Archive for Readings

Reading “Harriet the Spy” — and One Tip About Writing Dialogue

I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I don’t have memories of reading any “literature” or novels. It was mostly the sports pages in the newspaper — those were the first writers I loved — Dick Young, Phil Pepe — the guys who covered the Mets, Jets, Knicks. And I read random sports biographies here and there, but not often. 

When I became more of a reader, it was a direct jump into adult writers: Vonnegut, Bradbury, Brautigan. So as you might imagine, I
have these huge gaps in the field of children’s literature. From time to time, I play catch up, tossing a shovelful of dirt into a gaping crater. 

Which is to say that now, at age 58, I’m reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. 

I liked this exchange between Sport and Harriet early on in the book:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

There’s much to admire in this little bit of dialogue. The wit, the charm, the realistic cadences. You know what. But something I try to show young writers — a lesson that took me years to learn in my own work — is the simple effectiveness of all those brief descriptive tags that make the conversation come alive. 

The bulk of most books, of most writing, is made up of characters talking. Conversations floating in space. The trick is to ground those conversations in a concrete reality. They are playing putt-putt golf. Fishing on a boat. Hiking up a mountain. Sitting on a park bench. Running from zombies. Or, in the example above, squatting by a big tree, with Harriet bending over her notebook. Sport is tossing a football in the air. The scene is set.

Let’s read it again without those very simple descriptive sentences. That is, all dialogue:

“That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” 

“Looks like an old tree root.” 

“Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” 

 

I find that when I’m inspired, I’ll often begin this way in my notebook. Hearing the voices, scribbling down the conversation. Writing only what is said. But how does a reader see what’s going on? It’s those simple little sentences that I’ve come to admire so much. He set the hat on the table. He flicked a pebble with his thumb. She leaned forward. Whatever.

One more time, highlighting what Fitzhugh does here to help us see the people in this conversation:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

 

There’s nothing fancy about those sentences. They don’t get in the way, don’t draw attention to themselves. Harriet looked up to his face. Anybody can write that. All you have to do is imagine it. The writer has to see it and, here’s the trick, recognize that the reader doesn’t. Or can’t. Or won’t — not without help. 

One other sidenote: Fitzhugh doesn’t use much standard attribution here. Only once, with “he muttered.” The way she indicates who is talking, and it’s never confusing, is through these simple descriptive sentences.

Mrs. Garcia shook her head. “I do the best I can.” [from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar]

A writer doesn’t need to add, she said, because after you’ve included that descriptive sentence, it’s already obvious who is speaking.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to turn this into a writing lesson when I began this post. Just wanted to share a line from the book, one that resonated with me: I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.

No reader can argue with that.

And this, Dear Reader, is the end.

She Wasn’t Doing a Thing . . .

“She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see,
except standing there,
leaning on the balcony railing,
holding the universe
together.”
— J.D. Salinger, “A Girl I Knew”

 

 

A Library Is . . .

“A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.” — Susan Orlean, THE LIBRARY BOOK.

“Books Have Souls,” A Passage from Susan Orlean’s THE LIBRARY BOOK

You know when you read something so good, you have to immediately reread that section? And then a week later, you go back to it again, and again and, weeks later, again again? Well, I’ve been feeling that awe over Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. There are many passages I could share, but this one in particular just keeps stabbing me in the heart.

I have a similar feeling about music. I don’t play guitar, I don’t play anything, but I love music. I’ve always admired how amateur guitarists — a middle school kid somewhere, or a lawyer home after a grueling day — heading down to the basement to plug in their stratocasters, being able to feel the great songs roll through their bodies like a river. To, you know, channel that original inspiration through their fingertips. That connection.


That’s how I feel about re-typing passages from great writers. I’ve done it quite a few times over the years. It’s a pleasure to feel those words run through me, even if they did not originate here. This section is from pages 55-56, the opening paragraph from Chapter 5.

I hope you enjoy it. Because if you don’t, well, I’m not sure we can continue to be friends:

I decided to burn a book, because I wanted to see and feel what Harry would have seen and felt that day if he had been at the library, if he had started the fire. Burning a book was incredibly hard for me to do. Actually, doing it was a breeze, but preparing to do it was challenging. The problem was that I have never been able to do harm to a book. Even books I don’t want, or books that are so worn out and busted that they can’t be read any longer, cling to me like thistles. I pile them up with the intention of throwing them away, and then, every time, when the time comes, I can’t. I am happy if I can give them away or donate them. But I can’t throw a book in the trash, no matter how hard I try. At the last minute, something glues my hands to my sides, and a sensation close to revulsion rises up in me. Many times, I have stood over a trash can, holding a book with a torn cover and a broken binding, and I have hovered there, dangling the book, and finally, I have let the trash can lid snap shut and I have walked away with the goddamn book — a battered, dog-eared, wounded soldier that has been spared to live another day. The only thing that comes close to this feeling is what I experience when I try to throw out a plant, even if it is the baldest, most aphid-ridden, crooked-stemmed plant in the world. The sensation of dropping a living thing into the trash is what makes me queasy. To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but this is why I have come to believe that books have souls — why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? It doesn’t matter that I know I’m throwing away a bound, printed block of paper that is easily reproduced. It doesn’t feel like that. A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press — a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.” I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be a killer.

The Beauty of Bare Winter Trees: Haiku & Bill McKibben

Admittedly, I am contrarian by nature. I’ve always bristled at the idea of “peak season” when it comes to fall foliage. This idea that there’s a perfect weekend when the deciduous trees of the Northeast look their best. Sure, the colors are spectacular, no doubt. But I like the trees all the time, any day of the week.

Especially in the winter.

That’s when I can most admire their scaffolding, the structure and shape and enduring strength of the creature itself. They drop their leaves and apply their resources to more pressing matters, hunkering down to survive another long, cold winter.

These days, I frequently find myself driving from Delmar to Saratoga, up and back, about three times a week. My daughter, Maggie, rows for the Saratoga Rowing Association — and the water’s up there. So in the car we go. It’s more travel time than I’ve ever had in my life. I’m one of those people who gets excited every single time I see a hawk — or maybe it’s an eagle, it’s hard to tell. On a travel day, I spend about 90 minutes cruising on 87, listening to music and admiring the trees. And in winter, I can really see the random hawks perched on the limbs, feathers puffed up against the cold, giving them the appearance of jolly, fat assassins.

On most days, I’ll compose a few lines of haiku as I drive, hoping to jot them down later. I realize it’s a form derided by some literati, but I enjoy writing most of my haiku in the traditional 5-7-5 form, even though it’s somewhat out of style nowadays. I like the wordplay and rigor of it. Often my focus is on those trees, the winter weather. Here’s a few, like a fistful of almonds:

 

In the winter trees

her bony grip, long fingers

twisted and wind-whipped.

 

The wolf’s moon hangs low

beckons through bare branches, come:

a headlight drives past.

 

Where a branch broke off

the grandfatherly red oak

a barred owl now nests.

 

The plump winter wren

moves through the understory,

trills and whirls, tail down.

 

The tall trees lie down

in shadow across sunlit

snow, ever patient.

 

Amidst the white field

a stand of resolute oaks,

but not forever.

 

The sparse silhouette

against a gray winter sky

declares: hickory.

 

The beech holds its leaves

shimmering like winter moons

papery and light.

 

Steel-gray buckets tapped

into maples; the crows watch

from snow-covered limbs.

 

Crows seem skeptical

of melting snow in cold rain,

perched on bare branches.

 

The bare winter elms

reveal the assassin’s shape:

hawk perched on a limb.

 

Anyway, whatever. I don’t worry too much about ideas of quality — whether they are “good” or not — more interested in the process of attending to things, getting out of myself, and seeing. Basho’s “the journey itself is home.”

It made me happy to read the following passage in Bill McKibben’s most recent novel, Radio Tree Vermont.  I’ve been a huge fan of his work since reading his landmark book, The End of Nature, when it came out nearly 30 years ago. In this scene, Vern Barclay muses on Vermont’s trees after the giddy explosion of autumn colors has passed:

And when it was over, it was even better. The leaves were down by mid-October, and you could see the shape of the land again, see the late sun silhouetting the trees along the ridgetops as it set. You could sense the architecture of the hills, every hollow and creekrun and knoll visible from the road. When people thought of trees, they thought of leaves — that’s how a child would draw them. But the natural inclination of trees at this latitude was bareness — seven months of the year, at least upslope, they stood there stoic. Leaves were the fever-dream exception to the barren rule, and Vern felt calmer once they were down. 

 

AN ASIDE: My first book of haiku, written for children, comes out in the Fall of 2019, illustrated by the great Mary GrandPre (of Harry Potter fame). It is titled All Welcome Here and celebrates the community of the classroom on the first day of school.