The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark

If your book club is boring, if you weary of your writing students saying only they did or did not like an assigned text, if you need better feedback from your critique group, then this book may help.

Clark, Roy Peter. The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing. New York: Little, Brown & Co, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, instructional literary critique

Summary: Using bearable dosages of 10-pages apiece, each chapter of Clark’s book teaches readers how put on x-ray goggles and see under the skin of some literary masterworks. Shirley Jackson, Earnest Hemingway, Rachel Carson. Fiction and nonfiction. Clark pinpoints a selection of techniques and illustrates how the writer deployed them, to what effect, why it matters, and how an emerging writer might adopt those techniques.

Critique: Compared to the reams of scathing or geeky lit critique I had read for both of my Master’s programs, Clark’s assessments of these masterworks are light. That is not to say his analyses were ineffective. On the contrary, about the time I’d be gearing up for some deconstruction of Foucaultian power paradigms or perhaps a feminist examination of symbolic liminal zones as they relate to Kristeva’s archetypes, Clark would wrap the chapter with a quick conclusion and list of applicable writing techniques or exercises. In other words, Clark can and will whet your appetite for rich literary analysis and then get the heck out of Dodge before you a.) get bored or b.) mount a counter argument (not because you want to but because the habit carved into your brain tissues after years of formal education).

I heartily recommend this book to book clubbers, the teachers of writing classes, and the leaders of critique groups. Wine drinkers, students, and novice writers alike can see what it is to pick apart text. To read as they have never done before. They can glean from Clark’s tutorials not just how to do that, but why. In mechanical terms, it’s like teaching someone how to first see a piston in the great tangled metal belly of an engine and then helping them comprehend how miraculous, how integral that little component is — not just in the smooth and powerful running of that motor, but also in the grand scheme of automobile history and human innovation.

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Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

If you often yearn for 26-hour days — a bit more time to get done all that life requires and maybe, JUST MAYBE, a wink of sleep — this book is definitely for you!

Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (self-help-ish sans the tearful journal exercises)

Summary: Duhigg maps out the strategies successful people and industries use to attain utmost productivity. Defined here, productivity is ” the name we give our attempts to [best use] our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” In other words, Duhigg sets out to teach you how to succeed with less stress and struggle.

Critique: Author of the bestselling The Power of Habit (2012), Duhigg returns to deliver a fresh set of neurological schematics underscoring how to get the most optimal performances out of our brains. As always, he does a masterful job weaving technical exposition and compelling scenes involving the many people he profiled and interviewed while researching the book.

For example, you may be right in the middle of a based-on-true-events plane crash scene when Duhigg hits the pause button and delivers some bit of crucial data on the brain in times of extreme stress. The suspense mounts and just when you think you can’t take it, he hits play and resumes the gripping drama. The result: reading this book is lot like watching The Big Short.

Students studying how to compose creative nonfiction would do well to study Duhigg’s techniques.

Besides a good craft study, Duhigg’s latest book outlines some unconventional approaches to productivity all based on the latest behavioral and neuroscience research. Evidently, there IS a wrong way and a right way to make a to-do list. Most of us do it the wrong way, resulting in scads of wasted time, incomplete projects and missed deadlines–not to mention the scree of eroded self-confidence. Also, if you want to get through that nebulous inbox of unanswered emails, you’ll have to learn to reply like a U.S. Marine. Instead of setting the usual SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timelined), set stretch goals. Finally, once you understand why fear is an intrinsic part of innovating new ideas, you can harness it to intensify your creativity and hit your deadlines and benchmarks. In other words, if you’re a writer, you’ll want this book on your shelf.

 

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

oliver_poetryhandbookMuch like a quark, this book is small yet packed with the powers to either grip or unravel the universe.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. New York: Harvest, 1994. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (craft book)

Summary: Winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and all-around linguistic seductress Mary Oliver shares her insights on the nature and construct of poetry, language, and the communication that takes place beneath the words on the page.

Critique: Like her poetry, Oliver’s handbook is brief, to-the-point, and powerful. She gets right the to point and does not dilly-dally with a lot of rhetorical set-up or explanatory embellishments, as the typical poetry textbook or writing craft book might. Her examples are salient. The writing is unquestionably clear.

Writers equipped with this text will gain invaluable lessons including: the difference between a rock and stone as implied by their phonics rather than their geology; the Romeo and Juliet love affair that is the writing process, a drool-inducing analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry; the liquids and mutes of the English language and how they can combine effectively; and one of the clearest explanations I have ever found on poetic construction, from scansion to stresses, from meters to feet.

Chef’s Table (hint: look under the table)

chefs-tableChef’s Table. Produced by David Gelb, Andrew Fried, et al. Boardwalk Pictures, City Room Creative, FINCH, 2015.

Genre: docuseries (cooking…and so much more)

Summary:The promoters and producers would have you believe that every episode of Chef’s Table profiles one of the world’s leading chefs for 45-55 minutes accompanied with pleasurably slow, sensuous, sumptuous shots of gourmet cuisine. And on the surface (dare I say, on the tabletop), that is entirely true. The other crucial aspect featured in every show exists under that surface and feeds a powerful extension of creation, much as nitrogen, roots, humus, and earthworms feed the organic bounty of the globe!

Critique: This show boasts a quiver of assets. Its tone is elegant, backed by sexy food montages soundtracked with classical music. Its cast of top chefs truly are geniuses and savants. Its topics are sophisticated at intelligent: ethical food supply, cultural restoration through food diplomacy, food as interpretive music, dance, even fairy tale! In short, this is not a show for folks who want to just “Netflix and chill.” It is too compelling to just be background ambiance.

nature-as-artist

“Nature as an artist-2” by zeeveez.

Also, I’d wager there are few amorous partners out there brash enough to compete with the sinful delectables served up on the show!

The core ingredient that really sizzles across every episode — and the reason why I am featuring it in the place of a recommended book — is its subtext. That which is happening under the tablecloth.

Writing students would do well to study how most of the episodes talk on the blatant surface about one thing, while showing, hinting at, suggesting, enlightening another message deeper down. Many budding writers have a hard time with subtext. They struggle to notice it, let alone reproduce it. But subtext is essential to good storytelling because it invites the reader (or viewer) to participate with the text, rather than passively witness.

In a quickndirty example of subtext, I always point to the glorious scene in The Incredibles (2004), when the AI monster ball is shredding through the city. Frozone is ready for action, opens the secret compartment where he keeps his super suit only to find it missing….


On the surface, the conversation that follows between Frozone and his wife is all about the suit’s location, but underneath that, this couple is really squabbling over the power dynamic of their relationship. Who’s the boss, or who wears the (super) pants? That element is made clear in the subtext, or in what is not being openly said. Frozone does NOT say: Honey, you are always undermining me. You never take my job as a super hero seriously.

Nonetheless, that is exactly what gets communicated to viewers who are actively piecing together these details.

So what is Chef’s Table putting in its subtext? The treacherous, arduous, daunting path of the artist or creator. The process by which one learns to trust in his or her own creative spark and allows it to burn wild. The armor one puts on to protect the feral soul from the slings and arrows of doubters and skeptics.

broken-window

“Soul” by Marcell Schwarz

It quietly illustrates how creators must apprentice to a master, copy technique until skills are perfected and ingrained, and finally break free from instruction in order to forge what is new, unique, and true to the self. And most importantly, the subtext illuminates how to attain resiliency — that seemingly magical ability to weather downturns, to grin and bear it, to turn failure into success.

((Now, after you’ve watched a few episodes, you may say, “Hey, these elements can’t be subtext because the chef’s are talking about them in their interview narratives.” I will concede that the chef’s are uttering these insights and truths; however, the directors have arranged these statements to take a backseat to the stunning food cotillions and the shimmering musical fanfares. Thus, the “message” of the show is embedded. It is arranged underneath its more primary elements. And, I further argue these themes are subtext because so many other reviews completely overlooked them and knocked the show for lacking anything deeper and being little more than foodie porn.))

Finally, I recommend this show not only to budding writers in need of a subtext booster shot, but also to writers and creators going through a moment of crisis with their work. Those who have suffered a dent in self-confidence and ability. I give you permission: take a night off to “Netflix and fulfill.” Trust me when I say you’ll hunger for more than food.

The Pinball Plot

Let’s play a game! A what-if guessing game. What if all your dreams came true in the New Year? What if, instead, your worst nightmares actually happened? What is something you’d never imagine befalling you and what if that very thing occurred?

meditation

“Meditation” by Kah Wai Sin.

I know. I know. The zen-ists find it terribly unfashionable to play such games. Disconnects you from the lush and fertile present moment — that exhilarating continuum of now-right-now. Fine. I exempt the zen-ists, but not the writers, from playing.

Writers must often play at these guessing games in order to construct the authentic arc of a character’s life through story. They must molecularlize the tissues that bridge plot to person, event to emotion. They must knit time with insight, experience with catharsis.

The methods a writer might enlist to accomplish this feat are as limitless as they are unique to the user. Some writers employ complex character maps which catalog the myriad details and events of a character’s life before or “outside” the story. Favorite colors, worst fears, most memorables, etc. From these webs, the writers hope to spider out the juiciest themes which will feed the growing story events. Other writers immerse themselves in a character’s hobbies, jobs, and distractions. Ideally, the various sounds, textures, and flavors of these activities will season the metaphors that, in turn, build the broth of story. After all, as George Eliot notes, “we all of us […] get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act […] on the strength of them.”*

tadpoles

“Tadpoles” by Mark Robinson.

And still other writers play at simple what-if guessing games. What if this or that happens? What if the character chooses this, but not that? Engage with the what-ifs and the possibilities begin to tadpole in the pond of your imagination. A potentially overwhelming situation for the writer eager to nail down a sturdy plot, but an invigorating fertilizer for the imagination hoping to find the unexpected yet inevitable mysteries!

If we were to back into the past and ask me to guess what if my life unfolded exactly as I envisioned it just then, I would have said (with rambunctious certainty) that I would wind up the wife and devoted partner of my most treasured and beloved best friend. I could see nothing else. I could not imagine any other outcomes. Or maybe, I was too afraid to play with what-ifs.

What if that was not the outcome? What if, instead, tragedy pounced on me and spent the next year and half gnashing the bones of my broken heart between its sharp teeth? What if the most unthinkable thing I could not imagine actually happened?

extraball

“Extra Ball” by Shawn Clover.

Only in looking back can I trace the ricochet rebound boomerang skip wiggle weave jounce journey of my life. Not just recently, but going all the way back. Only while looking back can I see the restrictions fear placed on my imagination.

Conjuring pinball scenarios lends much to a person’s resilience, if not to a writer’s ability to plot surprising and fulfilling stories. Remember that your characters’ lives are not javelins. Dare to be erratic in your outlining. Dare to imagine the unimaginable.

In the midst of my bounce and bang off the rubber band bumpers — reams of unpublished writing, unanswered queries, blanket rejections, and that unexpected heartache as deep as the Grand Canyon — the most unimaginable thing gradually happened: I got published…in my chosen field of children’s writing, no less! And then, I got published again. Aaaand again. By the close of 2016, I will have produced a children’s magazine article, a short story, two science picture books, two middle grade civics/history books, and three mixed discipline books for young readers!

So, you tell me, 2017: what if? What if.

cobblestone_article

“Striking a Balance,” in Cobblestone. Ed. Meg Chorlian. May/June 2016.

muse-magazine-february-2016

“Body of Knowledge” in Muse. Ed. Johanna Arnone. February 2016.

Freedom of Speech. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

Freedom to Petition. Our Basic Freedoms Series. New York: Gareth Stevens, 2017 (forthcoming).

 The Space Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

The Nuclear Arms Race. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

Crazy Road Races. Greatest Races Series. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2017 (forthcoming).

 

 

*p 85. Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.