly informative. Ben Yagoda, of The Wall Street Journal, burbs the book by saying, “Draft No. 4 belongs on the short shelf of essential books about the craft.”

What works for me is McPhee’s storytelling:

“Robert Gottlieb replaced William Shawn as the editor of The New Yorker in 1987. If eccentricity was a criterion for the job, Bob was qualified. At one point, he had a toaster in his office that erupted two slices of plastic toast every hour on the hour.”

In my hunting for a quote to put here, I chose the opening lines of the essay Editors & Publisher. I then proceeded to read the next eleven pages, simply because I couldn’t seem to make myself stop reading. This will be one that I come to again and again over the years.

The books I re-read comprise a short list. In my last home they had their own shelf. Currently I don’t have the room for that, but hopefully my next house will be brimming with bookshelf space.

That list is:

  • Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere
  • Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book
  • Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October
  • William R. Forstchen’s Arena
  • Rolf Potts’s Vagabonding 
  • Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception
  • Timothy Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Work-Week
  • And now – John McPhee’s Draft No. 4

John McPhee on writing

I tend to think of myself as a bland storyteller. Maybe I like to explain things more than is needed. Maybe I add a lot of filler to the meat of the story. Maybe it’s just the way I process information as it happens, and thus it’s how it comes out.

So when I find a writer who has a similar syntax and rhythm in their writing, it stands out to me.

I was reading Draft No. 4, a book I purchased on recommendation, and in the first essay I noticed the familiar tone of my own voice. Now, McPhee is a treasure-trove of first-hand accounts, and his written vocabulary far exceeds my own. But the way in which he describes occurrences resonates with me – because of its similarity.

“In the late nineteen-sixties, I was working in rented space on Nassau Street up a flight of stairs and over Nathan Krasel, Optometrist. Across the street was the main library of Princeton University. Across the hall was the Swedish Massage.”

One wonderful thing about reading Progression, this first essay in Draft No. 4, is that I didn’t find it bland at all. And I suppose that I can take comfort in that.

Friday…

I’m considering what to call this weekly post. I used to post a poem a month, and the reading/book list every month. When I switched to daily, I left off the poetry – more or less. I still try and post my monthly books lists. But as to Friday, and what I’ve been spending time with…

What I’m reading: Draft No. 4 by John McPhee. I purchased this sometime in the past six months. Not sure it was included on a monthly list. Trying to focus more on getting books read, posts published, decluttering, organizing, etc. I’m liking this book so far. It’s giving me a little insight into forming story, at least from McPhee’s perspective. You can learn more about McPhee and read some of his writing over at the New Yorker website. Coincidently, I was subscribed to the New Yorker around 2013-2015. I may have read some of his writing before and not even known it.

What I’m listening to: The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Something Wicked has led me down a deep dive of sorts, including checking out From the Dust Returned from the library, and watching a bit of The Ray Bradbury Theater on Prime Video. Halloween Tree, read by Bronson Pinchot, is a history of Samhain, just in time for the Halloween season.

What I’m spending time with: Halloween Horror Nights. I’ve gone nearly every year for the past 26 years. My mother took me when I was a child, and I have fond memories of it. I still enjoy the spectacle and design of Horror Nights, though I no longer feel frightened in their scary attractions. This year includes houses on Universal Monsters, House of a Thousand CorpsesStranger Things, Jordan Peele’s Us, and Ghostbusters, as well as non-licensed houses. I know some of the actors as well from working around the area.

◊ Also on Universal’s monster franchise, I received this article from Hollywood Reporter  this week, speculating how Invisible Man and Dark Army will usher in a potential new wave of horror genre goodness.
◊ This old Thrillist article on why Netflix sometimes has terrible movies in your suggestions. (I’m cleaning out my reading list – finally – and this has been in there since 2016.)
◊ YouTube video of Tao Chi Kai massage on busy street in UK. I like massage and chiropractic videos, and routinely do adjustments to myself. There’s also a link in the video notes for Tiger Balm.
◊ One more YouTube channel to check out: And You Films. Their most popular videos are Diary of a Wimpy Alien and you can start with episode 1. I’ve been friends with this group for fifteen years, and they are nearing 100K subscribers. Follow them if you’re interested in updates.