Monthly Archives: January 2011

Writing and sacrifice: a (Christian) writer’s dilemma

All the books on writing that I’ve read lately have said so, and my experience would certainly concur: if you really want to be a writer, it takes time. You will have to sacrifice hobbies. Other things may have to fall by the wayside. It’s also been said many times that to be an expert at anything takes 10,000 hours: that’s 10,000 hours spent not doing something else.

How does that work, when you believe your primary purpose on earth is to build the Church? If writing a novel really *did* take a year, or a few months, then maybe, maybe you could take a few months out of the teams you’re serving on: after all, the Earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, and having quality fiction written by Christians is an important aspect of our being salt and light. But it doesn’t take a year. It takes, like, forever, and during that forever, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And are you not making an idol of your writing if you put it first?
Or, and yes, I know you’re all getting tired of the pregnancy analogy, but is it a “season of life” thing – stepping back for several years to give yourself to something worthwhile? Great. (Except that it’s quite possibly not just a “season”. You’re probably a gonner forever.) But everyone understands that babies are important and time-consuming and take over your life. I think most non-writers don’t really understand that novels also do that. That they almost have to, if they’re going to be any good. Does it matter what others think, whether they understand? No, of course it doesn’t – if you have rock-solid self-confidence and a mandate written across the sky. For the rest of us, it matters hugely.
If you have a baby, everyone understands that you are busy, not sleeping much, and that any conversation with you is going to involve the kind of minutiae that others, in particular non-parents, are not necessarily enthralled by. But can you really say, well, I’m taking time out from such-and-such for a few months while I get my novel written? Or, worse, I’m really sorry, I don’t have much spare time to meet up, and I probably won’t for the next few months, since whenever I have a chunk of uninterrupted time I sit down and write, and that’s what I’m prioritising? I mean, it sounds so cold, so callous. Not to mention a little dysfunctional.
All the books give you permission to do that. More than permission – they seem to require it of you. But the problem is, writing is a less common occupation than having babies, so most people probably don’t get it. So you risk offending people. You risk people thinking you don’t care about their friendship. You risk people misunderstanding you, or judging you, or thinking that building Church is not supremely important to you. You risk worrying that yourself.
If you’ve met me in the last couple of years, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m some kind of introverted hermit, uninterested in friendships, and obsessed with spending as much time at home with my West Wing DVDs as possible. But ask people who’ve lived with me: believe it or not, before I remembered I was a writer, I would panic at the thought of an evening in by myself. I would hang around at Church till the very last person had gone. I would meet up with as many people as possible for lunch and coffee and dinner.
It’s just that my priorities are different for now. I don’t know how that works long-term. I keep hoping for the rich husband or the lottery win that will enable me to quit my job, so I have time to write and be sociable and serve on all the teams I can shake a stick at and engage meaningfully wtih the country I live in and help my friend check his thesis for grammar errors, but short of that something has to give. And that something is not going to be, cannot be, my writing, not because it’s an idol, but because it’s what I was made for. To paraphrase Eric Liddle, God made me to love words, and I feel His pleasure when I write.
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On my bookshelf, 2011

So, last year I made it to sort-of 50 books. I’m not sure if I want to set a numeric goal for this year, because if I do I will never get round to reading Anna Karenina, Moby Dick or Gone with the Wind (although my motivation is a little on the low side for all of those anyway).

Who am I kidding? I’m far too competitive, even if it is only myself I am competing with. Full disclosure: this list (and last year’s) includes book I finished this year, even if I started them last year. That said, there will be books I start this year that I don’t finish until later, so it all comes out in the wash, or something.

1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

– 9/10. Difficult to know how this one can be topped. Oskar, the main character, is so very real and his story is haunting and heartbreaking, and I loved that it was long enough that you could really get into it – great book to take on holiday. It was a bit of a stretch that so much tragedy could have happened in just one family, but the story was so good, and so well-written, that I forgive it. I love how the different elements all tie up. I welled up several times at the end. Can’t wait for J Safran Foer’s next novel, and trying not to feel inferior about the fact that he’s only a year older than me.

2. Cupid and Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo

– 7/10. I was looking for a book set in Washington DC, and this one is infused with its setting, so I wasn’t disappointed. Yes, it’s chick lit, and no, I don’t read much of that particular genre, but it was funny and wry and there were some great observations on the life of an early-thirties woman trying to find love. The ending left me unconvinced, though – she had me rooting for a different one. I recommend this one for a poolside read in the summer.

3. Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers

– 8/10 Inspirational and helpful, and tackles some questions that none of the (many) other books I’ve read about writing have answered. I liked the “nobody tells you” chapter – I feel better prepared for life as a writer now, though I still need to do the exercises!

4. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

– 7/10 I enjoyed this, and he writes well. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It was a good read, though, and a scarily plausible prediction of America in the not too distant future.

5. The very thought of you, by Rosie Aliison

– 6/10. Not the sweet coming-of-age story implied by the title, the cover or the reviews. Still, I couldn’t seem to stop reading, so there must have been something about this book that I liked, and towards the beginning especially I found it quite moving. I love that she structured her book how I plan to structure mine. And gold star for not one but two mentions of Belgium!

6. Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger

– 8/10. I found Holden’s voice compelling and readable and I really liked him as a character wtih his wry observations, his recurring pet phrases and yes, even his negative outlook. The ending didn’t feel very satisying, but I think the book was more an insight into a character than a story with a definite beginning and ending as such. I liked it a lot.

7. Dog Days, by Ana Marie Cox

– 6.5/10. Not a book I’d lend to my mum or recommend to my pastor, or even normally read myself, but it was really useful research for my novel: another DC-based book with a great “sense of place”. And despite the mildly ridiculous plot it was a bit of a page-turner. I’m bemused by the title, though.

I was going to give it a lower rating so you could all admire my preference for literary fiction over chick lit, but the truth is, despite its mildly ridiculous yet oddly believable plot and language and erm, things, it was a bit of a page turner!

8. The American Future, by Simon Schama

9/10 I don’t read much non-fiction, and I certainly don’t read much history. I would read more if it was all like this, though it’s a slow burner: you have to be awake and able to concentrate for good bit of a time!

Schama is a master storyteller, weaving together the strands of history, and shedding light on current issues by drawing lessons from past events, but never in an over-obvious way. He assumes an intelligent reader, and I like that. I also particularly liked that he admitted that he finds it hard to square certain very positive aspects of true Christianity with his own worldview.

Oh, and he likes the word pyrrhic.I love words with odd spellings, so that worked well for me.

9. Florence and Giles, by John Harding

7/10. I really only read this because I was doing a book review – but can’t complain, there are worse ways to earn money! Not really my kind of book – it’s Gothic novel, and possibly more of a YA novel too, but it made interesting use of language and that’s always good to keep me reading. “Nothing prepares you for the chillingly ruthless finale,” says one review, and that’s about accurate.

10. Primary Colors, by Anonymous/Joe Klein

-8.5/10. I thoroughly enjoyed this – quality writing, a good story, a romantic subplot, and a genuinely unpredictable ending. I was a little confused by the many characters, though, particularly in the first third of the book.

11. Sammy’s House, by Kristin Gore

– 8/10. I loved this! Sammy’s Hill, which I read last year, was good, but this was a notch up from this. Sammy herself is fun and endearing and has lots of quirks I can identify with. I was really rooting for her and Charlie and I am normally quite scathing of happy endings so she clearly worked her magic. Plus, you know, the whole DC thing.

I think I said this about Sammy’s Hill, but it’s basically Bridget Jones meets the West Wing. These are both very good things.
12. The me I want to be, by John Ortberg

7/10. Eminently readable, though I enjoyed it less (and got less immediate pratical application from it) than his other books. But maybe that says more about where I’m at right now than about his book.

13. The People’s Choice, by Jeff Greenfield

This was, at times, an easy read, and at times I really needed to concentrate to understand the point he is making. And he is making a point: it’s a lesson in the oddities of the American electoral system as much as it is a novel, and there were way too many characters for me to be able to keep with them all, but I enjoyed it, and the ending was more satisfying than I thought it would be. The style is idosyncratic – he is consicously talking to and educating readers. I liked that, though I’m not sure I’d want to read a hundred novels in this style.
14. The Book Thief

haunting, beautiful, enchanting, heartbreaking. 9/10

15. The Privileges

I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this. I hope the ending is deeply meaningful and somehow passed me by, because otherwise it’s just weird.
16. I think I love you

17. Breakfast at Tiffany’s

18. When a Woman Trusts God

19. Living History

20. The Grapes of Wrath

9/10 This book epitomises what I love about literary fiction: lyrical, heart-breaking, deeply understanding of humanity. The only thing I didn’t like was the end – because it wasn’t really an ending.
21. The Finkler Question

6/10 There’s no doubt the man can write, and I enjoyed it at fast, but then it got darker, weirder, and more incomprehensible to those not versed in the intricacies of Judaism and the intellectual arguments for and against Zionism, and he lost me.
22. Wannabe a Writer We’ve Heard Of?

23. Hostage in Hava

24. Know Doubt

25. Becoming George Sand

26. Bird by Bird


27. No Plot No Problem


28. Capitol Offence


29. The Audacity to Win









2010: my five favourite books

1. Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.

Literary fiction at its best: I read it slowly, not because it didn’t intrigue me and make me want to find out what happened – it did – but because I wanted to take in the beauty of the writing. He had me at the prologue, where even rubbish flying in the wind sounded like poetry.
Set against the backdrop of Philippe Petit’s funambulist act in th 1970s, during which he walked across a wire between the newly built Twin Towers, it tells the story of a few interweaving lives across the spectrum of New York society. I can’t recommend this highly enough.
2. The Song is You, by Arthur Phillips
Every once in while you stumble across a book that you hadn’t heard of, and whose existence you then want to shout from the rooftops. This, for me, was one of those books. The characters were haunting, and it was so refreshing to find a love story that isn’t boy-meets-girl-and-they-defeat-enemies-then-live-happily-ever-after. It was the perfect read for a person who has a tendency to fall in love with people at a distance, and for a writer whose novel is (hopefully) full of the same kind of angst.
This kind of book is exactly what I want to be known for – yes, it’s romance, but there is nothing trite or easy about it, and the writing takes my breath away. He made the clicking of iPod wheels and the opening of emails into poetry. I want to write like this guy.
3. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Schaefer
I can’t remember the last time I dreamed about a book and then woke up desperate to find out what happens next. I’m not normally one for jumping on bandwagons, but this book thoroughly deserves the acclaim it’s received. The epistolary form is original, refreshing, and easy to read even when you’re getting on and off tubes, and helps bring characters to life. The tone is light-hearted, generally, but that does not mean it shies away from more difficult aspects of life in and just after the War. I fell in love with this novel a few pages in, when the main character dumps her fiance after he removed her books from her shelves so he could put his sports awards there instead.
4. State by State – a Panoromic Portrait of America
This is a wonderful, wonderful introduction to a country whose diversity is brought to life by fifty different authors who, together, provide what is basically a road trip in book form. Some of the authors recall childhood memories, others talk about the geography, history of politics of their state, or the people who live there. There is a lot of beautiful writing here, too, and I found that it was a great place to start for discovering contemporary American authors, as well as their country itself.
5. The Audacity of Hope, by Barack Obama
It’s not often that I pick up a book that is basically 100% policy. It’s even less often that I am so inspired by it. Barack Obama writes clearly, eloquently, and convincingly. It’s no coincidence that the heroine in my novel says, referring to this book, that he makes her heart sing. Mine too.
Also worthy of note are One Day, for its page-turner qualities, for Emma, the character I so identified with, and the originality of its structure; American Rust, for its elegant writing; Brooklyn, because you feel like you’re right there with the heroine in her seasickness and homesickness and lovesickness, the Time Traveller’s Wife, for doing romance well, and Plan B: What to do when God doesn’t turn up the way you thought he would – no-nonsense, honest, helpful.
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