Pearls of Writing Wisdom – a review

pearls-cover

There is something inside you constantly threatening to explode; an urgent feeling that simply refuses to be ignored. It keeps you from focusing on conversations. It keeps you from sleeping. It tears at the very fabric of your existence.

Now, unless you have recently ordered the taco salad at Chipotle or travelled interstellar space with Sigourney Weaver, these symptoms suggest you might be a writer.

Ned Hickson knows these feelings well, and recounts some of his own experiences in his latest book Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist.

In many ways, the book is a writer’s version of that dreaded conversation between a child and loving parent/teacher about sex…and it’s just as awkward.

In his own nervously jovial way, Ned tries to encourage writers to explore their budding bodies of work and yet caution them about the challenges that lie ahead without scaring (or scarring) them into creative celibacy.

Without photos or illustrations, Ned routinely contextualizes the lessons he is giving with self-deprecating anecdotes—like that time he walked around a mall for four hours before someone mentioned his participle was dangling. The point being (I think) to highlight that even with these personal failings, he still managed to fool people into reading (and paying for) his stuff.

Given the subtitle, I originally expected this book to be a chronicle of things he’d learned in his day job with Oregon’s Siuslaw News, a newspaper for which he is Editor and writes a syndicated humor column.

Nedwork

Ned offers insights on sex…I mean, writing

Instead, I found a book that covered all aspects of writing from understanding the inherent urges to the mechanics of satisfying wordplay to dealing with the social and legal ramifications of your actions…hunh, this really is about sex.

And speaking of sex, Ned’s book isn’t very long (97 pages) but what he accomplishes in those short, floppy pages is quite effective in nurturing new talent, as well as reminding those of us sliding into senescence why we write.

Whether you are a writer or know someone wanting to act on those urges, I highly recommend Pearls of Writing Wisdom as a way to bolster courage and encourage good practices, and maybe laugh a little.

 

P.S. If Sigourney Weaver happens to read this review, I would happily risk alien infestation to meet you at the Chipotle of your choosing.

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See also:

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s blog)

Humor at the Speed of Life (Ned’s other book)

Port Hole Books (Ned’s publisher)

The Last Word – a short story

library

(A writing exercise in which the first word was “shelf”.)

 

“Shelf seven.”

The words struck David’s ear drums like so many flies on a glue strip, their significance dying almost on contact.

“Did you want the catalogue code, too?”

The glue strips over-burdened, David’s head tilted to one side, involuntarily signalling his very real lack of comprehension.

“Sir?”

David’s irises shrank to pin points, his brain doing its best to pull focus back to the moment at hand. Emerald green flecks glinted in the near spotlight that bathed the librarian.

David fought not to shake his head in the hope of releasing the cob webs that had yet again taken hold of his brain. He wet his tongue, a dry mouth crusting his silence.

“Perhaps you could write that down for me,” he smiled at the eternally patient woman behind the counter.

Despite David’s complete lack of social graces, he was an easy patron for the woman. He knew exactly what book he was looking for, rather than simply presenting her with a laundry list of random words that only may have appeared in the book title or subject matter.

Slowly drawing a scrap of paper from a tidy stack, the woman dragged her pencil in tight arcs and lines. With each stroke, David was certain that he could hear the graphite crack and flake from the pencil’s tip until finally, the room went silent again.

Looking up, he caught the librarian’s eye, which crinkled as she slid the paper across the counter.

David smiled as he swiped the sheet and dissolved into the stacks, leaving behind a rapidly dissipating vapour trail of Old Spice and anxiety.

Moving swiftly down row after row, David had the sensation of being swept along by a rainbow-glittered tornado, the multicoloured book spines flashing by, muted here and there by cellophane wrappers designed to keep fingerprints and legibility at bay.

Despite his knowledge of perspective—a Grade 8 art class quickly coming to mind—the stacks seemed to narrow the further he journeyed into the bowels of the bibliographic beast. And all the air was drowned in the musty thoughts of insistent authors in cacophonic sensory overload.

David’s chameleon-like eyes worked in solitude, taking turns glancing from the dampening destiny sheet clutched between his fingers and the digital tattoos that graced the spines.

His left eye was first to light upon the congruence, a match that was shortly confirmed by his right eye. Binocular certitude.

This was the book.

Taking a deep calming breath that did little more than trigger a coughing spasm, David rubbed his hands against his trouser legs, only to realize he was smearing pulped paper onto his leg. The librarian’s note had given up the fight to remain whole under persistent perspiring assault.

Without being aware of his actions, David flipped the book’s pages through trembling fingers, eyes scanning for familiar references.

The red wagon on Bakersfield Hill.

The mustard-stained tuxedo on prom night.

The tow motor accident at the soda factory.

The surreal night at the library looking for a book available nowhere else.

It was all here, written in black sans-serif letters on egg-shell pages. So alien to see it captured on vellum and yet so familiar to a constantly refreshing memory.

Clearing his throat, David flipped ahead in the book, trying not to glance at the intervening pages, instead saving his energies for whatever he found on the last pages before the Appendix.

David smiled as he struck the back cover and realized there was no Appendix. He’d had emergency surgery shortly after his 21st birthday.

But the smile faded just as quickly as the memory as he peripherally espied the final words of the book to his left.

As though resisting a coiled spring, David turned his gaze upon the final paragraph, his temples literally throbbing with the rush of blood to his brain.

His eyes all but excised the first word. Then the second. Then the third.

Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences revealed thoughts. That’s how writing worked.

The stacks rang with raucous laughter. Library patrons became meercats at the disturbing intrusive sound, unable to identify its source or direction.

They remained unaware that in the darkest corner of the library, a man had just learned how his life would end.

An ending, it turns out, that was pretty fucking funny.

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Closing the book on bookstores

WBB death

I am a troglodyte…a knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing dinosaur who will shortly find myself extinct for my inability to evolve with the world in which I live. You see, I like to read books.

So, what’s wrong with that, you may ask, lots of people read books. I have several dozen on my e-reader.

There’s the rub. I did not say novels, plays, short stories, historical or scientific treatises—all of which I do enjoy. Rather I said “books”. Those folded paper constructions across which are scribbled black serif or sans serif typefaces and maybe a few photos or illustrations.

This past week in Toronto, yet another bookstore (brick & morter, not Xena warrior princess type) met its demise. The self-described World’s Biggest Bookstore was a staple in downtown Toronto, a place to visit when you were trying to kill some time or perhaps even to purchase books, magazines, school supplies or those kitschy little items that no one ever thought they wanted but can’t seem to live without.

This past spring, about a dozen blocks away from the WBB, another bookstore met its demise and is in the process of becoming a craft store (because what erudite urbanite doesn’t want more Styrofoam cones and sewing notions?).

The reasons for these closures are many and varied, although the loudest one in downtown Toronto is the cost of renting or owning the space. Why house 10,000 hard and soft copies of books when you can house just as many Torontonians in roughly the same space?

I know there are other bookstores in Toronto. My concern is for how much longer.

They came for the mom’n’pop shops, and I said nothing.

They came for the specialty stores, and I looked the other way.

Then they came for the big box stores, and I was forced to buy an e-reader.

Despite the number of items I have purchased from e-tailers like Amazon and Indigo, there is still nothing better to me than the tangible feel of a book in my hands. There is a vibe in books that I cannot get electronically, unless I wet my fingers first, but that’s more of a shock than a vibe.

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I am a junkie for second-hand bookstores.

I love that musty smell that I am confident is a mould infection waiting to take root in my olfactory or pulmonary system. The crick of a book spine as you fold it back for the first time (my own spine makes a similar noise in the morning).

And the gentle signs of previous love, whether a notation from giver to receiver, random dog-ears suggesting the previous owner had ADHD or the odd tacky material sticking several pages together that we are all best not to think too much about.

As a side note: I find it ironic that I will pay $20 to $50 for a book in an antiquarian bookstore that I wouldn’t spend more than $3 on in a second-hand store. Apparently, signage works.

Used v rare

I watch people in airports and on buses scrolling through their e-readers and wonder, where is the fun in that?

Don’t you miss the excitement of flipping ahead to determine whether you can stay awake long enough to reach the next chapter break? Or anxiously getting to the bottom of the page only to realize that the sentence finishes on the next page (don’t judge me, I live alone)?

Or knowing that in the coming apocalypse, you’ll be able to keep a fire going for several days? You try cooking squirrel over a burning e-reader and see how far that gets you.

(Note to self: Buy extra reading glasses. Learn the lessons Burgess Meredith did not.)

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But alas, I am a vanishing breed and like the thunder lizards that came before me, I will have to make way for those annoying little rodents that scurry around under desks and floors and through the walls…yes, the guys from I.T.

But until that day comes, I shall continue to hunker in my apartment, surrounded by my beloved paper friends and learn a bit more about modern squirrel trapping techniques.

Squirre-BBQ

You have the write to know

Write

I write about writing. I’ve seen dozens of blogs that do the same and suspect there are hundreds if not thousands more blogs about writing I have yet to find.

I routinely visit web sites dedicated to writing, reading amazing posts from amazing (and some not so amazing) writers. And I have two bookshelves dedicated to various aspects of writing, from dictionaries and tomes on prose to bound witticisms and opinions on the minutiae of character, plot and the perfect turn of joke.

I have taken classes on sketch comedy, screenwriting and story editing, and have listened in on dozens of podcasts and teleconferences given by the kings and queens of screenwriting—the latest given by Robert McKee. And I have recently started going to writing conferences, bending and rubbing elbows with writers established and in the birthing process.

Conference

All of this information and guidance has been invaluable to helping me understand my craft. But for all those thousands of hours of effort, I’m really not sure that any of it has helped me be a better writer.

In truth, I think there are only really two things you need to do to be a better writer:

  1. Write
  2. Share what you’ve written

Unless you’re willing to write, write some more, write yet again, and then when your body has given up the ghost with exhaustion, write again, you will never get better. All of the academic training and guidance in the world will not make you a better writer if you are not willing to write.

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Writing can be like literally shoving fingers into brain to extract words

But writing is a very insular process, so it is equally important that you share what you have written…with literally anyone: your mom, your partner, your dog, the guy on the subway, the squirrel at the park.

How does the other party respond to your work? Are you communicating well? Do they see, hear, taste, what you see, hear, taste?

I am not asking do they like what you wrote. Personal tastes are just that. Rather, you want to know do they respond to what you’ve written…good, bad or ugly.

Oh, and I was only being half-facetious about the dog and squirrel…try it. You’ll be amazed at what happens.

Because most animals can’t read—I blame the current education models—you’ll be forced to read your work to them…the minute your work moves from visual to aural, a different part of your brain opens up and you hear whether you are affected by your work. Invaluable.

Love the internet for this stuff..."woman talking to squirrel"

Love the internet for this stuff…”woman talking to squirrel”

So read all you want, whether online or in those ancient paper constructs we call books. Attend conferences, lectures, podcasts and classes. I applaud your effort, your drive.

But I reiterate…there are only really two things you need to do to be a better writer:

  1. Write
  2. Share what you’ve written

Good luck.

Ten books that influenced my life

There is a thing going around Facebook these days—electronic chain mail, really—where friends invite each other to list the 10 books that have stuck with them through life. Thanks (??) to my friend Nancy for inviting me to participate.

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The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Since my first introduction to the works of the Bard in Grade 9 (Merchant of Venice) through my many pilgrimages to The Stratford Festival in Southern Ontario, I have been entranced. No matter what is going on in my life, I find solace and refuge in the pages of the Master’s folio. Favourite play: Henry V. My lone tattoo: Julius Caesar V.v.73.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mix’d in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world ‘This was a man!’

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DuneFrank Herbert

For such a short book—and particularly within such a long series—this is a novel I return to on a regular basis. The story is woven so tightly and yet offers mythic proportions. The language is at once simple and profound…and incredibly quotable. Every time I read the story, I find a new interpretation.

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

asimov

Asimov on ChemistryIsaac Asimov

To a budding geek, this book and the next on my list were manna from heaven. Although I was a fan of Asimov’s fiction, I found a home in his look at various subjects in science (and eventually theatre and religion). He explained the universe to me in a way that no one else could and gave me the tools to extend that learning to others (whether they wanted to hear it or not).

Broca

Broca’s BrainCarl Sagan

While Cosmos was the book (and television series) that everyone else was talking about, this was the book that first grabbed my attention. Like Asimov, Sagan had a way of contextualizing science that few others have mastered, offering not just a series of facts, but the stories of the people behind those facts, including the dearly departed Paul Broca. Asimov and Sagan likely influenced my decision to move into science writing.

Wolf

Never Cry WolfFarley Mowat

If not for my abhorrence of discomfort, I would be living on the Canadian tundra today, studying and communing with the wolves. That’s how powerful this book was to me. Many criticize Mowat for fabricating many elements of his non-fiction and particularly in this story, but I don’t really care because he grabbed a young mind (mine) and transported me into the minds of the wolves he studied for the Canadian government. To see these creatures as more than just vicious wild dogs was life-changing.

purple-cow

Purple CowSeth Godin

Drive past enough farm fields filled with cows and eventually you cease to see them. Drive past a purple cow, however, and you stop. In short, the premise of a book of blog entries that challenges the reader to skew their view of the world with an eye to drawing the attention of your audience. Less an epiphany than a confirmation of what I already believed, Purple Cow told me there was merit in my mania.

Natural

Popular Natural HistoryRev. J.G. Wood

Published in 1885 (my edition), the content of this book is not only dated (it includes a discussion of the dodo), it is often outright wrong. But it holds a special place in my heart because I received it from my great-grandmother and it initiated my fascination with antiquarian books, something that continues to this day despite my inability to financially support it. These books—particularly the non-fiction—open a portal into another time and another way of thinking, much as the rest of my book collection will in 100 years.

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The Love You MakePeter Brown & Steven Gaines

The murder of John Lennon in 1980 took what was a passing awareness of The Beatles and turned it into an obsession for me. I had heard the music, I had seen the movies, but I was completely unaware of their context. Thus, the biography of the Fab Four, written by insider Peter Brown (…called to say, you can make it okay, you can get married in Gibraltar, near Spain), blew the lid off my ignorance, pouring kerosene on a flame that has not died in the intervening 34 years.

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The Elements of Style – Strunk & White

As a writer and editorialist (I will not call myself a journalist…different craft), you might suspect that this book is close to my heart because it helped me become a better writer. And you would be DEAD WRONG. Just the opposite, in fact.

Instead, this book informed me that my new Editor had absolutely no respect for my writing nor that of my writer/editor colleagues. In our first staff meeting, she cheerfully told us she was looking to make some changes in our magazine and then gave us each a gift of this book. In my eyes, it was tantamount to handing Dostoyevsky a first-grade reading primer and suggesting he rewrite Crime & Punishment in the format of Mr. Whiskers (no self-aggrandizing hyperbole intended). I moved on.

Etymology

Chambers Dictionary of Etymology – Robert K Barnhart (Ed.)

As a word-jockey, history-buff and all-around geek, I can never be sure if my wife’s gift of an etymology book was a reward or a well-disguised pun-ishment (the hyphen should give you a clue as to why she would punish me). Regardless, the book has served me well as I endeavour to sculpt language to fit my needs, crossing words at their roots to develop new varietals that colour an otherwise mundane existence.

500

500b

So I have hit the milestone blog post: 500.

For some of you, who have followed me from the earliest days, you are no doubt thinking: “500? Really? Seems like 5,000.” For those of you relatively new to the wonder that is my blog, please note closely the previous statement.

I dithered over what to write for my 500th post, and have decided I’m going to talk about you…well, some of you.

I “follow” quite a few blogs…I read many fewer…and I seek out even fewer. I’m sorry for those I don’t visit more regularly…hours in a day and all that. It’s some of that last group, I want to highlight here…those glorious few who make me stop whenever I see they’ve posted something new.

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Filippa Levemarks Blog

The paintings that this woman creates and the themes she explores by mixing media and mixing subject-matter blow me away. Rare is the image that doesn’t elicit some emotion in me. Hers is a style I have seen nowhere else and is worth exploring.

 

Jack Flacco

To read Jack’s blog is to have no clear idea as to who Jack is, and I mean that as a compliment. Jack takes on any subject it seems, but always in a thought-provoking and welcoming way that makes you want to contribute with a comment. His latest topics have been: monotasking, Veronica Mars, infectious pandemic readiness and phone addiction.

 

bareknuckle

Bare Knuckle Writer

As the title suggests, Steph Snow is a no-holds-barred writer who likes to talk (or rant) about writing. With generous dollops of humour, she discusses the creative fortunes and practices that torture her soul on a seemingly daily basis. Misery truly does like company.

 

ionia julian

Readful Things Blog/Julian Froment’s Blog

I list these two blogs together because they are both discussions of the written word—e.g., reviews of books and authors, discussions of book marketing—and because the bloggers (Ionia Martin & Julian Froment) are beautifully connected at the soul (I don’t ask questions about any other forms of connections). Amazing people whose love for words is only surmounted by their love for each other.

 

Schelley Cassidy Photography

As a photo-hobbiest, I deeply appreciate the craft and skills that other photographers bring to the world. In this case, however, Schelley and I seem to share a greater fascination for the minute rather than the panoramic, as suggested by her regular feature “What is it?” where you only see an aspect of an object and are left guessing as to what that object is.

 

Ron Scubadiver’s Wild Life

If I couldn’t have my life, I would want Ron’s. A world traveller and freelance journalist, Ron is an amazing photographer, capturing incredible aspects of life in the many places he has visited. I particular enjoy his collections of people photos, often taken at a festival or gathering, which are incredibly natural and inviting.

 

ned

Ned’s Blog

Ned Hickson is not right in the head. And that’s what I love about him. A journalist in the Pacific Northwest and volunteer firefighter (or latex-coat fetishist…can’t really tell), Ned brings an irreverent sense of humour to everything he writes, earning him several accolades including his own NSA file. Ned also has a book to his credit, which I believe he has to return to the library next Tuesday.

 

Curnblog

More a collective than a personal blog, Curnblog offers amazing insights into all things film, whether examining an individual film or genre from angles such as sociology, creativity or cinematography. Predominantly the work of James Curnow, the blog is like having your own little film school where you can access new and unusual topics on a weekly basis without the pressure of essays, theses or exams.

 

There are so many other blogs to which I would like to direct you, but I am happy that you made it this far down the page. Perhaps for my 1000th blog post!

My gratitude for your patience and enduring interest.

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Unexpected surprises: Steve Allen autobiography

Steve Allen

So, as I was waiting to join my friends in a taping of our sketch comedy show SomeTV!, I decided to check out a nearby second-hand book store.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a complete love-fest for me, but as funds have been a tad tight lately, I was really only in the store to browse (yeah…that could happen). Well, as I moved through the section of film and television books, I happened across an autobiography of Steve Allen, who among other things was the first host of The Tonight Show.

As I had nothing but respect for Allen’s comedic timing and his ability to get amazing, ad-libbed comments out of pretty much anyone, I picked the book up only to see that they were only asking $2.99 for the book, entitled Mark It And Strike It.

Despite this price being five times the cover price of the book, I decided I could afford the few dollars and bought it.

Wow! Was I in for a surprise!

That Allen manages to include information about his childhood, marriages and early jobs is the only reason that this volume could ever be called an autobiography. The reality is that a full two-thirds of the book are dedicated to a vast range of subjects that reflect more Allen’s thoughts on and opinions about the world in which he lives in 1960 (yes, the book is three years older than me).

Allen discusses the vast gulf that separates Art from Science. The loss of spirituality, or perhaps more accurately, the misappropriation of spirituality in the United States. McCarthyism and anti-Communist terrors that permeated society. Issues of racism and sexism that were tearing the country apart. The nature of humour and comedy and its tortuous demise at the hands of populism.

Aside from my surprise at finding such topics in an autobiography and in the ideas being expressed within the pages, the greatest reflection came as I reached the end of the book and realized that almost 55 years later how little has changed.

The Arts still suffer in a school system fixated on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

There is still rampant use of God and Jesus as weapons across the United States in defense of excluding other cultures.

Admittedly, anti-Communist sentiment has subsided as Communism itself has subsided, but it was quickly replaced by anti-Muslim sentiments.

One need only look at the leadership of the United States and the parasitic pundits to realize that racism and sexism still cling like so much fecal matter.

And the recent controversy over the Colbert Report shows that satire and wit remain under constant attack.

Yes, this was possibly the most effective $2.99 I have ever spent in my life as it gave me more than a few hours of entertainment…it gave me a never-ending stream of subjects to contemplate.

 

(PS This is not intended as a comment on the United States as we have more than our share of problems in Canada. I simply discussed the US as that was Steve Allen’s context.)

 

For more about Steve Allen, check out these links:

Frank Zappa on The Steve Allen Show

Steve Allen’s Man on the Street

Steve Allen Online (official web site)