Category Archive: Non-Fiction

What We’re Reading: Writing and Life

76788Writing advice often can be taken as life advice. Today we share some books that connect writing and life.

Kathy’s Choice: Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande.

Oh, the dollars I have spent trying to find the one piece of advice that would turn me into a genius writer. I must have two dozen books on the craft of writing.

Annie Lamott’s book Bird by Bird reviewed by Sister Sharon below was my first, and it has some great technical and motivational advice; when I finished, I thought, “I can do this!”

Wish I had found this book along with it. Brande talks not so much about how to write, but how to be a writer.

Dorothea Brande presents us.

Us in that she focuses on what she calls writing magic, which comes from the marriage of our technical skills and our inner genius. This will not be accomplished in creative writing classes, she says, but by focusing on ourselves, our subconscious, and letting our genius out when we are stuck.

For someone who was a Psych major and later became a therapist, this one caught my attention. I swear if I had read this first, I would have gotten into good habits earlier, gotten the story out, and fussed with it later.

This is about us.

Dorothea Brande wrote her book Becoming a Writer in 1934 and it was reprinted in 1980.

“The book is for those who are fully in earnest, trusting to their good sense and their intelligence to see to it that they learn the elements of sentence and paragraph structure, that they already see that when they have chosen to write they have assumed an obligation toward their reader to write as well a they are able, that they will have taken (and are still taking) every opportunity to study the masters of English prose writing and that they have set up an exigent standard for themselves which they work without intermission to attain.”

So she assumes you know what you are doing.

According to her, there are four types of issues with writers:

  • Those who can’t write at all: “The full abundant flow that must be established if the writer is to be heard from simply will not begin. The stupid conclusion that if he cannot write easily he has mistaken his career is sheer nonsense.”
  • The one-book writer, “The writer who has had an early success but is unable to repeat it.”
  • The occasional writer, “a combination of the two: there are some writers who can, at wearisomely long intervals, write with great effectiveness.”
  • And the uneven writer “is the inability to carry a story, vividly but imperfectly apprehended, to a successful conclusion.” She admits this may be a technical issue, but she convincingly tells us there is a real possibility that this may not be so much a technical issue but one of a personality trait.

We have dual personalities, we artists. There is the emotional, childlike side we harness to create our craft, and the adult— the workman and the critic. Brande says they must exist beside and through each other in balance in order to create meaningful art. She advocates morning exercises, similar to Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, taking advantage of the not-quite-awake, childlike consciousness that allows the inner genius to come out.

She has exercises for you to perform to corral your inner genius. She says the creative writing classes are for the weak, that true originality and creativity comes from within, that we have roadblocks set up by our own subconscious that get in the way of true artistry. She says we can all write, and write well, the words flowing, our genius coming forth, but not without putting in the work.

She can be heavy-handed, which I actually liked. “Do this…you must…follow this rule…form this habit…” or go bag groceries for a living, because without this discipline you will not succeed. (Paraphrased.)

Such a refreshing read. She offers so much more in this small, wise book that I cannot begin to present here. Go get it. You won’t be disappointed.


Sharon’s Pick: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne LamottBird-by-Bird-image1

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird was one of the first, it may even have been the first book I read about writing craft! What a way to start!

Her authenticity, honesty, and practicality led me to think all writing craft books were like this. Not!

And perhaps her book stands out because she wrote as much about life as about the writing life. They seem inextricable in her work. She writes both non-fiction and novels and each book I’ve read is honed to near perfection. She simply has an amazing way with words. Okay, you’re right. I’m a groupie!

The title of Bird by Bird comes from a family story. Her brother, having procrastinated on a school project about birds, sat surrounded by books and overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. He didn’t even know how to begin. The wise father sat by his son and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

And that is a writing lesson as well as a life lesson. How do you accomplish what might seem impossible to do? Bit by bit, step by step, bird by bird.

Here are ten tips and my take on them, picked from Bird by Bird that should resonate with other writers as they did with me:

1. Write regularly. Everyone says it and so does Anne Lamott. You simply must practice your craft whether you feel like it or not, whether it’s good or not. Writing is your job. With the job that pays you money, you can’t just not show up because you don’t feel like it. You go to work. So, go to writing-work at the same time every day.

2. Pay attention. Writers notice and note everything. A good bit of writing is collecting life around you. The aromas on the air. The conversation snippets. The tension in a room. Notice then note what you noticed in the notebook you always have at hand.

3. Decide you are a writer. Not a wanna-be writer. Not a person who used to write. Not someone who used to yearn for writing time. You are a writer because you decide to be one and then you actualize that. It’s amazing how many people say they want to write but …. (fill in the blank). Just do it. Don’t talk about doing it. As Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

4. Make time to write. This is, of course, related to tip three. We all have the same twenty-four hours to spend. How we choose to spend discretionary hours (or what we prioritize to create more discretionary hours) is up to us. Yes, life happens. Yes, others will suck you dry if you don’t establish limits. But if you DECIDE to be a writer then you must jealously protect your writing time. I have author friends with kids, happy marriages, and volunteer efforts who crank out good books regularly. So can you, IF you choose to do so. You might be your own worst writing-time enemy.

5. Write down scenes and snippets of dialogue. No doubt you have already imagined part of your story even though you may not yet be aware of the story arc. Capture these inspirations. Write them down to store for later access. These insights and flashes are the fuel to power you through the project. It doesn’t matter when they will occur. You’ll find the place. For now, preserve them as you get them.

6. Break the task down to manageable bites. Examine the project. Is it your historical fiction novel with an astonishing revelation about the lost years in Lincoln’s life? What will it take to get that done? List components you need to work on (research, plotting, character sketches, story treatment, and so on) so you can see the scope of the project and cross them off as you do them.

7. Get over yourself. NO ONE writes a perfect first draft. What makes you think you’ll be the first to do so? If you go into this knowing that the first draft is going to need serious work later, you’ll be much happier. It is, in fact, a basic premise in the phenomenon known as National Novel Writing Month. Just write. Take time later to put the lipstick on your pig. (Well, hopefully it’s not a pig.)

8. Draw on your past. While not everyone has a dramatic or traumatic childhood, we all experienced failures and successes and frustrations and joys. Use the emotion from your experiences to write more authentically. Sister Kathy wrote about delving deeper than she ever had into her father’s death as a way to tap into that energy.

9. Deepen your soul through reading and writing. We need not just physical nourishment, but our spirit thirsts and hungers, too. Regular reading and writing fills up your soul. Replenish yourself or you shrivel and die. Replenishment through reading is obvious. But writing also feeds the soul if you are thoughtful, reflective, and probing as you write.

10. Care about your characters and get to know them. The best plots come from character development and change. You must show your vulnerabilities to make your characters vulnerable. Live in their skin and the dialogue reveals itself to you.

Oh, it was hard choosing only ten things I learned! Read Bird by Bird. I promise it will resonate with you, too. Then make your own top ten list.

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What We’re Reading: Biographies of Two Extraordinary Women

This month the Write on Sisters review two biographies. Writings about peoples’ lives goes way back. If you are not famous or important, writing about your own life (or your mom’s) may be classed as memoir. For the famous, a biography or autobiography is written based upon documentation. Primary sources are used as much as possible. One caveat for readers is the qualifications of the author to write a book on his/her own or someone else’s life. Additionally, there are concerns about writing an objective and balanced account of someone’s life that does not apply to memoir.

Sharon’ Pick: Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen

Beyond Miracle WorkerThe story of Johanna Mansfield Sullivan Macy is the ultimate rags to riches story. And it was her determination to better herself that led directly to positioning her to become Helen Keller’s teacher. Had she not done so, would another teacher have succeeded with Helen? Might we never have known of Helen Keller were it not for Annie Sullivan in her life and the promotion of Helen that occurred through the Perkins school, Sullivan’s alma mater?

This is the first definitive biography of Annie Sullivan in almost 50 years. Nielsen said she drew upon recently available, privately-held materials giving this biography, according to scholars, a depth and scope never before achieved. However, since Nielsen doesn’t identify what the new insights are, just interweaving them with elements available from other resources, the average reader can’t separate them. And that would be true with other biographers, so this is not a criticism, just a curiosity issue with this reader.

That it is clearly a heavily researched book with citations on most pages to validate quotations or inferences drawn is obvious. The twenty pages of notes cite the resources used. And you will learn more than you ever imagined learning or wanting to learn about this remarkable woman.

The writing style is mostly a linear telling of Annie Sullivan’s very complicated life. A child of extreme poverty, and with a debilitating eye disease that periodically blinded her, she accomplished much more than one in her circumstances should have.

One of Nielsen’s interesting points, made at various places in the biography, was how embarrassed Sullivan was by her eye condition. She did not want people to view her as handicapped and went to great lengths to conceal her trachoma. Similarly, she concealed her past even from Helen until they had been together 40 years.

The relationship of Helen and Annie was an interesting one to watch play out in these pages. Only fourteen years different in age, they were millennia apart in background. Helen, ever the optimist, often put a positive spin on Annie’s erratic behaviors when she wrote to others. She was extremely protective of Annie’s physical and emotional health, as well as her privacy.

Early on, Annie fought to convince others that she had not followed a recipe laid down by someone else for teaching Helen. That she had indeed developed a unique approach that resulted in the astounding skills Helen achieved. It didn’t help her case that she never fully delineated what those strategies were, nor did she replicate the approach with any other student. What little she wrote of methodology was decades after she had taught Helen. Her whole life she wanted to be acknowledged as a professional educator, but given her lack of formal training, not everyone believed she was.

Unfortunately, her physical vision was a problem most of her life. Born in 1866, at age five, she contracted trachoma, an eye disease associated with unsanitary conditions and easily cured by antibiotics today. She had many eye surgeries over the decades in which they would scrape off scar tissue from her eyelids, but nothing was ultimately successful. She died blind after years of pain.

For me, the early years of struggle for Annie Sullivan were the most compelling parts of her story. She should have ended up on the slagheap of humanity like the thousands of other poor, orphaned, and handicapped children of her time. But her determination to have a better life is incredibly inspiring. How did she even know there could be another life? And how brilliant was she to have overcome all those obstacles to become one of the most famous names in the world?

This is the story of a woman’s life unlike any you have likely read. My sole criticism is that there were multiple redundancies that could have benefited from another round of edits. But I cannot fault the passion and the scholarship that resulted in this telling of the story of Anne Mansfield Sullivan Macy.


Kathy’s pick: Agatha Christie, a Biography, by Janet Morgan

41b7psVRglL._AA160_Last week on PBS I watched a special program on Agatha Christie guided and narrated by David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot, about Agatha Christie’s life and times. I was interested enough to go find a biography and didn’t pick my head up for quite some time.

Hercule Poirot would have had a field day with her brain, much less the mysteries this woman left behind.

Born into a life of privilege, she was much loved and cared for, wanted for nothing and led a life of pleasure and love until her father died when she was eleven. The depth of her mourning was never explored, and, as was done in those days, she put one foot in front of the other and kept going. This set the tone for her books and the rest of her life, according to her biographer.

I learned that during World War I she became a nurse and worked with pharmaceuticals; this is where she learned about poisons, their effects, and their uses. Most of her stories center around chemistry, plant life, and poisons. These were all passions of Agatha’s and her books hold up because of it.

Her expertise in describing characters, coming up with plots and clues, most of them red herrings, led to her successful career as the preeminent mystery novelist. To enhance that, she became a photographer, an artist, and a dancer. As a child she sang opera and thought about becoming a professional artist, then learned to play the piano and thought about become a concert pianist. Although quite talented, she didn’t think she was good enough for either of those pursuits. All these experiences came into play in her books.

She married a very handsome man who was unfaithful to her and admitted it. This, coupled with the very recent death of her mother, brought back the sense of loss she endured as an eleven year old and something quite strange happened to her that to this day has not been explained. She disappeared, involving Scotland Yard and 1500 journalists and the general public. Today it would be on CNN every minute.The biographer goes into this in great detail, covering two chapters, and comes to no real conclusion, but it is said that her Mary Westmacott novels (intended to never be disclosed as original Agatha Christie books) delve into her emotions at that time and partly explain her actions.

When she died, a cache of 73 notebooks was found shoved behind a cabinet. In it were scribbles about her characters, plots and motivations. She had dozens of them going all the time, and she kept them. They have now been published for Christiephiles to peruse. She also wrote an autobiography, which, according to this author, served Agatha’s own needs and did not reveal the most interesting parts of her life.

This biography is exceptional in that it is extremely detailed, yet easy to read. For example, the author gives us some nuggets, little gifts: Christie uses stock characters she describes in her many lists: “twittery companion”, “prim, irritable, respectable gentleman”, even “BBC type”. This was a trick she used often, a red herring of sorts so the reader is so identified with the character their flaws are overlooked, and when the murderer is revealed, all makes sense.

The main focus of this biography, and one that will thrill fans, is that every book is analyzed to some degree, and some trivia is revealed about how the story came about along with the influences on Christie’s life at the time. She was prolific; she said the plots came easily; hundreds of thousands of them in her lifetime, but the writing itself did not. She had to work at it. The biographer estimates that there are ideas, plots, and storylines for at least sixty more books!

As a result, Dame Agatha Christie is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Bestselling Author. Her books have sold over 2 billion copies in 44 languages. Royalties are about $4 million per year. Agatha Christie is also one of the world’s most prolific writers, or authoress (as she called herself). Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap has the longest theatrical run, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, from 1952 to present day.

Agatha Christie died peacefully in her beloved home after having achieved monumental success in various genres, meeting the Queen of England and various heads of state, living all around the world, becoming a Dame of the British Empire, and publishing an astonishing output.

A woman to admire.





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What We’re Reading: August is YA Nonfiction

August will always be back-to-school time inside my head, I know Heather feels the same way. It’s the start of a new season, Fall, my favorite time of the year. I love how the chill at night is just starting to yip at summer’s heels. By the end of August I’m ready for a change, and change is a theme this month. All this thinking about all things academic and self-bettering has convinced the WriteOnSisters crew to tackle YA nonfiction. Today we have a collection of books intended to inspire some conversation and make us all think. Hopefully we all learned something useful with our chosen titles. I know I did. As my kids start to bundle up again, clutching their books and crisp apples, I remember it’s a wise Sister who keeps growing and passing on what she discoverers to others. I hope you enjoy the changing season and the book reviews.

Caryn’s Pick: SOLDIER GIRLS by Helen Thorpe

Soldier GirlsWomen in the military is an interesting societal issue that has garnered much attention in recent years, and not in a particularly favorable light. I thought it would be important reading for young women before they undertake a career in the military or just a stint to earn a free college education. I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate for the YA population so I decided to find out for myself.

It’s an account of three women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and how their military service affected their friendship, personal lives and families. The reviews cite Ms.Thorpe, a former journalist,  as “meticulously observant” and I guess that’s why I found it to be tedious. Too much trivia that didn’t add to our understanding of the characters. I also think the story would have been more reader-friendly if it had been written from the POV of the characters rather than from the omniscient narrator POV. Often it read like the author had a laundry list of things to relate and she needed to check them all off her list.

And okay, time to confess. I haven’t finished it. I meant to, but it’s 416 pages and I kept nodding off. But it does open eyes to the realities of military life: extremely hard work alternating with long periods of boredom, dealing with unwanted and aggressive attention from men as women are considered both alien and desirable- a love’em/ hate’em mentality, drinking/drugging too much, illicit affairs and facing danger in the extreme. And the promised free education? Which most admit is the draw in the first place in order to save them from abject poverty, has a number of strings attached that aren’t spelled out in the contracts they sign when they enlist.

I intend to finish it, eventually. It’s sort of like going to the gym, I know it’s good for me but I’d rather skip it. But I can’t recommend if for the younger set. Ms.Thorpe spends endless moments commenting on the political motivations for war, which is important, but I would have rather she focused on the women’s personal experiences and left the war commentary for another book.

And since the theme this month is change, I learned that the military can change you in many ways, and not all of them for the better.

Robin’s Pick: OH MYYY! THERE GOES THE INTERNET By George Takei

oh my

What can I say, wow this is a fun read. I didn’t expect the high level of honesty and down home humility. Takei has been a public figure for over fifty years and the source of a cult-like fan following due to his role as Sulu on Star Trek long before he became an internet sensation. He’s an outspoken humanitarian who manages to be both politically on the cutting edge and funny in his appeals. He’s open and charming about his most intimate concerns and pet peeves. Can you say Twilight anyone? It’s a delightful change to read a celebrity tell-all that is intelligent and doesn’t pander to mindless hype. Takei admits public adoration is nice, but he clearly understands it only matters if you use your popularity for positive social change. Since change is our theme (and I’m guilt of being a Trekkie) this seemed like the perfect book for me.

As an added bonus the book is informative. There are just so many things I never knew about Twitter and Facebook. I don’t consider myself an expert on either platform, but I do use Twitter a fair amount and before a cyber bullying incident involving my son, I used Facebook a lot. I think it’s safe to say after reading this book I am more confident then ever that I lack the cojones to be an internet high stakes player. Takei makes it clear he’s taken a huge amount of heat for things he considered just a bit of fun when he posted them. In a cyber paced world you need to run, or get out of the way. Takei chooses to run and from where I sit it looks like he’s doing a mighty fine job of leading the race. If you’re looking for a book sure to cause a nerdgasm (or two) pick it up and enjoy Takei’s insightful comments on what it means to be pushing 80 and a media juggernaut.

Heather’s Pick: METHLAND by Nick Reding

BookCover-MethlandThis book isn’t aimed specifically at the YA audience, but I think is an important read for teens growing up in North America, many of whom are trying to make sense of the meth problem that often plagues their communities. That’s the reason I read it. I’m no longer a teenager, but in the early 2000s meth became a huge problem in my hometown and I wanted to understand what had happened and what could be done. Reding does an excellent job outlining the socio-economic factors that contributed to the meth epidemic, as well as the corporate and political influences at play. But this isn’t a dry read of mere facts. He tells the story of rural America’s meth problem by giving voice to the people affected – an addict trying to stay clean to raise his son, a mayor determined to revitalize his drug-riddled town, a dealer deformed after blowing up his meth lab, a veteran trying to find work in a dying rural community, etc. Their stories are tragic, painful and often disturbing, but Reding weaves them into a narrative that’s full of empathy and even a little hope.

I think every teen should read this book, despite some of the graphic content. That’s life. And if we don’t want the next generation to make the same mistakes as the current generation, they need to know the deal.

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