the power of the gift book…an entry on books whilst I stall on doing the writing I should be doing!

February 13, 2011 § 6 Comments

Writing Lesson:
You’ve written something. It’s not bad. You’re ok with it. But it doesn’t work as you thought it might. It falls flat somehow.  That’s what you think, and you’re the author! Uh oh. So what’s a reader going to think? Readers do not cut an author any slack.
 Advice: Rewrite it from a completely different point of view. If you told it from the Mom’s point of view, rewrite it from the kid’s point of view. If you told it from omniscent third person, change it and tell it in 1st person. (If you don’t know what I mean by point of view, read FOREST FOR THE TREES by Betsy Lerner or fall back on Strunk and White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE. A tired reference, perhaps, but there’s an illustrated version and overall, the book is quick and to the point if you want  instant explanations.)

What? Really? Rewrite?  you ask. Geez, that’s a lot of work.
Yes, that’s correct. It’s a lot of work. Good writing doesn’t just fall on the page. It takes work, craft, finesse. It also takes guts and instinct.
Make that piece turn into something worthwhile, something more than a tried-and-failed attempt.
Work it.
Point of view can be the difference between “major hit”  and “complete miss.” Consider McInerney’s BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY told in the second person – the first novel to do that and pull it off.
If you’re really stuck, it’s very cool, very in, to tell the story from an animal’s point of view, typically a dog. Dogs lend major interest  to all writing. (You know the “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog” rule, right?)

Book review, sort of:
We have all, at times, experienced someone asking “Have you read such and such a book? No? Oh, you must. You have to read it. You’ll love/hate it. ”

Sometimes, that person wants to know what you think of it, might possibly be up for a discussion of it if  you’ve read it.
But just as often, no, they’re not. Your quick conversation is more like a USA today pie-chart survey. Have you read it? Did you like it – yes? no? And then that’s it. The conversation moves on to other things.

Ah, but with bookreading friends and family (and bloggers!) you dig deeper than the pop trash measure of whether the book is popular or not.
And you know that person better for what he/she reads, don’t read and will comment on. (And face it, we like to know one another. It’s a human thing.)

Yes, you can get to know someone better because of the books they share with you.
And that’s one of the many beauties of booksharing.

And so it is with my Mom. After several decades of her living back East, she moved here to STL nearly three years ago. So we see each other on a regular schedule (sometimes daily, sometimes weekly), rather than twice a year.
And we are learning all kinds of things from one another, not the least of which is our reading tastes.
Yes, we take a journaling class together and bit by bit, I’m learning more, but still…

Anyway, several blog entries ago, I mentioned that Mom gave me Bryson’s A WALK IN THE WOODS. It’s a book I would have called a “someday” book – someday I would get to it, someday borrow it from the library or maybe someday buy it.

But at Xmas, there it was under the tree, labeled for me.
I was the immediate owner of a book by someone I hadn’t read yet (which many booklovers will know is a thrill, just as finding a new book by a favorite author is a thrill. (you can’t lose with us booklovers!).

What made this book gift “sweeter” was that Mom had shopped for it. She went through the store looking for something I might like, hadn’t read, hadn’t experienced. (How could she know?) And as well, she apparently engaged the help of a sales person and they discussed possibilities. (She told me all this later, as I was oohing and aahing over the book.)

I believe one of the reasons I love that book so much is because Mom gave it to me. She had a choice of thousands of titles in the store and she chose this one. And with that choice, that gesture, I got to know her even better.

It’s true.  You know people better by what they choose for you. The reason they choose a book for you is as compelling as the gift itself.
It’s always been true, but for me, who has always read fiction, this is an eye-opener when someone gives me something “other,” something different than my normal reading.

And so when Mom fell in love with the book THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, I wondered why.
I hadn’t read it.
She didn’t go into smarmy detail; at the book’s mention, she would only cross her arms over her chest and shake her head side to side, smiling, and say she just loved the book.

Note that she has expansive reading interests, leaves no reading stone unturned, except perhaps poetry (but she loves writing poetry! go figure) and she’s a wonderful barometer for the merit of any book.  This one grabbed her. As an active member of the book club at Kirkwood Library that meets every six weeks, she handed back the library’s copy and went out and bought a copy, to keep.

A few weeks ago, she loaned it to me. “Read it,” she said.
I picked it up and read the first pages and had to put it down. A dog is the narrator and he’s dying. I don’t do well with dying dogs.  I would tell you that I still haven’t gotten over Bear, our beloved “big” dog who died almost two years ago. And now our beagle, “the beag,” is nearly 17 and hobbling around in senior dimensia. He’s at my feet now.

Anyway, Mom mentioned that after the first chapter, I’d be ok. “Read it,” she said again last week.
So I swooped down on it this week, while HM was away on a biz trip.
Lucky we had lots of tissues in the house following the cold virus that swept through here.
Book reading lesson: It’s ok to cry when reading a book.  Thank goodness.

I availed myself of tissues off and on during the entire read. I would not have chosen this book to read on my own. But I kept going because I wanted to see what captured my Mom about this book; I wanted to know that more than I wanted to know what would happen in the story. 

And having finished it this morning, I am as caught up in pondering why Mom liked it, why it spoke to her, as I am in the thank-goodness-for-the-ending that it offered stage.

And I know why.
There was no subterfuge in the book. It is straight out about endurance. About “man-ing up.” About loyalty. About drive. About good guys and bad people. About being in the moment.
Was it corny, sentimental?
No, the dog’ narration saved it from being that, once the reader adjusts to the dog-writing construct.
And you will look at your dog a little differently after reading it.

Yes, it’s about knowing the right path and sticking to it.
And that’s Mom’s story;  she has always been able to move forward, with that unique combo of pioneer spirit and anglo stiff upper lip plus the softness and gentility that unites a family.

Ah, but hers is another story.

“Scuse me while I take the Ole Beag for a walk.

Huck, at the doorway, deciding whether he will come outdoors or not


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§ 6 Responses to the power of the gift book…an entry on books whilst I stall on doing the writing I should be doing!

  • Damyanti says:

    I needed that writing lesson right about now….I had decided on a different POV and reading your advice just confirmed my decision. Yes, a long day of re-writing lies ahead.

    And you’ve made me curious about this book. Will look out for it.

  • litlove says:

    The really great thing about words is that you can waste them. They’re not like other craft materials that you kick yourself over when it goes wrong. No, write a thousand, ditch a thousand, it’s easy come and easy go. I love chopping, and without shedding a tear have often cut some of my favourite passages because they didn’t fit or were indulgent (the favourite ones so often are). It’s a very cleansing exercise. And I do love Bill Bryson – he has such a wonderfully comic turn of phrase.

  • Ruth says:

    Oh, what a terrific piece this is. It’s fun and helpful to think about changing point of view. Yes a lot of work, but it could revive and save material that is flat, as you say. Revision is so damn hard though.

    What you wrote about your mom and books reminds me of my friend Inge, so poignantly. She lost her mom two years ago, and since then the loss has shown tremendously, especially as the one she shared all things literary with. Inge is German and emigrated to the U.S. in college, and her mom was in Germany. So every week they would talk on the phone, mostly about books and articles. Her mom was a prolific reader! Many things in translation, into German, and things Inge would read in English, interestingly. Anyway, I love what you say about finding out more about the person through the books they read and choose to recommend. There is a lot here to think about.


  • Nora says:

    I don’t do well with dog books. At all. So I might have to skip this one…

  • jeanie says:

    As always,, you give me something to think about. I think it’s that way with lots of gifts — “I love it; you will too!” (Sometimes this is more successful than other times, but we won’t go into those!)

    But with a book; very special. And telling, how very thoughtful your mom is — the effort she put into your gift made me smile and also choke a bit. How I wish I had a parent who could do that these days.

    More than once I’ve started a book recommended and thinking, “I wonder why…” Most of the time, by the end, I know.

    Point of view… wish that could have helped me more with my crafting of lobbying messages that don’t sound like lobbying…

  • I r eally enjoyed this post. My Mum and I share books too, it’s interesting as you say!

    Thanks for the writing tip about rewriting, I’m currently polishing several of my poems!

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