Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: books

Ira Glass on Work

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

– Ira Glass

I found this neat little passage ages ago, back when I was in the quote-hunting stage of my writing journey.

You know that stage, right? It’s when want to do something, but the actual doing of it is hard, so you read books on doing it and search for quotes on doing it and you print them out and post them on your walls desperately hoping that they’ll make your work easier.

They never do make the work easier, at least not two times in a row. But a few nuggets of wisdom can be gleaned from that phase. These words have stuck with me and continue to stick with me.

I don’t know if you noticed, but I took a rather long break from blogging. I thought I was too busy. I’m going to school now, working full time, writing a book, preaching. Lots of stuff going on. I figured that blogging was, at best, a distraction.

Strangely, when I stopped blogging, my writing started to suffer. And the writing is so important to me that the other parts of my life started to suffer with it. I grew less focused on school and preaching and felt like I did not perform as well as I could have.

Because the blogging was not really a distraction. It was the bull-pen. It was warm up. Practice.

What kind of athlete would you be if you only played when there was a game? A frustrated, crappy athlete.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to start blogging regularly again. Maybe I will. Maybe not. But I’ve remembered that the only way to get better at something is to do it a thousand times. And if I’m only writing when I’m writing my book, it’s like I’m only showing up for games and skipping practice. And that’s just dumb.

Writing Foreplay

No, not writing about foreplay.  That’ll be a different sort of post altogether.

You ever have a feeling of drudgery when you sit down to do your thing?  You love writing.  You always have.  But these days when you try to actually get down to work, you feel overwhelmed and utterly intimidated.  You can’t remember how you managed to write two and a half novels.  You feel like you don’t know where your story is going, despite your detailed outlines and plans.  You stare at the computer screen and feel such a revulsion toward your task that you are afraid you were never supposed to be a writer.

You’re not in the mood.

You have a headache.

You’re tired.  You have to wake up early the next morning.

You’ve forgotten how fun writing can be.  You need some foreplay.

Open a fresh document.  Write these words:

Writing can be such a drudgery.

And then write some more.  Tell the page what you think of it.  Tell the page how pissed off you are about your lack of inspiration.  Rail and complain.  Beg and plead.  Pour out all the negative feelings in your soul onto that page.  Don’t stop.  Don’t think.  Let it go.  Just let it go.

Until you stop.

Then open your novel again.  Go to the scene you have to write.  You’ll feel better.  You’ll be in the mood.  You’ve had your foreplay.  Time to take it home.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

“The small boys came early to the hanging.”

     My mother recommended this to me ages ago. I meant to read it. Really, mom, I did. But I forgot. I picked it up recently on a whim and did not remember a thing that my mom had said about it. And I’m really glad about that. Because if I had known what it was about, I probably would have left it alone.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a historical fiction about cathedral building.

     Erm… yay?

     Let’s be honest, it sounds crazy-boring. Most churches are boring. Old churches are even more boring. Building old churches sounds so boring that I feel like poking my eye just to get a distraction. And on top of all that, the book is nearly a thousand pages long. Wow.

     I’m so very glad that I had forgotten what the book was about.

     The author, Ken Follett, grabs you by the throat in his first line. And he doesn’t let go until the book is ending. His story is huge and he gives you characters to love and hate by the handful. And then he puts those characters through the grinder. What else could you ask for in a novel?

     In the end, the novel is about the inevitability of human suffering and the unbeatable human spirit that has been slowly, painfully, but assuredly making the world a better place.

     There is something very special about the book that makes you care about something you have no interest in. I don’t care about building churches. Even big churches. But Tom Builder cared. Prior Philip cared. And since I cared about Tom Builder and Prior Philip, suddenly I cared about their big church.

     The Pillars of the Earth is a great read. Its scope is huge, dealing every human struggle from intimate marital relationships to battles between kings and popes. Pick it up. You’ll love it. I swear.

How I Read

     Most folks are proud of the genres they read. The person who reads only ‘classics’ scoffs at the nerd who reads sci-fi. The person who reads only epic fantasy yawns at the one who reads literary fiction. I don’t understand that. I read everything.

     I enjoy Ernest Hemmingway. I enjoy Brandon Sanderson. I enjoy Tom Clancy. I enjoy Salman Rushdie. And it’s not hard to enjoy them all, if you read right.

     Books are not written to be judged anymore than people are born to be judged. With Amazon reviews and Goodreads, we’re all tempted to read things just for the joy of putting a certain amount of stars on the book. We get off on telling people how a book meets, or fails to meet, our precise expectations. But the author didn’t tell that story so you could judge it. He or she told that story to tell you something. Are you going to listen or are you going to grade him or her?

     All good stories are true, even the ones that never happened. It doesn’t matter if the story is in Paris, Randland or Arrakis. If the story is authentic, honest and true, it cannot be boring or trite or shallow. Even if it feels that way. Slow plots or heavy action or mythical critters can’t take truth, honesty and authenticity from a story.

     Life is made of many genres. Some people’s lives are fast-paced and full of strange, unique wonder. Some lives are slow and full of inner, nuanced wonder. All lives are full of wonder. And stories are, primarily, about lives.

     Give other genres a chance. Do you mostly read literary fiction? Read a sci-fi. Do you mostly read fantasy? Read something by Jane Austen. Do you mostly read Christian fiction? Read a book on Buddhist spirituality. And quit judging everything you read. Because the more you judge (books and people) the sharper your taste will grow. Until one day you will wake up and realize that you hate every book out there, because none of them can live up to your oh-so-very refined tastes.

     Don’t judge.

     Read.

Books You Should Read

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Pick them up and love them.

  • House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds
    This may be my favourite sci-fi. It’s long and kind of hard to get into, but worth the effort it demands. It takes place six million years in the future and is one of the most insightful speculative fictions I’ve seen.
    “I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.”
  • A Dance With Dragons – George R.R. Martin
    I was reading this series long before the HBO program made it famous. It stands apart from any fantasy series I’ve read. It’s gritty and harsh. Instead of heroes and villains, Martin writes real people. Every hero has a bit of a villain within. And nearly every villain has a spark of good.
    “The night was rank with the smell of man. … Only man stripped the skins from other beasts and wore their hides and hair.”
  • Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
    This is how vampire novels were meant to be. If you’ve seen the movies, please put them out of your head. The book is so much more special. It’s dark and wonderfully tender at the same time.
    “Real love is to offer your life at the feet of another, and that’s what people today are incapable of.”
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
    The start of a unique fantasy series. Only two books are out right now. A hero tells the tale of how his life went from homeless boy to the most feared mage in the world.
    “But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggards, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians and courtesans.”
  • The Way of Kings – Brandson Sanderson
    Sanderson’s first book in his epic series. It shows a lot of promise and uncovers a hugely complex universe.
    “The hallmark of insecurity is bravado.”
  • True Love – Thich Nhat Hanh
    A non-fiction in which the meditative master unpacks his views of love and how to centre your mental and physical self. A useful point of view for anyone interested in spirituality.
    “So you can walk in such a way that the Kingdom of God possible in the here and now, in such a way that peace and hoy are possible today, in such a way that the Pure Land is available under your feet.”
  • A New Kind of Christian – Brian McLaren
    I was surprised at how closely this book traced my own spiritual journeys over the past four or six years. Insightful and useful, though the storytelling is weak.
    “Carol, I’m not sure how long I’ll last. I know this must be scary for
    you. I’m sorry.

There. Now I’ve shared with you. What books should I read next?

Almost Shameless Contest

I like books and I think people ought to read a lot of them.
+
I find it hard to justify owning anything superfluous.
+
I own superfluous amounts of books.
+
I own a blog that gets very little traffic.
+
I’d like more traffic.
=
An opportunity for a contest of glory!

I have made a list of 101 books pulled off my shelf that I deem superfluous. Would you like one? I will hold a contest over the next week in which you will have a decent chance of getting the book of your choice, delivered to your house for free. Sounds like fun, eh? You bet it is. Here’s how you enter:

For one day, make this your status in your social media of choice (Twitter, Facebook, etc.):

The Illiterate Scribe is giving away free books! Check it out: http://alturl.com/d78a

After you make that your status, leave a comment on the blog itself or on the Facebook feed I’ve made for it letting me know that you’ve done it. Then I will collect your name, put it into a hat and pick a random one exactly one week from now (June 14, 2010). If you win, I’ll let you know from the blog and through e-mail and you can tell me which book you want.

Does this seem shameless? Does it feel like some sort of cyber prostitution to change your Facebook status for gain? Maybe. But we all win, don’t we?

Here is the excel spreadsheet with the 101 books. If this is successful I’ll do this every month until I run out of books. Enter early for you best chance of winning!