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A Writer's Jottings

How to Read to Write

When I picked up a copy of The Best American Essays of 1996, it was when my third book had just been published, and I was looking for new ideas and inspiration--so it was exciting to find myself reading the richness of what I call verity.


Now one of my bookshelves holds 22 volumes of the series in a rainbow of colors, including a thick white one, which was guest edited by Stephen Jay Gould in 2002, and a slim orange one edited by poet Mary Oliver in 2009. Was it a matter of a poet turning up her nose at entries or a nonfiction writer throwing his arms around them?


Over the years I've read essays by both famous and obscure writers, which were first published in well-known magazines, like The New Yorker, and little literary magazines, like ZYZZYVA. Among the wide range of styles and subjects I discovered the writing of Patricia Hampl in the gray 1999 volume and the work of Lauren Slater in the pinkish-peach 1997 one.


I've found wisdom, too. In the 2004 robin egg's blue edition, Louis Menard wrote that a writer has to wait for "something inside you to come up with the words. That something, for writers, is the voice...What writers hear, when they are trying to write, is something more like singing than like speaking...the voice inside, when you find it, which can take hours or days or weeks, is not your speaking voice, it is your singing voice--except that it comes out as writing."


My love of the essay has been affirmed by series editor Robert Atwan's forewords about the genre, including in The Best American Essays of 2018. Observing the long list authors of almost included essays in the back of each edition occasionally become included authors, has allowed me to dream about sometime being among them. 

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A Love Letter to Libraries

A few decades ago, when I was wondering how to support my writing habit, I thought about becoming a librarian. It seemed a perfect solution, certainly better than being a waitress.

If I was a librarian, when I wasn't writing I would be in a quiet place with books, helping readers and researchers find the right ones. Being a librarian would leave me at the end of a day relishing the importance of books and the reasons to write them.

Although I never mailed my application to librarian school, I continued to love libraries. It began early when, oddly enough, both libraries I went to in elementary and high school were once churches, maybe making me believe there was something reverent about reading.

As I look for books in Manhattan these days, I gravitate between the main branch of the New York Public Library, a grand temple of a library on Fifth Avenue, and the New York Society Library, a little uptown private library, which offers open stacks to roam around in, leading another user, Phyllis Rose, to write about reading an entire fiction shelf in The Shelf: From LEQ to LES.

So as a writer who has researched all her books in libraries large and small, my recommendation to writers and readers is to get to libraries to revive your love of written words.  Read More 
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The Pleasure of Other Writers' Company

Writers work alone but, like others, they occasionally want colleagues with whom to talk about the writing life. Luckily, we writers often end up writing about what we do, so if another writer isn't around with whom with whom have a cup of coffee, we can read each others' books about writing.

After finishing Lynn Freed's honest and insightful Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home, I know what she means when she describes a distinct writerly voice developing "through a sort of slow, blind groping after something simmering along the nerves," before it becomes an author's way with words as characteristic as an artist's unique brushstroke or a musician's chord.

While searching for more books about writing, I sometimes peruse the ones that have meant a lot to me, like A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick, and Still Writing by Dani Shapiro.

As I write this, I wonder about your favorites.  Read More 
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