Learning from the Masters


“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment.”  — Hart Crane

Babies are hard-wired for language acquisition, but they aren’t born speaking complete sentences. Similarly, even the most talented and passionate of storytellers doesn’t start out by writing a masterpiece. We learn first by observing, then by imitating.

If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader. And if you want to be a good writer, you must read good books.

But where should you start? Time is short and the list of great books lengthy indeed.

Having grown tired of the number of “should reads” on my “someday” reading list and embarrassed to admit, as a self-professed bookworm and would-be English major, that I’d not read some of the most towering works of Western literature, I decided to tackle the problem head-on with the dogged determination of a list-loving schoolmarm.

For the past 11 months, I’ve been working my way through what has turned into a five-year, one-person classical book club. The experience has challenged my abilities as both a reader and a writer and, in the process, rekindled my belief in the beauty and power of words to transcend time and place.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share with you what I’ve been learning on this journey—why good books matter, how to read difficult books as an adult, and what dead authors can teach us about writing in the 21st Century. I’ll also be spotlighting some pieces of beautiful writing I’ve admired along the way — and which might inspire your own writing efforts as well.

“We are what we repeatedly do,” historian Will Durant wrote (paraphrasing Aristotle). “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Just as writers improve through the practice of writing, we also grow through reading and absorbing the great writing of others. I hope you’ll join me back here as we begin learning from the masters.

* * *

What books are on your should-read list? Do you have a favorite classic author? Is there a book you’ve avoided reading or struggled to make it through no matter how many people rave about it? (I’m wary of Moby Dick. It’s one of the top five most abandoned classics. I’m nervous to start it!)

[ Photo credit: Roberto Taddeo ]

This Season of Sorrow

4679197598_fcd65ae739_oLast night, I stopped by the post office to mail an anniversary card to Duane & Alpha, longtime family friends who celebrate 64 years of marriage this week. Seven hours later, in the wee hours of this morning, Alpha passed away.

I can picture that anniversary card today, wending its way through the arteries of the postal service, dutifully bound for its destination. A day too late.

How quickly celebration can turn to sorrow.

Two years ago, on this very same day, my family stood vigil around a hospital bed – my mother, aunts, uncles and cousins pressed shoulder to shoulder in silence – and we watched as my grandfather took his last breath and left this world.

Before my grandfather died, before we knew he wasn’t going to make it, before he went to the hospital and never came home, I sent him a get well card. A day too late again.  It sat in the mailbox, cheery and unopened, until we returned to his house after the funeral, to begin the hollow task of packing a lifetime of memories into cardboard boxes.

I’ve been to two funerals in the past month. Alpha makes three, and we only narrowly escaped adding my father-in-law to that list last month.

What strikes me most deeply about this season of sorrow is that there is so much more sorrow to come. As I count my blessings for each loved one still here on earth, I realize that love is always, always, shadowed by loss. The more we love, the more it hurts to lose. And yet, if we did not love, we would miss out on the very joy and beauty of life.

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. (Eccl 3:10-13)

Our time on this earth is a gift, and what greater work can we do with the gifts we have received than to create something beautiful and something worth remembering for those we leave behind.

It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. A day late is better than not at all.

[ Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada ]

What We Talk About When We Talk About Knitting

My Grandma Dee was a knitter. Late in life, her specialty was washcloths. I doubt there is one person in my extended family without a stack of her knitted washcloths tucked away in a kitchen towel drawer. The colors might vary, but she always used Sugar ‘n Cream cotton yarn. Her favorite pattern had a pretty eyelet edge around the outside. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. A soothing rhythm in her effortless hands, she knew the movements by heart, her needles and right hand weaving air and yarn without even looking.

One Christmas, when I was thirteen, she tried to teach a few of us grandkids how to knit those washcloths. I stuck with mine for a few weeks and managed to finish it, though its oddly round shape and gaping holes looked nothing like Grandma’s perfectly uniform, knitted squares. I didn’t touch a pair of knitting needles again for almost twenty years.

We tend to avoid things we can’t do well. A perfectionist through and through, my memory bank is littered with failed attempts at artistic endeavor. Even here, in this safe little aerie, the writing’s gone silent. For weeks now, I have fled from the page, abandoned the keyboard. My pen is as dry as my mind.

Each time I tell myself to sit down and write, I hear a tiny voice inside me whisper that age-old question of doubt, “Why?”

Why write? What’s the point? There’s no purpose for these words. Useless, self-centered, navel-gazing words. What are you doing? Wasting your time. Chasing stories that don’t matter. No one cares what you have to say. Who do you think you are? You’re not a writer. Stop pretending. Can’t you do something worthwhile with your life?

I feel each question pulling loose a string in my heart, unraveling this lifeline that tethers me to the page.

Why write? All my life, I thought if I just tried long enough or found the right spark of inspiration, I could build something beautiful. A tower of words. A city of stories. I thought story mattered, and I thought I cared enough to keep trying. But these whispers of doubt won’t leave me alone.

What do you do with a dream when it’s dying? What do you say when your inner cynic tells you story doesn’t matter?

*  *  *

Every night after dinner, my grandparents walked down their creaky basement stairs to a cozy, wood-paneled family room with 70’s shag carpeting and brown plaid furniture. Grandma sat in a chair next to Grandpa’s recliner, and they watched TV. Iowa Hawkeye basketball…Johnny Carson…the good stuff. She knitted, and he snacked on peanuts from a little wooden bowl perched next to his weekly copy of TV Guide. He loved to tease her for knitting with her eyes closed. Her hands were never idle — even when she dozed off in front of the TV, she kept knitting, only to wake up and unravel the row she did wrong in her sleep and start again. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Unravel. Knit. Repeat.

Not everything that unravels is ruined.

Maybe I’ll never be a famous author, and that’s OK. I can still find stories to tell. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. It doesn’t need an audience to be meaningful. If I can bear witness to this one life and find moments of beauty worth remembering, for myself and for the people I love, I will not have written in vain.

Knit two, yarn over, knit across. Unravel. Knit. Repeat.

“My story is myself: and I am my story. This is all you will know of me; it is all I will know of you. This is all that will survive of us: the stories of who we are, the ways that people speak our names and remember something we did, an event we lived through, a clever story we were known for, or hopefully, some wisdom. They are mostly gone now — grandparents, aunts and uncles — and you and I will soon be gone, too. What is left of their lives, and what will be left of ours, is story.” — Christina Baldwin, Storycatcher

What Google Taught Me About Plagiarism

Sparrow on Barbed Wire
“If you persist in staying silent at a time like this, help and deliverance will arrive…from someplace else; but you and your family will be wiped out.” Esther 4:14 (MSG)

A blog I’ve followed and valued for years recently plagiarized content from another source which I also happen to follow. As a writer, this made me sad and angry. While the non-confrontational part of me would prefer to unsubscribe in silent protest of their morally ambiguous writing tactics, my feistier side wanted to call them out on it.

How easy it would have been to leave an anonymous, skewering comment on their blog post, exposing them for all to see, as if it’s my right or responsibility to shame anyone publicly. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” and all.

Aren’t there enough trolls lurking in the bowels of the internet, spewing venom and bad manners in ALL CAPS LOCK? What good would it do to sink to that level?

Still, the indiscretion tugged at my writer’s heart.

I understand how challenging it must be for full-time bloggers to constantly and consistently generate content for their readers (I admire them for their hard work!), and I also understand that sometimes mistakes get made. I’d like to believe that we all have good intentions, that each of us wants to do what’s right, but the world can be a complicated and shady place. When does indifference become negligence? And when does “looking the other way” make us complicit in wrongdoing?

“If you persist in staying silent at a time like this…” When Mordecai sent this message to Queen Esther, he was urging her to speak up and save the lives of her people — to thwart a plot to kill all the Jews in the Persian Empire. A small act of plagiarism seems laughable by comparison (I know!), but aren’t those words haunting? If you persist in staying silent at a time like this

I decided to send an email to the blog in question, privately and respectfully, pointing out the error in hopes that they’d rectify the situation. To their credit, they replied promptly the next morning, acknowledged the “oversight,” and said it had been corrected. How nice! Hooray for professionalism and ethics! Except… they didn’t correct it. The blog post remains word-for-word the same. No clarification, no apology, no proper attribution. *Sigh*

In its early days, Google adopted an informal company motto — “Don’t Be Evil” — to act as a guiding principle in their business. Whether or not they’ve held to this standard is a matter of debate perhaps, but nonetheless, it’s a noble idea.

Do the right thing.

When it comes to creating and using content online, you don’t need to look far to see cracks in the ethical facade. Copyright isn’t sexy or fun, is it? We’re just pinning all the pretty things on Pinterest! What’s the harm in that?

The problem, of course, is that many people make a livelihood from their creative work. All of the beautiful content we see floating around on the internet is not magical, communal property! Someone — a writer, a photographer, a designer, a real person — has put time and energy into the creation. Some of those creators choose to share their work freely and allow it to be used or adapted with permission. (Hooray for Creative Commons and good for them!) But not every creator feels the same, and they’re well within their rights to expect fair treatment.

Intentional or not, plagiarism is a serious ethical breach, not to mention a potential copyright infringement.

Here’s what I’ve learned: If you want people to trust and value the content you’re creating, be honest and kind and respectful. Don’t be evil or lazy. Don’t “borrow” or share someone else’s work if you don’t have permission. If you aren’t sure, ask. Cite your sources. Give credit where credit is due. I promise, your readers won’t think less of you for quoting someone else if you’re willing and able to say something fresh and meaningful alongside it.

In the end, I did unsubscribe from that blog. Whether or not they care about losing one reader, whether or not they decide to make a correction or do better in the future, they lost my respect, which ultimately detracts from the good work they were trying to do in the first place.

Inspiration is everywhere, but let’s not ruin a good thing, ok? We can do better than evil — inadvertent or otherwise.

[ Photo credit: See-ming Lee ]

Bones Laid Bare


One week until my birthday. Thirty-three. I feel it creeping in with timid feet and open heart. Is this what leaning into grace feels like?

Today, London gray skies sit flat and dull against my window. February, despite all its birthdays and feasts of love, is a dreary month. We sing about the bleak midwinter at Christmas, but this would be a more fitting time.

Though clouds crowd out the sun today, I ache to remember how crisp the light can be on a cold and sunny winter day. Tree branches and buildings snapping to attention, stark silhouettes against a brittle blue sky. Light so brilliant and sharp it makes your eyes cry.

I forget too easily this bare and quiet beauty.

Summer blurs the lines with her soft edges of leaf and flower, her air thick with damp and heat. Such obvious beauty, like a hothouse flower outshining its backwood cousins.

Only in winter do I notice the light itself, when all distractions are lost and earth stripped down to her barest bones. Only then do I see how much beauty there is in emptiness. Only then does the light seep through the silence to fill me with wonder.

I come to the page praying for that same emptiness and pouring out, begging for the courage to write without hiding or pretense, without fear or shame. “Eyes wide open, naked as we came.”

I chain myself to the desk and fight the urge to run, because this is my only offering, my “one wild and precious life.”

This is My Body broken for you.

How else can I repay Him than to raise my hands in surrender and let the words crack open across my chest?

This is grace.

This is hope.

These are my bones laid bare.

[ Inspired by Lisa-Jo Baker’s Five Minute Friday | Photo credit: Kyle Post ]