Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

A Tiny Corner of the World

One of the unintended benefits of unemployment following graduation is that I have an abundant amount of free time and no alarm set for the morning. Apart from applying to jobs left, right, and center, I’m also trying to publicize this blog more and update it more frequently. I’ve now linked my accounts to my Facebook and to my Twitter (follow me! @rachelkspurrier). Consequently, I’m trolling for subject matter. I’m looking a little closer at my PW Daily e-mails than I used to, unlike in college when I would check my e-mail on my way to class, skim through the updates, and forget all about the headlines once the professor began talking. Fortunately, learning more about the publishing industry is only a good thing when you’re trying to break into the business, but I usually look more at the Roundup Section with articles from across the Internet (by the way, the PW Daily e-mail is delightfully free, so you can sign up and get the latest industry news without paying the high subscription price).

I found an article about a writer’s New Year’s resolution to read fewer books, and before I dive in on my thoughts, I’d like to inclue a brief excerpt from one of my favorite books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. An excellent crossover book that is semi-autobiographical, Alexie’s book provides some nice little truth bombs throughout the text. The following is one, where the main character is talking to his new friend Gordy at his new high school:

We ran into the Reardan High School Library.

“Look at all these books,” he said.

“There aren’t that many.” It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.

“There are three thousand four hundred and twelve books here,” Gordy said. “I know that because I counted them.”

“Okay, now you’re officially a freak,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a small library. It’s a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish.”

“What’s your point?”

“The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don’t know.”

Wow. That was a huge idea. 

I immediately thought of this little snippet while reading Michael Bourne’s article, because his New Year’s Resolution is to read fewer books. He writes that he has read 776 books in the past twelve years, at an average of 60 books per year. I’m not a math genius, so I hadn’t really put the pieces together like that. In the past twelve years, I’ve probably read at least ten books a year, give or take (I’ve read fewer in the past few years, a byproduct of working and going to school). That’s only 120 books out of the hundreds of thousands of titles that have come out in the past decade. I’ve already written about the sheer vastness of the writing world, but I’d never really realized how minuscule the number of books I’ve read compares to the number of books published. Apart from being humbling, that realization both motivates me and exhausts me. Of course reading that article made me think of how little I know and how much I have yet to learn and experience, but mostly the realization of how little I’ve read is daunting. Yes, I want to read more and more often, but if my goal is to read everything, then I’ll never catch up. Covering the whole scope of everything written each year on top of everything that’s ever been published would be impossible, of course. And I have no intention of trying. Obviously not every book on the shelves is suited to my tastes or interests, and a good number of them get picked off the pile simply for literary quality or lack thereof (Danielle Steele, anyone?)

But I’ve still got to make the effort to read more. My little corner of the world of DFW has exposed me to literature, culture, the arts, but books are a whole other avenue for world exploration. Mr. Bourne has many more titles under his belt and much more literary experience (not to mention life experience), so I think he’s earned the right to pressure himself a little less on reading a book a week. He mentioned he’s the primary caregiver for his six-year-old daughter, so he probably could use a break. But as for me, I’m young, unmarried, childless, unencumbered by a strict schedule or responsibilities. I should be reading more, but I’m not. I guess I’m doing better than the average American; according to a Washington Post article, 25% of Americans did not read one book in 2006. Yet, as a writer and a lover of literature, I should probably be putting in a little more initiative to read more often. Perhaps the fact that I just found out the full series of The West Wing is now on Netflix instant watch is preventing me from putting more of my energy into book reading. Yes, instant watch is one of my greatest downfalls: for Lent last year, I chose to cut out instant watch. I saved a ridiculous amount of time, but I quickly returned to my bad habit after Easter.

Just like Lent is a time for reevaluating life choices, New Year’s is another opportunity to reflect and resolve to do better. My New Year’s resolutions are fairly basic: be kinder to everyone, smile more often, exercise more frequently, be more organized, get a job, etc. Standard stuff, really. But I should add on the list to read more books. Until I’ve reached Bourne’s 776 count, I’m still a literary novice and a writing rube. I will note, however, that Bourne admits himself that his need to make lists of all the books he’d read was a tad bit obsessive. I assume that he, like me, has a type-A personality, so I’ll try to avoid the pitfalls of my perfectionism and just go with the flow on which books I read. And I need to set a realistic goal. When I was trying to finish up my thesis, I made the decision to write three pages a day, which was a lot less terrifying than writing ten a day for three days. I finished with more ease and less stress, and I think this whole book goal should be the same. Instead of viewing it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to hunker down with a good book with a mug of hot chocolate and get immersed in new knowledge and new worlds.

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Why Should I Care?

We’ve all seen them, a side effect of the current demand for memoirs. We see them in bookstores, at airports, online. They’re ubiquitous–the celebrity memoir. I can’t look down my nose at all celebrity memoirs, because I own a couple and have really enjoyed them. I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants and laughed in an unladylike manner on a flight to LaGuardia. I recently received Miranda Hart’s Is It Just Me? for Christmas (for those of you who aren’t big fans of BBC sitcoms, Miranda Hart is a British comedienne famous for her wildly popular show Miranda), and I’m loving the quirky British humor. So no, I’m not immune to the allure of the celebrity memoir, but Miranda Hart and Tina Fey are truly talented actors with basic writing abilities, unlike some of the other ghostwritten memoirs currently clogging bookshelves.

The Lena Dunham Effect

I wasn’t planning on writing a post about the popularity of the celebrity memoir (from here on out, I’m calling it the CM because I’m tired of typing that out over and over), but I came across this article on my PW Daily e-mail about Lena Dunham being upset over Gawker publishing and mocking her book proposal, which was purchased by Random House for upwards of $3.5 million dollars. Although I didn’t have a chance to read the whole proposal because Gawker had taken down most of the proposal apart from choice excerpts by the time I read it, I did skim through the comments section and found the usual mixture of admiration and anger. Quick disclaimer: I have no feelings one way or the other about Lena Dunham. I saw her on The Colbert Report, but I’ve never watched her show, so I have no idea if she really is the voice of my generation. From what snippets I read completely out of context, I was unimpressed with her writing, but I have no room to judge considering that I don’t have my own TV show on HBO. If I were workshopping those snippets, I’d pretty much tell her that it’s been done, and her writing sounds more like what I wrote during my angsty phase at eighteen than anything I’d expect from a mature, experienced writer. The book is intended to be advice for girls, but her upbringing was so vastly different from my own–my parents are definitely not NYC artists and I didn’t go to a tiny liberal arts school–that I don’t think I’d glean anything useful or relevant. I’m getting off topic, my apologies. I suppose people will assume, “Haters gonna hate” and that I’m jealous. I’m really not. I have no desire to be famous; mostly I just want to be able to pay my bills with a little left over for savings and shoes.

The Surprising Bristol Palin Pull

The visceral reaction from many readers on the comments section got me wondering not about our fascination with celebrity (yawn) but instead about why Bristol Palin actually got a memoir as did Justin Bieber. Bristol Palin is famous because of her mother, and Justin Bieber is a talentless tween heartthrob, but hey, they sold. And that’s what I wanted to tell those enraged commenters: Lena Dunham got her millions from Random House because the publisher expects good sales from such a well-known figure. I’ve already written about how the marketability of an author is one of the biggest factors in the acquisitions process, and I have to reiterate that lesson here. Although a writer might be the next Ernest Hemingway, unless a publisher anticipates strong sales because of that writer’s brand recognition, that writer will have a hard time getting a deal. He or she must demonstrably prove that this book is different from/better than other books in the same market and that he or she already has a strong media presence. I want to ask these books, “Why should I care what you have to say?” But I already know the answer. Perhaps I don’t care personally, but we as a society care about what celebrities have to say. The proof is easy to find: celebrity gossip blogs and magazines, blockbuster movies, etc.

All About the Money 

So yes, I understand cognitively Lena Dunham’s deal, even if I’m not a fan of her show. I get why celebrities get book deals while other writers are left to desiccate quietly in a desert of lameness. But what bothers me more is the fact that we as an audience and a public are willing to buy these books. The writing often isn’t engaging or well done; the subject matter is often self-indulgent and navel-gazing; and the intellectual rigor of reading such books is minimal. It’s the literary equivalent of eating candy or watching Say Yes to the Dress. My grandmother’s house used to have this vintage 1970s wallpaper (original) that had all sorts of old-school jokes written on it. One that comes to mind is, “Western civilization? It’s a good idea.” I’d like to say that the biggest symbols of our cultural demise are reality TV, beauty as self-esteem, and Congress’ complete inability to act, but really I think one of the greatest signs of our cultural downfall is the lack of great writing in the marketplace. Yes, there are still some literary giants out there, but the real moneymakers are books like the 50 Shades of Grey series (ew) and Twilight (do not even get me started).

So yes, I’d very much like to smack down any publisher who gives an exorbitant amount of money to an author for a CM deal, but they’re just giving the public what we want: an easy read with a recognizable name. We read what we know and can depend on. We like the familiar–a well-known name, an established author, a familiar topic. I’ll be honest, I’d rather spend an afternoon curled up with a book by Tim Gunn than wading through The Sound and the Fury, so perhaps I have no room to argue with the state of pop books. The dichotomy and discussion of high brow/low brow literature is an old one, and in truth, I’m more interested in how long this publishing trend will last.

I’m fairly certain I’ve already discussed the popularity of the CM, but here I’m wanting to address that it’s not about the writing; it’s not about the book. It’s about what appeals to the lowest common denominator, what will yield the biggest profit. None of us can argue with the bottom line.

Well, I did another disappearing (and reappearing) act for a number of good reasons but not-so-good excuses–graduation, illness, travel. First and foremost, I neglected updating this blog while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree at Texas Christian University. Yep, that’s right, I am now officially a graduate with a BA in Writing! Actually crossing the finish line was one of the most rewarding, challenging, and fulfilling things I’ve done in a long time. While trying to keep sane as the deadline for my 140-page thesis approached, I was busy going to Kansas for Thanksgiving, visiting NYC to celebrate my one-year anniversary with my man friend, and taking exams. Fortunately, I made it through the whole thing in one piece with a couple rather sparkling (if I do say so myself) commendations: Honors Laureate from the John V. Roach Honors College and summa cum laude (I hung in til the bitter end and kept up my 4.0 GPA). Unfortunately, all this hard work led to a severe lack of sleep, which weakened my immune system. The fever and congestion set in early in December, and now I’ve officially had bronchitis for two weeks, though I think possibly longer considering I started coughing three weeks ago. Needless to say, hacking up my lung every two minutes (I have some fabulous back pain from the intense coughing spasms) has prevented me from updating my blog after I walked across the stage. Now that I’m finally getting back with it, I’m writing this post under the influence of codeine cough syrup, which was a last resort from my doctor when he realized I’d been coughing pretty much non-stop in the two weeks since I’d seen him last. So, if this post sounds a little off, write it up to narcotics.

Now that I’ve got a pretty little diploma sitting on my shelf, I have to face the future: getting a job. If you or anyone you know is hiring in the NYC metro area, let me know! I am taking any leads I can find. Facing the new year and facing a new chapter in my life has a nice pathetic fallacy to it, because as 2012 comes to a close, so does the time in my life that I spent at TCU. I’ll miss Fort Worth, my job at the Writing Center, the campus, and most of all my friends, but like most somewhat well-adjusted adults, I realize change is necessary and vital to continuing to grow and flourish. I’m busy updating my website, putting finishing touching on my resume, and writing cover letters.

But apart from filling up the folder titled “Professional Development” on my computer, I’m back to writing again. This writing is actually, well, fun, very much unlike what I was doing towards the end of this past semester. The writing I completed for my thesis (four essay comprised of 20-50 pages each) was done at breakneck speed towards the end, and once I turned it in at the very last minute (technically four minutes past the deadline), I thought I’d never want to write again. I’ve actually told the boyfriend to forcibly hold me down and say, “REMEMBER HOW MUCH YOU HATED FINISHING YOUR THESIS?” if I ever say, “You know, maybe I should go get an MFA in Creative Writing.” The reasons for me slowly coming to hate CNF were pretty basic–I’d been working on the damn project for three years and I was tired of looking at it. Mentally and emotionally exhausted, I was just trying to eke out the final draft in time to graduate. I wasn’t reading for fun; I wasn’t writing for fun; and most of my time seemed devoted to managing a low level of panic.

The low level of panic abated little by little once I was done, and because of graduation and Christmas, I received an iPad mini (if this were a tech blog, I’d explain my reasoning, but it’s not, so I’m not explicating my thinking process) and some Amazon gift cards. I have my reservations about Amazon, but I’ve already committed to the Kindle format, so I keep with it. I got some new books and sat down with my cozy little iPad by the fire to read. And you know what? I got inspired. Reading In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays by Katie Roiphe actually got my brain gears turning again and churning out the writing without deadlines and without fear of workshop or critique. I wrote seven pages in an hour and have been taking notes in my notebook ever since as the mood strikes me. I won’t have too much time to devote to writing now that I’ve got to hunker down to job stuff, but the relief is overwhelming to know that my honors thesis did not fully turn me away from writing, that I still have a passion for what I love doing most. I have several ideas for essays so far, mostly about things that happened at TCU, because I want to write about my time there before I emotionally close the door on that part of my life. The one I have worked on so far finds loose inspiration from Walt Whitman’s “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” from which I stole the title line for this blog. I’ll briefly recopy it here:

1
Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals teaching
content,
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of the
Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can
walk undisturb’d,
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own ears 
only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O Nature your primal
sanities!
These demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and
rack’d by the war-strife,)
These to procure incessantly asking, rising in cries from my heart,
While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city,
Day upon day and year upon year O city, walking your streets,
Where you hold me enchain’d a certain time refusing to give me up,
Yet giving to make me glutted, enrich’d of soul, you give me forever 
faces;
(O I see what I sought to escape, confronting, reversing my cries,
see my own soul trampling down what it ask’d for.)
2
Keep your splendid silent sun,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards,
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets–give me these phantoms incessant and
endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes–give me women–give me comrades and
lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day–let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows–give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching–give me the sound of
the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments–some starting away, flush’d
and reckless,
Some, their time up, returning with thinn’d ranks, young, yet very
old, worn, marching, noticing nothing;)
Give me the shores and wharves heavy-fringed with black ships!
O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for me! the
torchlight procession!
The dense brigade bound for the war, with high piled military wagons
following;
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,
Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets, (even
the sight of the wounded,)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

The essay is basically about how I have come to love NYC after having either mistrusted or hated the city most of my life. Here’s a little snippet, now that my brain finally seems to be shutting down from the cough syrup:

“Well, that’s the place to go if you want to be a writer.”

This response, or some variation thereof, is one I often heard when people asked me what my plans were for graduation and I told them somewhat sheepishly that I was going to move to New York City. Like asking a child what she wants to be when she grows up or asking a high-schooler where she will go to college, asking a college graduate what she will do after graduation was the constant question I heard whenever I announced I had just graduated. I was enormously proud of this accomplishment, and with good reason—I had graduated in three and a half with a 4.0 GPA from a private university, which I attended on a full-tuition scholarship, so I kind of enjoyed telling people that I was finally done. I had ample opportunity to brag, because being in your late adolescence means that whenever you meet someone, they will ask you where you go/went to college and what you will do/are doing.

Part of this repetitive, “Oh, yeah, New York is the place for writing” was from people who did know the publishing world or were familiar with the number of famous writers who live(d) in the Big Apple. Because we had already established that I graduated with a BA in writing, my fellow conversationalist would assume I was going there to play the part of the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, idealistic young woman bent on fulfilling her dreams (this is not why, but I let them think that because it sounds so much more romantic than the real reason). With a knowing nod, we moved on to other topics, so I did not have to explain that many of my writing idols (Eula Biss, David Sedaris, Sloane Crosley, etc.) had all lived in New York at one point or another, and that their experiences in the city had shaped their writing.

The other group who gave this response came from people who viewed the big city as the only place for anything cultured, erudite, or urbane. This subset of people were my family and friends and acquaintances, who, like me not too long ago, knew little to nothing about New York City and both revered and feared it like some exotic foreign country, totally unfamiliar and strange, full of exciting and dangerous things. I did have to explain that five of the Big Six publishers were located in New York and that many other fields claimed their respective capitals in NYC. As cheesy as it sounded, I would proffer, “Well, it’s one of the literary and cultural capitals of the world,” and their already wide eyes would grow wider at the idea of going to such a wonderful and terrifying place.

I do not wish to sound like I am insulting anyone who views New York City in this way; indeed, I still do in many ways, mostly because I understand that truly being familiar with a place takes years, and even in my hometown I often find myself a mere visitor in the world of upper-middle class white suburbia. In some ways I am still like my friends and family who both revere and fear New York as some sort of mythical Oz where you either reach all your goals or end up in a back alley with your wallet stolen and your throat slit. We view the city this way because of lack of exposure and the aura of mystery that has grown around the Great White Way.

I grew up knowing phrases like “the Great White Way” because I was relatively “cultured,” you could say. My parents took my brother and me to plays, musicals, art exhibitions, museums, symphonies; we all played musical instruments; our house was drowning in books, tables trying to come up for air underneath waves of newspapers and open books clinging to the life vest of a bookmark. I knew the things that cultured, intellectual people are supposed to know, both from exposure and my perfectionist streak that led me to learn history and art and literature in school. I took ballet lessons for almost a decade and played the flute. I read the classics and studied for tests. I grew up in the DFW metroplex, so I went to a big city on a regular basis. I knew more about this kind of life than say, my uncle’s wife, who grew up in Nebraska and didn’t see an escalator until she was nineteen. In short, I knew what city folks know.

But I was also hopelessly Midwestern. My family was fortunate and affluent enough that we got to take regular family vacations, but we almost always travelled west—Washington, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii—and almost rarely east of the Mississippi—Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and rural Kentucky were about as far east as we went. I went to Florida once to visit a friend but without family. My parents distrusted people on the East Coast—my grandmother raised my mother to not like Yankees, and this grandmother was the only grandparent of mine not to live and die in Kansas. There wasn’t much choice but to fit into the Midwestern stereotype: hardworking but not too ambitious, polite but not effusive, kind but not warm, honest but not abrupt, and pragmatic but not blunt.

These values were further instilled by a practical, Methodist worldview, so when I first visited New York City at age fifteen, I, like most of my Texas peers, viewed the big city as a place full of pushy, rude, aggressive North Easterners who neither had manners nor patience. I was also scared—perhaps the New York City of the 1970s and 80s had been popularized so much in movies and TV shows that the rest of the country was unaware that the City had sorted out some of those issues, thank you very much. So when I got off the plane at LaGuardia, I was there for a weekend-long trip with the rest of my high school band. Two hundred of us did sightseeing in one amorphous blob that clogged already full sidewalks and unfortunately undermined our own ability to enjoy the city. During that brief visit, I saw Midtown East, Times Square, Battery Park, Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the New York Philharmonic. I hated it. The masses of people were forceful and abrasive; the flashing lights of Times Square and the constant barrage of shouting and honking were overstimulating; and the street peddlers and panhandlers were a bit overwhelming for a sheltered tiny white girl. The only part of Manhattan I actually liked was Central Park, and we only spent a brief hour there before boarding the buses again.

When my parents suggested we go back and see some Broadway shows to celebrate my sixteenth birthday the next year, I politely said thanks but no thanks—I’d had enough of New York for a lifetime. I got my doses of New York through seeing my high school’s production of West Side Story, watching 30 Rock and Thoroughly Modern Millie, flipping through women’s interest magazines, and reading my favorite essayists like the aforementioned Sedaris and Crosley. New York was still a faraway place of fairy tales, which offered both the fantastic and the phantasmagorical, like a forbidden forest. And more intriguing still, all these books and movies and shows had these references that I couldn’t catch, like little jokes that only the insiders got, things like Jack Donaghy on 30 Rock saying, “I would go, but I haven’t been above 72nd Street in over a decade” and then pausing to take a drink of scotch for comedic effect or Sloane Crosley complaining about the conundrum of choosing between a taxi or a subway late at night or David Sedaris talking about how much he hates Midtown during the holidays. I chalked my failure to know a sign of my being a good, down-to-earth Midwesterner and not one of those snobby, East Coast types. I excused my knowledge about art and architecture and literature by being a) grossly illiterate in the world of fashion and b) a girl who could saddle and ride a horse, milk a cow or a goat, break ice on the pond for the cows in winter, and feed the chickens. Not getting the punch line for a joke about Astoria or Park Slope wasn’t a defect, necessarily, just indicative that I wasn’t one of those impatient, rude New Yorkers with their gaudy accents. I’d keep my splendid silent sun and corn-fields and quiet places by the woods—you could keep the streets of Manhattan for all I cared.

Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone! See you in 2013!

During the second semester of my freshman year, I was sitting in the hallway of my dorm studying for a psychology exam. My roommate was in the middle of a family crisis, so I was giving her privacy while her boyfriend comforted her. From what I can remember, it was a Friday night, so a lot of the girls were dressing up for a night out, wearing surprisingly little considering it was 40 degrees outside. One girl (I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Nicole) was waiting outside her room for her friend to arrive. Nicole’s back coat was longer than whatever dress or skirt she was wearing underneath, and when the friend arrived, Nicole turned with her back to me and opened her coat and asked, “Is this too short?” For all I knew, she was flashing her friend. Like most things in life (relationships, money, etc.), my motto is “If you have to ask, you can’t _____.” For example, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it” or “If you have to ask someone to change or tell you they love you, you can’t afford to be with them.” My motto in this case was, “If you have to ask if it’s too short, then it’s too short.”

As I said, this motto applies to many areas in life, including writing. Every creative nonfiction writer, especially memoirists, faces the dilemma of how much he or she should reveal while writing personal narrative. Oftentimes, the characters in the memoir/essay are still alive and ostensibly can get their hands on a book. And often the writer is not portraying the characters in a particularly flattering manner. Unfortunately, the writer cannot wait for every possibly offended person to die or cut out all the salient details, so the question is, “How much should I reveal?” Casting others in a negative light is dangerous or implying potentially harmful sentiments has its consequences.

It’s no secret that memoirists often tweak the facts of the past to suit their purposes (if you want factually accurate, buy an autobiography), but how far is too far is the debate that rages on in the writing community–at what point does omission or minor changes become lying? Should writers alter their story to avoid hurt feelings and harming relationships at the risk of their own artistic integrity? My answer? It depends on how important these relationships are to you and how understanding the other person is likely to be, especially if he or she is litigious (think libel) or particularly sensitive. Some memoirists write under a pseudonym or change the story enough that they decide to publish the book as fiction–the creative nonfiction has become narrative nonfiction. The story is marketed as a novel, and the writer is free to manipulate the story any way he or she pleases. The internal turmoil can be excruciating for a writer, but after careful contemplation, he or she comes to the conclusion that he or she is most comfortable with.

But not all would-be memoirists go through traditional publishing channels. Blogging sites allow any writer to instantly write, post, display, and share anything he or she likes–from fiction to political opinion to book reviews to memoir–without the inspection of an editor or a lawyer, for that matter. If your blog is not advertised to your family and friends, feel free to post whatever you want. But it’s like posts on Facebook–consider your audience before you press enter, because there are 100+ people who might see it. And be doubly careful, because once you press publish, there’s no disguising yourself or taking back what you said once someone has read it. The “e” in “e-mail” or “e-journal” does not stand for “electronic”: It stands for “evidence” and “eternal.” Whatever you put out into the blogosphere is fair game for anyone to read, copy+paste onto a word document, and keep forever.

Is it counterproductive to the writing process to self-censor in the name of sparing others’ feelings? For one, writers who are not absolutely clear about their meaning leave the ambiguity of the written word as a communicator (again why going through a traditional publishing channel when discussing personal issues is preferable to the blogging world). But to answer my question: Yes, and no. Many writers pride themselves about their transparency and honesty in their writing, baring all in the name of the craft. But for me, I have different priorities. I’ve edited out a fair bit of potentially damaging material from my own work, or if I do write pieces that are damaging, I never submit them for publication or share them with others. I cannot claim to be a tell-all writer, but I’m okay with that, because I put my family and friends first and my needs and wants as a writer second. I struggle with the decision to hit the delete key, but usually I don’t regret keeping my relationships intact. I’d rather give up some of my artistic authenticity than insult my loved ones or harm our relationships. Perhaps I lack the courage or even maturity, but I have plenty of writing material without hurting others. One of my favorite authors of all time, David Sedaris, is shameless when using his family’s stories in his work. I suppose he’s already cleared it with them or maybe has come to terms with the possibility that his family will resent using their histories. I have no idea. But I am not a bestselling author, and I do not pretend to be more than I am as a writer. I have humility and appropriately modify my writing.

As I mentioned above, many writers claim to be set apart from the crowd by their open and honest writing. News flash: it doesn’t. I may self-censor, but because there is a plethora of writers who claim to be brutally honest, any declaration of honesty is rendered null and void. So when you’re considering how confessional to be (and that’s a whole other topic–confessional writing), remember that putting it all out there is not being artistic. A true memoirist carefully selects what to reveal in order to craft a narrative. Writing ad infinitum about your feelings or problems in an attempt to be an artist without consciously deciding what to discard and what to display is the opposite of good writing. The best writers are meticulous in the way they portray themselves and others–before they submit the manuscript or press “publish,” they have decided what to include and what to leave out and have accepted the potential fallout.

 

So we are officially approaching the holiday season now that Halloween is over. Like me, you’ve probably made a list of people you need to buy or make gifts for, and what better gift than a book? So, I’ve compiled a list of some of this year’s best reads (according to me) for everyone on your list. I have listed the full prices, but bargain hunters are sure to find a good deal at discount stores and online. I’ve also provided some paperback alternatives in certain categories. Also, my list is limited to the people I encounter in my social circle, so I might have missed a couple categories. Happy shopping!

For the female friend: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, hardcover $25.95.

Don’t let the Oprah’s Book Club endorsement fool you–Strayed’s powerful and insightful writing makes this memoir both harrowing and honest. Strayed recounts how, at twenty-two, she faces the loss of her mother to cancer and must find a way to survive emotionally. Four years later, now facing the destruction of her marriage, she impulsively decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. This story is one of healing and coping with crushing grief. Strayed is a masterful writer who combines wit, humor, lyricism, and emotion. I love the way she treats grief, death, and the reality that closure is just a dream.

For the mystery lover: Broken Harbor by Tana French, hardcover $27.95.

In her fourth novel, French returns with the same emotional force and talent that marked her previous three books: In the WoodsThe Likeness, and Faithful Place. This time her protagonist murder detective is Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy who, with a green rookie, takes on one of the biggest cases of the year: a father and two children slain in their own home, the mother in a coma. French employs the same psychological insight to create this masterfully constructed murder mystery, her most shocking and powerful yet. When I read this book, my jaw literally dropped when I figured out the murderer. Definitely a page turner and definitely full of plot twists and surprises, French has written another tour de force. A must-read for anyone who loves psychological thrillers.

For the statistician/math nerd: The Signal and the Noise: Why so Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t by Nate Silver, hardcover $27.95

Nate Silver, famed author of the blog five-thirty-eight on the New York Times, is renowned for his uncanny ability to use statistics to make amazing predictions in politics and in his previous career, baseball. He recently received flak from political pundits for projecting a solid electoral win for President Obama, and his predictions turned out to be right. I’ve seen him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and he is adorably geeky, a lovable nerd with his large glasses and awkward demeanor. What can I say? I have a thing for smart guys. Even for those who aren’t the best mathematicians, this book is great for anyone who loves to stretch his or her mind. Settle down with your calculator to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff in a world full of proliferation of polls and manipulation of numbers.

For the journalist/CNF lover: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries by Jon Ronson, hardcover $26.95

One of the current kings of nonfiction and investigative journalism, Jon Ronson has captured America with his The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test. His subtle humor and hilarious handling of some of the most absurd situations in modern society make Ronson one of the most entertaining and intelligent authors on the market. In this book, Ronson examines the deep, underlying crazy that defines human society and some of the more bizarre ideas we’re willing to believe in, from seemingly mundane topics like credit card companies’ ability to bleed you dry to the more outlandish, like self-made superheroes. His humane treatment of some of the most inhumane and puzzling issues in our world today makes for a fascinating read, colored by his self-deprecating and goofy British humor.

For the fiction fan: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, hardcover $25

I keep seeing this book in lists of the best books of 2012 and at the top of bestseller lists. If you keep up with publishing industry news, you can’t escape the darn thing. Suspense writer Flynn takes a look at the dark side of marriage with unflinching honesty and thrilling prose. An ingenious plot, a dark tone, and a fast plot make this book a must-read. If you’re looking for a calmer piece of fiction, you might want to look elsewhere to avoid reading about a serial killer. I’ve been behind on my fiction reading this year, so I’m lost in the dark on this one, but hopefully one of your friends will appreciate this great thriller. If you’re looking for an alternative, Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Flight Behavior is now available for $26.99. With Kingsolver’s usual lyrical writing, she delivers another social commentary (this time on global warming) through her incredible storytelling.

For the history buff: The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 by Anne Applebaum, hardcover $35

With so much misperception around the Cold War, Applebaum’s thoroughly researched work sheds light on the traumatic period from the end of WWII to the beginnings of the Cold War. Applebaum debunks myths, clarifies confusion, and shares testimonies of men and women caught in this time and place. Not a fan of the Cold War, European history, or modern history? Don’t worry; this book is highly readable and based on primary research, so no slogging through academia and secondary sources. If you’re looking for something more suitable to your tastes that you might have missed last year, consider Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie, now in paperback for $20, a fifteen-dollar reduction from last year’s hardback.

For the psychology student: Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let us Down, and Changed who We Are by Katherine Sharpe, paperback $14.99

Katherine Sharpe blends the best of both worlds in this well researched and personal book: personal narrative memoir and interviews with history writing. In an age where many of us are medicated, Sharpe takes a look at the antidepressant age’s effects on adolescents, who either find antidepressants freeing of depression and a return to normalcy or instead those who find them too altering and hate the label of “chemically imbalanced.” Sharpe combines her personal experience with antidepressants and skillful historical writing. A balanced discussion of a controversial topic.

For the comedian: America Again, Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t by Stephen Colbert, hardcover $28.99

Colbert showcases his satire and parody in his latest book, which addresses the paradox that Americans are clamoring to become great again without admitting that America might have fallen from being the best country ever. Whether or not you’re a fan of the show, this book is sure to entertain as well as provoke some thought while providing America with a blueprint with how to get back on track. If you’re looking for a less expensive alternative, consider Tina Fey’s Bossypants, her hilarious memoir, now in paperback. With her usual self-deprecating humor and odd-earned wisdom, Fey discusses her childhood, dealing with “crotch muffins,” and “having it all.”

For the chef: Barefoot Contessa Foolproof, Recipes You Can Trust by Ina Garten, hardcover $35

Even though I dislike the Contessa for turning down that dying little boy who wanted to cook with her for his Make a Wish, you can’t deny that Ina’s recipes are delicious (probably because the first item on each one is at least one cup of heavy cream or two sticks of butter). Garten focuses on making cooking easy and helping you plan menus and coordinate cooking so that you host the perfect dinner party. A must-have for anyone who loves to host, entertain, or cook. If you’re looking for a low-cost way to give your friend some cooking ideas, consider giving them an iTunes gift card so they can buy that Food Network or All Recipes app they’ve had their eye on.

For the intellectual: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks, hardcover $26.95

Neurologist Oliver Sacks is back to explain to us that hallucinations are everyone’s problem, not just the clinically insane. We have hallucinations for a whole host of reasons: sleep deprivation, lack of food, illness, etc. Sacks discusses his patients and investigates the cultural and scientific history of hallucinations to show us how halluncinations are an integral facet of the human condition. Written for laypeople, Sacks’ writing is accessible to the non-neuroscientists of the world. If you’re looking for a paperback alternative, consider getting Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach, one of the best science writers out there.

For the political scientist: The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Political Campaigns by Sasha Issenberg, hardback $26

Prepare to be creeped out by Sasha Issenberg’s new book that looks at how the political campaign has become an industry full of market research using voters as unwitting test subjects. By collecting information from where you live, where you shop, what websites you visit, what magazines you subscribe to, campaign advisers now think they can predict for whom you’ll vote before you do. You’ll discover that political campaigns have adopted advertisers’ tactics of tracking your habits without your consent to predict your behavior. Possibly paranoia-inducing, this book promises new insights into a multi-million dollar industry.

For the friend who is never afraid to tell you that no, those shoes do not go with that outfit: Tim Gunn’s Fashion Bible: The Fascinating History of Everything in Your Closet, hardcover $28

In his second book about fashion, Tim Gunn (famous for his sass, flavor, and wit on Project Runway) takes you through the different items in your wardrobe and tells you the history of each piece and forms a narrative of the history of fashion from togas to chain mil to corsets to skinny jeans. If you love Gunn’s flair, this book is a great gift for the intellectual fashionista who will be glad to have a historical reason as to why that top and those pants just don’t work together. If you’re looking for more on fashion and culture and want a paperback alternative, consider Joan DeJean’s Essence of Style about how the French invented haute couture, haute cuisine, and everything fashionable in between.

For the person who has to read the book before seeing the movie:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, paperback $6.95: The unforgettable, timeless Russian classic by one of the great masters. The movie comes out on November 16.
  • Life of Pi, Deluxe Illustrated Edition by Yann Martel, hardcover $16.50: So I’m sure many of you have already read Life of Pi, but I just recently found out about the illustrated edition, in which Croatian artist Tomislav Torjanac illustrates scenes in beautiful oils. The movie comes out November 21.
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, paperback $21: The new movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis will be out November 16, 2012, so prepare to read through this long, fascinating historical account of how Lincoln worked with his “team of rivals” to lead the US through the Civil War.
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, paperback $9.95: French classic, the movie adaptation of the famous musical stars Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman and will come out Christmas Day.
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, paperback $8.75: A staple of the American literary canon, The Great Gatsby will receive a new interpretation by Baz Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire, the movie will come out on May 10, 2013.

If you want to give a book-related gift but don’t have the cash or the time to sniff out deals, consider making bookmarks for your family and friends! Lamination is fairly cheap these days, and personalizing a bookmark is easy: cut some cardboard or scrapbook paper into a long, thing rectangle, personalize with stickers, quotes, pictures, etc., and laminate! Or, for a more crafty touch: http://www.countryliving.com/crafts/projects/practically-free-crafts#slide-1

Anyway, happy holidays everyone! I’ll be spending this month counting out the things I’m thankful for: good books, great friends, wonderful family.

I won’t be posting anything about the publishing world this week. I’ve spent the past forty-eight hours frantically trying to track the progress of Sandy while hoping and praying that everyone in the storm’s path stays safe. I find that writing a post about something banal and relatively unimportant would trivialize the plight of everyone trying to recover from the storm’s devastation. I do have to admit that I put out a special prayer for all the bookstores in harm’s way–something got to me when I thought about all those books in The Strand with water damage or with their pages ripped apart and blown into the wind.

I’ll be back next week with something more relevant.

All my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected–directly or indirectly–by the wrath of Sandy.

 

I’m going to start off topic today and mention a post I made a few weeks back about the importance of public libraries, and I recently read a Publisher’s Weekly article that supports my claim with statistics: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/54474-majority-of-young-readers-still-use-libraries.html. I’m not posting this to say, “Hah! Look! I was right!” Really my intention is to show with numbers that libraries continue to be a valuable resource and an important asset to communities. There are several books I’d like to read soon, and I don’t have the funds to buy them, so I’m looking forward to checking them out from my local public library. Hooray for libraries!

Moving on to the main topic of this post, which will be short and sweet today while I chill during my lunch break before the rest of my afternoon (read: 1.5 hour long class and a goodness-knows-how-long group project meeting followed by going home and writing 6+ pages for my thesis and then eking out some French homework before working out). I know many of my posts are pretty long, so I’ll spare you the long-winded idea explications.

As someone who uses an e-reader and has purchased a fair amount of e-books for my Kindle, I became pretty concerned when I read this article: http://www.zdnet.com/why-amazon-is-within-its-rights-to-remove-access-to-your-kindle-books-7000006385/. Most stores that offer online content for your e-reader have clear rights of ownership; you’re basically a renter of what you buy online and is subsequently stored digitally on the seller’s server. This move is (pardon my inappropriate language for a minute) a cover-your-ass tactic on the company’s part to avoid a lawsuit should they have a systems failure/crash and your e-content disappears. Without their disclaimers in their terms of use, you could technically sue them for loss of property if your content is lost or unavailable from a systems failure/error.

The author, Eileen Brown, brings up an excellent point of the end of the article: with content becoming increasingly digital, we need to re-evaluate our notions of ownership. When we buy an e-book, we don’t own the book in the same sense that we own a print book–Amazon or B&N or Apple or whoever has the absolute right to revoke your access to that content. You’re pretty much paying a one-time fee to lease or borrow the content, but it’s not yours. Fortunately, none of the books I’ve bought are particularly sentimental or important to me–I make sure to have the books that matter most to me in print where they’re pretty much protected, except from theft or fire, though I have no idea who would want to steal my measly book collection or set fire to my apartment.

Anything we buy online and that exists online isn’t really “ours.” We’re renting it, and like something rented, the right to rent can be revoked at any time, often without any reason. I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get comfortable with being at the whim of large companies with stuff that I think is “mine.” “Ownership” is undergoing a radical definition change. Maybe Merriam-Webster’s will have to catch up and add an entry for online ownership. Hopefully the law will catch up with these changes to protect consumers, though I doubt with the current political gridlock that that will happen anytime soon. For now, I’m just going to enjoy what I’ve got and not worry about it; I already have a long list of things to worry about, some of which keep me up at night. There’s no room in my overcrowded head to heap this issue on the towering pile.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thought for the day: “Moderation in everything, in itself, is a kind of extreme.”

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