‘Seriously…I’m Kidding’ by Ellen DeGeneres

August 22, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews


I like Ellen, I really do, and I know she hates people who are judgmental. But I’m going to be judgmental here: her new book, Seriously…I’m Kidding, is not very good. Seriously, and I’m not kidding.

The reason I chose this book is because I haven’t read anything for about four months and wanted to get back into it with something light and easy. And this book is very light and very easy. I finished it while riding on various forms of public transport during a single day.

First, I want to talk about the positives. Ellen definitely wrote this book — as opposed to some ghost writer — because her voice permeates every chapter, every page and every sentence. She’s sharp, charming and kind. She’s personable, affable and funny. It’s watching her on her popular TV show.

And if you like her brand of witty, irreverent, self-aggrandisingly self-deprecating style of sarcastic humour, you’ll find plenty of it in this book. Some of it is almost like a written version of a standup routine.

Being the wonderful human being that she is, Ellen also infuses the book with a few pearls of wisdom about life and how to be a better person. Stuff like not not throwing trash out the window, the courtesy of being punctual and being honest, and enjoying life to the fullest. She doesn’t do it in a preachy way either — most of her messages have a jokey tone will give you a couple of chuckles.

Having said that, this is not the book you would read if you actually want to find out anything new or insightful about Ellen. And really, isn’t that why people would want to read her books in the first place?

In line with the book’s theme, just about everything is a joke. You think she’s telling a story or some vignette that will lead somewhere and reveal something about her, her relationships or experiences, but soon you realise she just made the whole thing up for a laugh. It happens over and over, and before long it becomes clear that you can’t take anything she says in the book seriously.

That’s not a deal breaker, but it can get frustrating. What is even more frustrating is the feeling that Ellen’s just phoning it in with this book. I haven’t read her two previous books so I can’t compare, but I would be shocked if her first two books are of the same quality.

There are some shockingly lazy chapters where she rambles on without making a real point. There are way too many incoherent short stories (some just a paragraph), a bunch of short lists about what to do and what not to do, etc, and even pages of random drawings for children to colour in.

There’s a chapter called ‘The Longest Chapter’, the majority of which just discusses why it’s the longest chapter. There’s a chapter of ‘Additional Thank-Yous’ to people she didn’t thank in the acknowledgments at the start of the book. There’s a chapter comprising just a 140-character tweet called ‘Tweet Chapter’. There’s an aptly titled chapter called ‘Boredom’. By the time you get to the last chapter entitled ‘Last Chapter’, you start to get the feeling that maybe Ellen was just finding ways to pad the page count.

It’s wrong to say this because I’m sure she put a lot of thought and effort into the writing. But if I’m being honest, there were times I suspected that the entire book may have been an extremely elaborate prank on her readers– in which case, bravo — and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I just wasted a whole lot of time. In a book of more than 60 chapters, each with a different topic, I would be able to count the number of genuinely good chapters on one hand. And that just doesn’t cut it.

There are indeed moments of enjoyment the book has to offer, though these all come in bits and pieces as opposed to part of a well-structured narrative. And to me, Ellen has always been this kind of a comedian, great at eliciting a lot of chuckles through her quick wit but never a master at generating the big belly laughs. That is magnified even more in the context of a written book, which is much more difficult to make people laugh than standup.

As such, Seriously…I’m Kidding comes across as a much less funny version of the brilliantly irreverent The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper. In the case of that book, however, it’s at least obvious what the aim was.

If you just want to kill some time and read a bunch of random, silly, mildly amusing jokes from Ellen, then by all means give Seriously…I’m Kidding a try. But if you’re looking for genuine insights about Ellen and her life and experiences or jokes that will make you laugh out loud, regrettably, you’re probably not going to find them here.


Book Review: ‘I Love Being the Enemy’ by Reggie Miller

March 30, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews


I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read the one and only book written by my favourite baller of all time, Reggie Miller.

I Love Being the Enemy is an apt title. Reggie made a name and a career out of being the villain, especially in Madison Square Garden in New York, where his play is the stuff of legend. He was the guy who poured in 25 points in the fourth quarter against the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Playoffs while jawing against Spike Lee on the sidelines, then killed them with his mind-boggling 8 points in 9 seconds the year after. He pushed off Michael Jordan for that game-winning three in 1998, and remains one of the only people in the world who ever made his Airness lose his cool (and try to scratch his eyes out). He banked in a 38-foot turnaround three in the 2002 playoffs against the Nets  to force overtime, then dunked over three defenders to force another.

No matter what anyone says about him, Reggie Miller is an inspiration. He may be a bit of a dick sometimes, but he owns up to it like a man, gives his respect where its due, and never crosses the line. That’s the kind of dick every dick should aspire to be. And let’s not forget, despite his alien-stick-figure appearance, the massive balls he has to be able to take — and hit — some of the biggest shots in NBA history. No wonder I fell in love with this man right from the get-go.

I Love Being the Enemy, just like Reggie, is somewhat unusual. Rather than the typical sports memoir with clear themes or topics for each chapter, it’s written like a journal of sorts, penned by Reggie sporadically throughout the course of the 1994-1995 NBA season. It came at a perfect time too, as some of you might recall that was the season right after Reggie became a household name with his 25-point fourth quarter at the Garden, and covers his 8-points-9-seconds heroics later in the playoffs. The Pacers were considered up-and-coming contenders, with passing maestro Mark Jackson manning the point, the Dunkin’ Dutchman Rik Smits in the post, and the Davis boys, Dale and Antonio, doing all the bruising dirty work down low. It was also the season when Michael Jordan returned to the league mid-way through the season following his baseball stint, and the very first game he played upon his return was of course in Indiana against Reggie.

Each entry is written under a specific date like a diary, though every now and then he would go back in time to talk about things in his past, his family, his teammates, his opponents and what he thought about the game in general. As a result, the book is all over the place. There is no doubt an invisible structure holding it all together, though when reading it you feel as though it’s jumping from person to person and place to place. I didn’t have a problem with this approach per se, but it does make it harder to go back and search for passages you enjoyed.

Stylistically, the book is Reggie through and through. Though it’s technically co-written with sportswriter Gene Wojciechowski, the feel is all Reggie, and you can almost hear his voice in your head as you read the lines. It’s chatty, it’s funny and it’s sincere. On the downside, this also means it’s not the most well-written book, complete with all of Reggie’s rambling and superfluous verbal habits, like “To be honest”, “Let’s face it” and so forth.

For me, the book is a confirmation of many things I already knew about Reggie, though there are some things in there that surprised me. I knew he was an unlikely sports star, having required braces on his legs until he was four. He wasn’t supposed to walk or run, let alone become the best shooter in the best basketball league on the planet. I knew he lived in the shadow of his sister Cheryl — arguably the greatest women’s player of all time — for most of his life, and wouldn’t be able to beat her one-on-one until he could literally dunk on her. Just about everyone now knows about the infamous story when Reggie was gloating about his 39-point game in high school until Cheryl casually noted that she scored 105 on the same night. I knew he was superstitious and taped two quarters under his wrist band to remind himself to always play hard because his father once told him that his play wasn’t worth 50 cents.

reg cheryl

Cheryl and Reggie at the latter’s Hall of Fame ceremony

What I didn’t realize was how ridiculous Reggie’s work ethic was. He was always the first in to practice and the game arena and the last to leave, no matter who else played on the team. It was just the way he was. I didn’t know how much respect he had for all his coaches, even if he doesn’t always agree with them. In fact, he treated everyone on his team with respect, never talking behind anyone’s back or airing grievances to the media. As his ex-coach Larry Brown said, Reggie approached the game “the right way.”

With so many airheads, problem childs and douchebags in the league, Reggie was a surprisingly reasonable guy whose on court and off court personas were completely different. Like most professional athletes, he has an ego, but for him it was all about winning and not scoring a whole bunch of points. At various times throughout the book he notes that his teammates, coaches and the media all questioned why he didn’t take more shots, though for him it was about doing whatever he could to guide the team to victory. He also never took his success for granted. I knew he wanted to win a ring very badly, but I didn’t know he had such an appreciation for how hard it is to win games and survive in the NBA. That’s why he actually said he would have retired by 35 if he had won a ring.

I have many favourite parts in this book. I loved the respect Reggie had for Michael Jordan, whom he felt sorry for because of the way he was hounded by the press. Reggie spoke with a passion and anger when it came to the way Jordan was forced to live his life in a bubble, and it was his belief that Jordan retired because he was fed up with the constant attention and drummed-up controversies. For Reggie, Jordan was the ultimate measuring stick — he would hold and push and grab and trip Jordan to beat him in a game, but the amount of respect he had for No. 23 as a player was unparalleled. I’m sure it didn’t hurt when Jordan told Reggie that he was the second-best shooting guard in the league. Oh, and I absolutely loved this story, which he recently retold on Jimmy Kimmel.

Larry Bird, who was not yet Reggie’s coach at the time, also featured in a few golden nuggets. There was of course the infamous “present” he delivered to teammate Chuck Person during a Christmas game, and I also laughed out loud when Reggie recounted how he once tried to psyche Bird out by trash-talking him at the free throw line. Michael Jordan might be the GOAT, but for me, Larry Legend will always be the man.

The young Reggie tales were also great. The battles in the backyard with Cheryl and his brothers, his “crazy” college years, and my personal fave, the street ball hustle he and Cheryl would pull on unsuspecting players. Reggie would play against bigger, stronger kids on the block, and when money got involved he’d call out his shy-looking sister from behind the bushes. They’d up the bet after looking amateurish, and then, BAM, turn on their games and smoke the poor bastards. I so wish they had footage of that.

Another aspect of the book I found interesting was all the stuff Reggie said about players and other issues at the time, which we can now reflect on 20 years into the future.   For instance, Reggie raved on about two rookies at the time, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, calling them future superstars in the making (they’d go on to win co-Rookie of the Year and fulfill that prophecy), but he also said Kidd was great because he doesn’t get involved in politics with his coach. As some of you might know, Kidd would go on to be ushered out of Brooklyn as coach precisely because he got too involved in team politics.


Reggie also spoke of the need for a rookie salary cap, noting that it was crazy and detrimental for players for rookies to come into the league earning more than the vets. He was right about that and he was also right about the greatness of Penny Hardaway, who would later eliminate the Pacers that season. The best prediction, if you can call it that, is his thoughts on former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whom he didn’t think very highly of.

Not all his predictions were right, of course. Reggie did think JR. Rider was going to be something special, and he believed Kevin Garnett should have gone to college. He also thought OJ Simpson was innocent and that his marriage was going to last forever (oops!). Oh, and he thought he’d never make it into the Hall of Fame.

If I were being objective, I’d tell you that I Love Being the Enemy is just another sports memoir on the market that doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from its competitors. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of the genre, though it reads better today than it did 20 years ago because we now know what kind of career Reggie will be remembered for and the hindsight to reflect on the things he wrote at the time. I’d say it’s a solid read for the average basketball fan and a must for lovers and haters of Reggie alike.


Orange is the New Black: Book vs TV Series

August 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews


They say the truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s not the case with Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the inspiration for Netflix’s hit series of the same name.

Orange is the New Black, the TV show, was last year’s best new series, full of wonderful characters, witty humour and compelling drama. It was intriguing, exciting and dangerous, while at the same time making some insightful comments about society, human nature and the US prison system. The second season, which aired earlier this year, started off a little slow, but by the end of it I was convinced that it was just as good, if not better, than the first season.

It was with such high expectations that I decided to read the book on which the series is based. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison details how Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the show) served 13 months of her 15-month drug trafficking sentence at FCI Danbury, a minimum security prison in Connecticut. I wanted to find out more behind-the-scenes stuff and learn about what the “real” Piper is like, but instead the book turned out to be a strange and disappointing read. There were familiar names and characters, and a few incidents here and there that I vaguely recognized, but for the most part the book and the show could not be more different.

To be honest, the book was a so much less interesting and boring than the show, which says two things: 1. Women’s prison in real life is nowhere near as dangerous or exciting as the show makes it out to be; and 2. The people who make the TV show are geniuses for creating such compelling television from this source material.

The book, published in 2010, is a fairly straightforward, mostly chronological memoir with 18 chapters for a total of 327 pages (paperback). It begins with some early details of Kerman’s life and how she got into a lesbian relationship with a drug smuggler, and how that dalliance came back to bite her a decade later when she was charged for her minor role in the drug ring. After making a plea bargain, she is sent to Danbury for 15 months, while her fiance Larry (played by Jason Biggs in the show) waits for her patiently on the outside.

The central narrative is Kerman’s individual experience, and each chapter deals with different aspects of minimum-security prison life, whether it is her fellow inmates, their families, strip searches, wardens, prison workshops, labour or meal time. Kerman is a fairly good writer and knew exactly what kind of book she wanted to write, and many of her observations are astute and reflective, especially those about how poorly the US justice and prison systems are run. There are dashes of humour, but most of the book is dedicated to documenting her journey of self-discovery, the people she met and how she came to accept responsibility for her actions, and in doing so became a stronger, better person.

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her in Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her

Fans of the TV show will recognise many of the names in the book (most of which were changed from their real life counterparts). Of course there’s Piper and Larry, but a lot of the other characters on the show are completely new inventions or a mish-mash of people from the book. Alex (played by Laura Prepon), for example, is Nora, and she never sets foot in Danbury. Characters with names like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) exist, but they are different people, while Red (Kate Mulgrew) is known as Pop in the book (though there is another Red) and “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) is known by the significantly less witty nickname of Gay Pornstar. Kerman’s relationship with each of these characters is also nothing like they are in the series. In other words, don’t read the book if you are looking to learn more about the series.

After two seasons and 26 episodes of around 50-60 minutes in length (and another season coming), the TV show has outgrown its source material. In the book, we only see things from Piper’s perspective, and even her closest friends in the prison are only given brief intros. As a result, we don’t get to know them as well as we do in the series, and we don’t care about them nearly as much. It’s not a knock on the book or Kerman’s writing, just an inevitable truth that comes with a more expansive and dynamic medium.

More importantly, the book sticks largely to the facts (as far as we know), whereas the TV series has been given free rein to exaggerate and embellish. This is why, after seeing how much conflict and danger and backstabbing and sex there is in the show, I got bored reading the extremely bland lifestyle in Danbury, where the most exciting thing for the inmates was wondering whether Martha Stewart would be sent there (she wasn’t). At Danbury, Kerman was rarely involved in any conflict with other inmates (if at all), and there were few suggestions that other inmates were in conflicts with one another. She was not starved, she was not beat up, she did not engage in a sexual relationship with anyone, and she certainly was never in danger of being stabbed or sent to the SHU. Good for her, but not so good for us readers expecting something more explosive and scandalous.

Ultimately, I found Orange is the New Black to be a solid read — nothing special but insightful enough to keep my attention. If you’re a big fan of the TV series like I am, however, it’s not a book I would recommend, especially if you think it might help you learn more about the characters or what might happen to them further down the track.


Book Review: ‘My Story’ by Elizabeth Smart & Chris Stewart

February 13, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

my story

Released late last year, My Story is a first person account how 14-year-old Utah teen Elizabeth Smart was abducted by a perverted homeless preacher and his wife in 2002 and held as a sex slave for nine months. I vaguely remember reading about the abduction when it happened, though it wasn’t until she was rescued and details of her harrowing ordeal came to light that the story spread to international headlines. Her name came up again when she married a Scottish missionary in 2012, and I recall mentioning that she bore quite a resemblance to 24 actress Elisha Cuthbert.

What do you think?

What do you think?

There are many articles, several books and a TV movie about her story, but it has taken more than 10 years for Smart to build the courage to tell her story in her own words, with some help from the book’s other author, Chris Stewart, an American politician, author, and fellow devout Mormon.

When I began reading the book I did not know much about Smart, her abductors or the details of her captivity — I didn’t even know how long she had been held for. But if you would like to know a bit of the background, then here it is (skip if you prefer not to know): Smart was 14 years old when she was snatched from her Salt Lake home at knife-point by Brian David Mitchell, a homeless man who claims to be a prophet of God, in June 2002. She was led back to a small camp in the woods where she was made Mitchell’s “second wife” and forced to live with him and his first wife, Wanda Barzee. She was raped daily and repeatedly and went for days with little to no food or water. Initially she was chained to a tree, but later on she accompanied Mitchell and Barzee on little expeditions to the city. They then moved to San Diego, but a few months later returned to Utah, where she was eventually rescued by police.

While I applaud the attempt and Smart’s message of hope despite enduring what most of us can’t even begin to fathom, the truth is that My Story is not a great book. I had always thought that a true story is better when it comes straight from the mouth (or in this case, the fingers) of the person who actually experienced it, but this book has provided a perfect example of why that is not necessarily a good idea.

The content is all there, but the quality of the writing is lacking. I’m not in any way trying to blame poor Smart — she’s was just a girl when taken and not a professional writer, but Stewart, whom she collaborated with to bring the book to life, and the editor(s) of the book, should have done a better job of balancing out the narrative to make it a more engaging and compelling read. At times the narrative is chatty like this blog (with lots of exclamations! and comments in parenthesis), while other times it can read like a personal diary or a preacher’s sermon. Occasionally it becomes journalistic. The story would at times feel like Smart is telling it as though she’s back in the moment as an immature teenager, but then, without warning, she would seem removed from child herself and be telling the story from the present as a 25-year-old adult.  The contrast is jarring, and if feels like you can almost tell which parts Smart wrote herself and which parts were added in or shaped by other writers and editors.

I also found it interesting, but not surprising considering Smart’s strict Mormon upbringing and beliefs, that some of the more gruesome aspects of Smart’s ordeal were self-censored and skimped over. For instance, she says that Mitchell forced her to engage in certain degrading acts against her will, but she doesn’t really suggest what they are. It’s not that I want to read all the disgusting details, but the decision to sanitise the story for the sake of protecting readers mutes the emotional power of the story .

It was also difficult to relate to Smart at times even though she was telling her own story. Part of it is because she is a very devout Mormon and had a strict and sheltered upbringing — which is why she did not come across as an “ordinary” 14-year-old American teenager and felt like someone much younger and more naive . But these are obviously not things she would say about herself. If you don’t keep her background firmly in mind, there is a risk that parts of her ordeal will feel incredible, perhaps even unbelievable. I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of occasions she could have easily escaped or sought help — including, most ridiculously, when they were confronted by a suspecting detective in public — but ended up doing nothing, even when she repeatedly emphasized that she did not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and absolutely loathed her evil captors.

I’m not doubting Smart’s credibility for one second, but hearing an explanation from a different voice might have made her actions, reactions and thoughts easier to understand. Instead, it sometimes felt like she was trying to justify why she acted a certain way, and I would have preferred a psychologist or medical expert to try and explain her behaviour, that is assuming it can be explained at all. In fact, it wasn’t until her rescue that I began to appreciate the gravity of the paralysing fear she felt in Mitchell’s presence during those nine months — and realised that perhaps until you go through something that traumatic yourself you don’t have the right to judge the reactions of others.

The final chapters after her rescue are the strongest parts of the book and provide more depth and insight into Smart’s character, her incredible resolve and the wondrous support of her family. Be warned though that as Smart is the narrator, her unwavering belief in God is a theme that appears continuously throughout the course of the book. Personally, I was impressed with how she could do that despite everything she has been through, though I can also understand if some readers find her unshakable conviction in her faith a little irritating.

Note that this not the only book you would read if you want to find out the entire Elizabeth Smart kidnapping story and is probably something better suited for people who already know a little about the case or have seen the TV movie or read about it elsewhere. There is very little information in these pages about who her abductors were and what happened during their subsequent trial, nor does it go into any of the drama in her household during her absence, including the suspicions against her family and manhunts for wrong suspects. It’s more of a blow-by-blow personal account of her nine months in captivity, and that’s it, with no real attempt to provide a comprehensive background or context before or after the events.

In the end, My Story came as advertised because it really is Elizabeth Smart’s story, flaws and all. It’s a terrifying story about overcoming unspeakable acts of cruelty and degradation, but it’s also tale of hope about coming up with the strength to move on with life when so many of the things you value are shattered and can never be recovered. The personal details of Smart’s harrowing ordeal will keep you flipping the pages, though I must admit I was somewhat disappointed that it was not a more captivating read.


Favourite passages from Anne Lamott’s ‘Bird by Bird’

February 3, 2013 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews


One of my favourite memories from the UK was reading Anne Lamott’s classic writing memoir, Bird by Bird, on a lazy afternoon in 2009 in the Borders bookstore in Cambridge. It was one of those books that writing courses love to use and extract from at every opportunity because it’s simple, instructional, insightful and poignant — the kind of book that writers would love to write. It’s why the memoir is still going strong almost 20 years since it was first published in 1994.

I never got to finish the book in Cambridge but I recently had the opportunity to revisit it — from start to finish this time — as part of my New Year’s resolution to read more in 2013. I enjoyed it as much as I did the first time around, and its nuggets of wisdom resonated with me probably even more this time after I spent the last few years trying to figure out how much I really want to write.

It’s one of those books you can get through in a single sitting, as long as you can stomach Lamott’s neurotic, somewhat exaggerated style when constantly describing her mood swings and insecurities as a writer. Much of it is absolutely spot on and laugh-out-loud funny, but I can understand if can irk some readers after a while.hn

On the other hand, it’s also a book you can pick up at any time and skip to a particular chapter if you need guidance or inspiration on a specific area or topic. It helps that the book is neatly separated into five parts of varying lengths: writing, the writing frame of mind, help along the way, publication — and other reasons to write, and the last class.

The first part, writing, is perhaps the most useful for a new writer as it gives concrete advice and tips such as using short assignments to get the ball rolling, not being afraid to write shitty first drafts and avoiding perfectionism like the plague. The chapters on character, plot dialogue and set design, among others, can also be very instructive.

Part two, the writing frame of mind, is more about developing the mentality of a writer — to be alert and looking for ideas wherever you go and whenever you can, caring about what you write, and how to deal with petty stuff like jealousy.

Part three, help along the way, gives practical tips on getting you through your project or life in general, whether it is using index cards, joining writing groups or overcome writer’s block.

The fourth part, publication, has a lot on the business side of the industry and probably contains the most of what writers don’t want to hear — you’ll probably never get published, and if you do, you’ll probably not sell a lot of books. Either way, there’s not much money in writing for the vast majority of us.

The final part, the last class, brings it all together and reminds us why we write and why it’s worth the hassle.

Needless to say, I love this book. It’s not only useful but is also a great read full of laughs and moments where you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement. I suppose this is what Lamott is referring to when she urges writers to connect with their readers through writing the truth. It has less concrete advice than say, Stephen King’s On Writing, one of the bibles of the genre, but it’s also a classic in its own unique way.


And now, for some of my favourite passages from the book.

On how writers’ believe what being published for the first time would be like:

I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

They believe that if they themselves were to get something published, their lives would change instantly, dramatically, and for the better. Their self-esteem would flourish; all self-doubt would be erased like a typo. Entire paragraphs and manuscripts of disappointment and rejection and lack of faith would be wiped out by one push of a psychic delete button and replaced by a quiet, tender sense of worth and belonging. Then they could wrap the world in flame.

On what publication is really about:

But I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises, That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

But the fact of publication is the acknowledgment from the community that you did your writing right. You acquire a rank that you never lose. Now you’re a published writer, and you are in that rare position of getting to make a living, such as it is, doing what you love best. That knowledge does bring you a quiet joy.

On writing for the sake of publication:

The problem that comes up over and over again is that these people want to be published. They kind of want to write, but they really want to be published. You’ll never get to where you want to be that way, I tell them. There is a door we all want to walk through, and writing can help you find it and open it…But publishing won’t do any of those things; you’ll never get in that way.

Publication is not going to change your life or solve your problems. Publication will not make you more confident or more beautiful, and it will probably not make you any richer.

About first drafts:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few still warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and them let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can’t — and in fact, you’re not supposed to — know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.

On dialogue:

One line of dialogue that rings true reveals a character in a way that pages of description can’t.

Dialogue is more like a movie than it is like real life, since it should be more dramatic. There’s a greater sense of action.

There are a number of things that help when you sit down to write dialogue. First of all, sound your words — read them out loud…Second, remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says…Third, you might want to try putting together two people who more than anything else in the world to avoid each other, people who would avoid whole cities just to make sure they won’t bump into each other.

On having a likable narrator:

Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal.

On the relationship between plot and character:

Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you’ve dreamed up.

Find out what each character cares about most in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake.

I imagine my characters, and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with motion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state, until words bounce around together and force a sentence.

On structure and plotting:

My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact. Well. I do not know anyone fitting this description at all. Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.

…I sat down every day and wrote five hundred to a thousand words describing what was going on in each chapter. I discussed who the characters were turning out to be, where they’d been, what they were up to, and why. I quoted directly from the manuscript sometimes, using some of the best lines to instill confidence in both me and my editor, and I figured out, over and over, point A, where the chapter began, and point B, where it ended, and what needed to happen to get my people from A to B. And then how the B of the last chapter would lead organically into point A of the next chapter. The book moved along like the alphabet, like a vivid and continuous dream.

On creating drama:

Drama is the way of holding the reader’s attention. The basic formula for drama is setup, buildup, payoff — just like a joke. The setup tells us what the game is. The buildup is where you put in all the moves, the forward motion, where you get all the meat off the turkey. The payoff answers the question, Why are we here anyway? What is it that you’ve been trying to give? Drama must move forward and upward, or the seats on which the audience is sitting will become very hard and uncomfortable. So, in fact, will the audience. And eventually the audience will become impatient, disappointed, and unhappy. There must be movement.

On setting:

Imagine yourself as the set designer for a play or for the movie version of the story you are working on. It may help you to know what the room (or the ship or the office or the meadow) looks like where the action will be taking place. You want to know its feel, its temperature, its colors. Just as everyone is a walking advertisement for who he or she is, so every room is a little showcase of its occupants’ values and personalities. Every room is about memory. Every room gives us layers of information about our past and present and who we are, our shrines and quirks and hopes and sorrows, our attempts to prove that we exist and are more or less Okay.

On confidence:

You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

Writing is about hypnotizing yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotizing yourself and going over the material coldly.

On jealousy:

Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster. But if you continue to write, you are probably going to have to deal with it, because some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know — people who are, in other words, not you.

Index cards:

So whenever I am leaving the house without my purse — in which there are actual notepads, let alone index cards —  I fold an index card lengthwise in half, knowing that if I have an idea, or see something lovely or strange or for any reason worth remembering, I will be able to jot down a couple of words to remind me of it.

On writing regularly:

So much of writing is about sitting down and doing it every day, and so much of it is about getting into the custom of taking in everything that comes along, seeing it all as grist for the mill. This can be a very comforting habit, like biting your nails.

On getting someone to read you drafts.

The person may not have an answer to what is missing or annoying about the piece, but writing is so often about making mistakes and feeling lost. There are probably a number of ways to tell your story right, and someone else may be able to tell you whether or not you’ve found one of these ways.

Imagine that you are getting ready for a party and there is a person at your house who can check you out and assure you that you look wonderful or, conversely, that you actually look a little tiny tiny bit heavier than usual in this one particular dress or suit or that red makes you look just a little bit like you have sarcoptic mange. Of course you are disappointed for a moment, but then you are grateful that you are still in the privacy of your own home and there is time to change,

On writer’s block:

Writer’s block is going to happen to you. You will read what little you’ve written lately and see with absolute clarity that it is total dog shit…Or else you haven’t been able to write anything at all for a while. The fear that you’ll never write again is going to hit you when you feel not only lost and unable to find a few little bread crumbs that would identify the path you were on but also when you’re at your lowest ebb of energy and faith.

The word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.

On overcoming writer’s block:

I encourage my students at times like these to get one page of anything written, three hundred words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much they hate writing — just for the hell of it, just to keep their fingers from becoming too arthritic, just because they have made a commitment to try and write three hundred words every day.

In the beginning, when you;re first starting out, there are a million reasons not to write, to give up. That is why it is of extreme importance to make a commitment of finishing sections and stories, to driving through to the finish,

On originality:

All the good stories are out there waiting to be told in a fresh, wild way…Life is like a recycling center, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humor or insider pathos or meaning.

And lastly, about finding your own voice:

And the truth of your experience can only come through your own voice. If it is wrapped in someone else’s voice, we readers will feel suspicious, as if you are dressed up in someone else’s clothes. You cannot write out of someone else’s big dark place; you can only write out of your own.