Tag Archives: Nonfiction

13: Bad Feminist

Bad Feminist: EssaysBad Feminist: Essays by Roxane Gay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought at Chapters on Robson.

Read August – November 2014.

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When feminism falls short of our expectations we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement. (“Introduction,” x)

Ok, so it looks like I took forever to read this, but it was mostly off-and-on during Sept/Oct. I’d read most of these essays before, so even though the book was new, it was almost like a re-read and I didn’t feel the need to race through.

She is grieving, after all, and in grief, there is a certain amount of indulgence for bad behavior. Sorrow allows us a freedom happiness does not. (“Reaching for Catharsis,” 114)

I don’t typically read books when they’re newly released, and reading Bad Feminist (and An Untamed State earlier this year) at the same time as everyone else and their dog reminded me why I prefer reading random backlist over new releases. The cacophony of opinions on new releases is… overwhelming. I mean, yes, I can ignore it, and I do try for the most part, but it still feels like everything there is to be said has been said many times over (whether that’s true or not) and makes me less interested in writing about the book myself. This is probably weird. Whatever. Here’s Roxane’s Bad Feminist page! Go read what other people had to say. 😉

Or just read it. It’s on basically every best nonfiction book list of 2014.

The solutions are obvious. Stop making excuses. Stop saying women run publishing. Stop justifying the lack of parity in prominent publications that have the resources to address gender inequity. Stop parroting the weak notion that you’re simply publishing the best writing, regardless. There is ample evidence of the excellence of women writers. Publish more women writers. If women aren’t submitting to your publication or press, ask yourself why, deal with the answers even if those answers make you uncomfortable, and then reach out to women writers. If women don’t respond to your solicitations, go find other women. Keep doing that, issue after issue after issue. Read more widely. Create more inclusive measures of excellence. Ensure that books by men and women are being reviewed in equal numbers. Nominate more deserving women for the important awards. Deal with your resentment. Deal with your biases. Vigorously resist the urge to dismiss the gender problem. Make the effort and make the effort and make the effort until you no longer need to, until we don’t need to keep having this conversation. (“Beyond the Measure of Men,” 171-172)

Best of? I think “What We Hunger For” (fingers crossed her next book—titled Hunger—is connected to this essay). I also esp. like: “Not Here to Make Friends” (on unlikable female characters) and “The Politics of Respectability”:

We must stop pointing to the exceptions—these bright shining stars who transcend circumstance. We must look to how we can best support the least among us, not spend all our time blindly revering and trying to mimic the greatest without demanding systemic change. (“The Politics of Respectability,” 260)


2: The Sketchnote Handbook

The Sketchnote Handbook: the illustrated guide to visual note takingThe Sketchnote Handbook:
the illustrated guide to visual note taking

by Mike Rohde

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought at Chapters on Robson.

Read in January 2014.

View all my reviews

I can’t remember where I saw this mentioned (maybe The Art of Nonconformity?), but it was one of those moments when you instantly identify with the book’s subject. Not an “aha!” moment exactly. More of a “yeah!” moment. So sketchnoting is a thing and someone wrote a book about it.

Doodles always filled the margins of my notes, circled the edges, squeezed the written notes into the center of the page. What I didn’t really do: integrate my doodling with my notes. I didn’t doodle with intention so much as I doodled to stay awake. (The minute I sat down in a classroom and a lecture started, I’d start nodding off. I blame Social Studies 11, which I slept through from start to finish. After that, just sitting in a desk was enough to make me sleepy. Pavlov’s response ftw 😛 )

What this is: a book about visual notetaking (handwriting + drawing). The entire book is handwritten / hand-drawn (no type). It’s filled with tips for taking visual notes—sketchnotes—along with example pages from the notebooks of many different people who take notes this way (showing different styles).

Messages: sketchnotes are fun, easy, personal. Rohde emphasizes that anyone can do this; you don’t have to be an artist. Sketchnotes are about “ideas not art.” He breaks down the various elements of a sketchnote (layout, typography, diagrams, etc.) and encourages you to build a visual library (items you can quickly sketch). There’s a practice section in the last chapter.

My main takeaways from this book: set your doodles free from the margins and incorporate them into your notes. Don’t try to write everything the speaker says down; focus on capturing big ideas. Make your notes pretty in real-time, not after-the-fact. Not only is it more efficient, but if you’re having fun, you won’t fall asleep 😉

Recommended for doodlers and visual-kinesthetic learners.

Some links:

28: Running with the Mind of Meditation

Running with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and MindRunning with the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind by Sakyong Mipham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bought at Chapters on Robson.

Read in November 2013.

View all my reviews

I can’t remember where I saw this mentioned, but I’m on the lookout for interesting books about running (which seem to be few and far between as discussed in my post about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running). The problem is most runners aren’t writers so most writing-about-running is a snore. If you’ve ever perused a running forum or blog, most posts about running are race reports that go something like this: “I got up at 3am, put on my clothes that I laid out the night before (detailed list of chosen clothing), ate (something icky), used the bathroom (tmi), left the hotel at 5am, blah blah blah transport to the start, congregated in a sea of humanity, last-minute portapotty break (tmi), mile by mile or km by km reports of condition of feet/legs/stomach, what types of fake food were ingested at what times, how many pitstops were made (tmi) and on and on and on. Finally (you’re asleep, aren’t you?) concluding with time splits for each mile or km, depending on preference, and chip time (woo if PB, sadface if not). The End.”


So yeah. That’s not what I’m looking for. But this book sounded like it might be, so I decided to check it out.

I didn’t know anything about the author, but the cover identifies him as a Tibetan lama. So, when I started reading, I was thrown by the author’s voice. At first I wondered if it was ghostwritten because the voice is so generic North American. My curiosity eventually got the better of me and I hit up Wikipedia (where else?) for a bio. Turns out he lived in the US for the majority of his childhood/young adulthood. Ah. On his YouTube channel, I found a video about the topic of this book:

I thought it was going to be more about running as a form of meditation, but he dispels that idea almost immediately:

People sometimes say, ‘Running is my meditation.’ Even though I know what they mean, in reality, running is running and meditation is meditation. (19)

Basically, his take is that running is for the body; meditation is for the mind. The premise of this book is that running complements meditation (or vice versa), that running is not incompatible with meditation (which I guess some people think). The book is organized in four phases or stages of running proficiency represented by the tiger, lion, garuda, and dragon.

In the Shambala tradition of warriorship, these creatures are called the “four dignities.” They represent the inner development of a courageous individual. The idea is to develop balance and integrity. The result is strong windhorse, lungta—the ability to bring about long life, good health, success, and happiness. (57)

Each phase has a different focus of contemplation:

  • tiger = motivation;
  • lion = good fortune;
  • garuda = love and kindness;
  • dragon = compassion and selflessness;
  • windhorse = basic goodness.

The writing is serviceable, if a bit choppy. The chapters are blog-post short and there’s quite a bit of repetition. All of this made me wonder if it was a blog-to-book. It reads like that, anyway. While each chapter was fine on its own, as a book, it never really feels like it gets into a flow.

He always refers to people by their full names (and often job description) no matter how many times he’s mentioned them previously. Writing Tip: this is very annoying for readers. As a writer, you must make your characters (even if your characters are real people) memorable enough that you don’t have to re-introduce them every time they reappear.

One of his refrains is friendliness/gentleness, as in being kind to yourself / not beating yourself up for not running or not meditating, but at the same time not letting yourself slack off completely either. As a moderator, I appreciated this:

The wise are balanced, and the foolish are extreme. (82)

Yeah! Have to remember that one the next time someone goes on a “I quit TV/the internet/social media/blogging/vice-du-jour” jag. Foolishness! 😉

On gentleness vs. aggression:

Aggression is a short-term solution for a long-term problem. Gentleness is persistent. Gentleness is therefore a sign of strength, while aggression is often a sign of weakness. Aggression is often a last resort. Where do you go from there? If you become more aggressive, you seem insane, whereas if you have gentleness, you are like a great ocean holding a lot of power. (85)

He touches briefly (very briefly) on walking and yoga. “We should all enjoy a good walk, incorporating the qualities of mindfulness and gentleness.” (90) I love walking (may have mentioned that once or twice), so yes to this. And he says “practicing yoga has provided an excellent balance to running.” (91) Which of course I already know. Running + yoga = the best. But there’s not much more to this chapter than that, unfortunately.

On pain:

One could say that life is at least 50 percent pain. If we do not relate to pain, we are not relating to half our life. Everything is fine when we are happy, but when we are in pain, we become petrified. The inability to relate to pain narrows our playing field. When we are able to work with pain and understand it, life becomes twice as interesting. Relating to pain makes us more fearless and happy. (113)

So what makes this interesting is that while I was reading the book, I ran across this quote about creativity and pain:

Studies on the nature of creativity have shown that people who consistently come up with more inventive and creative ideas are not necessarily innately gifted, nor are they necessarily more intelligent than other people. They are however capable of tolerating a certain level of mental discomfort.

It works something like this:

When our brains are presented with a problem- any problem- we feel slightly anxious. When we solve a problem, our brains release endorphins that make us feel good. So, we have a problem to solve, we often run with the first answer we come up with because it feels good (literally) to find a solution!

But people who are willing to see that first solution, and then set it aside- delaying that endorphin high- while they continue to search for another answer, and another, and another… until they have compared all possible solutions and then chose the best option- and run with it- consistently come up with much more interesting, creative solutions.

Molly Idle,
in an interview at Inkygirl

Takeaway: embrace your pain!

On happiness:

[H]appiness is not a goal, but a by-product of mentally and physically healthy activities. If we engage in these, happiness of mind and body will ensue.

Letting yourself become genuinely connected with happiness allows you to also deal with sadness. If your mind is obsessed with happiness, you might react to sadness by getting depressed and angry. I’ve learned that the best way to be happy is not to have happiness as your objective. If you crave personal happiness, it only becomes more elusive. (123-4)

On boredom (which relates to pain, and reminds me of what I wrote about boredom in my post on Eating Dirt):

In relating to pain, it is not so much the pain that is difficult—it is the inability of the mind to handle the pain. In meditation, people are often unable to handle the pain of the posture, disturbing thoughts, or boredom. It is not the boredom itself that is painful but the mind’s inability to handle it. Often, what exasperates the mind is the mind itself becoming hysterical: we are unable to handle both the pain and a hysterical mind. So when pain arises in either meditation or running, we need to feel the difference between the pain itself and the mind’s inability to handle the pain—or, in the case of a trained mind—our ability to handle it. (141)

This was maybe the most valuable section in the book for me. When I wrote about boredom in my Eating Dirt post, I knew perhaps I sounded like I was being melodramatic. I don’t think I was though. Younger-me was terrified of boredom, and I think my ability to cope with boredom (or, really, to not even go there) is a major difference between grownup-me and younger-me. (It’s all a matter of perspective. For me, everything changed when I declared to myself, “I am a writer.” Not the “I want to be” moment but the “I am” moment, which came later. Because if I am a writer, how can anything be boring? Everything is material.) 

Anyway, there are some interesting ideas in this book but they’re not explored in a lot of depth. It might be more revelatory to people who’ve never considered running/meditation together before. Or running or meditation at all? I was a little puzzled as to the intended audience for the book. It was shelved in the sports section of the bookstore so I assumed going in it was aimed at runners with the idea of adding meditation to their running practice. But much of the time it seems like he’s explaining the running as much as or more than the meditation, which wouldn’t be necessary if runners were the intended audience. And he does say his impetus for writing it was that some people thought it was odd that he was a runner. So it’s for non-runners and non-meditators? How likely is it that someone who’s not into either thing picks up this book? Not very. So I’m not sure.

In the end, still on quest for the perfect book about running 🙂

18: Eating Dirt

Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life With the Tree-planting TribeEating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life With the Tree-planting Tribe by Charlotte Gill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bought new at Chapters.

Read in July/August 2013.

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I learned about Eating Dirt via Emily St. John Mandel’s review at The Millions  (which, btw, is hands-down my favorite literary site / online magazine that is not TC). I was hooked by the opening paragraph: “My father was a treeplanter. It isn’t a job that very many of my fellow New Yorkers seem to have heard of—” Wait. There are people who haven’t heard of treeplanters?! Oh, but of course there are. Undoubtedly the same people who think “every” fledgling writer grew up with the ambition to be published in The Paris Review or The New Yorker. Meanwhile, many of the fledgling writers who grew up knowing all about treeplanters had never even heard of The Paris Review or The New Yorker. Perspective!

I never treeplanted, but it would be a lie to say I didn’t consider it. I certainly did. it was a good-paying job! But I’d spent plenty o’ time in the forest and I was terrified of the boredom that I knew awaited me. It practically drove me mad just thinking about it. (To be honest, just reading this revives that anxious feeling, even though I know I don’t feel the same way now about repetitive tasks without distractions (that’s writing-in-my-head time!). In fact, now I’d probably deal just fine with the monotony; I am the person who runs without music, after all. Back then, an iPod may have made all the difference. Too bad they didn’t exist when I was in university.)

Anyway, it’s a bit weird reading a book where you can picture everything so clearly. The landscape, the little towns, the shabby motels, all the forestry stuff. I always think it’s funny when someone says they’re from a “small town” (population 50k). Haha! 50k, small. Good one!

Aside: I’ve started wondering how many people have actually spent much time outside of cities. Like, even amongst people who have moved/traveled a lot, the impression I get is that it’s mostly jumping from one big city to another big city. Which… would give you a really different impression of the world than seeing the spaces in between.

Eating Dirt starts out in early spring (February) on northern Vancouver Island, in places like Holberg and Port McNeill, where the planters stay in cheap motels and rental houses. Scenes of the crew are interspersed with passages about forests and forestry.

Another aside:  the area of Vancouver Island is 31,285 km2  / 12,079.2 sq mi. The area of Oahu is 1,545 km2 / 596.7 sq mi. That’s less than 5% of the size of VI. It’s so… little! Is it really as covered in freeways as Hollywood would have me believe? Where are they going?!

After early spring on Vancouver Island, the crew moves to the Sunshine Coast (which is the mainland, but inaccessible by land) to Jervis Inlet and Seymour Inlet where they stay at a logging camp and on a boat. This is middle-of-nowhere. There are bears. Naturally. Gill writes about cedar—natural history, early history.

She dips into summer planting in the interior and up north (Mr. PG!) and back to the coast in fall, but then returns to spring on the coast, her frame for the book. The foray into summer planting ties back to how her career as a treeplanter began—with the university students arriving for the summer.

She writes in plural first person. There are occasional “I” references, but it’s mostly “we.” It’s composed as if she’s describing a single season, one year, but likely it’s a compilation of all the years she spent planting. This is her goodbye to that part of her life.

From the descriptions I’d read, I expected more of a memoir. I’m not sure I’d describe this as a memoir. It is based on her personal experience and she’s writing from that perspective, but it’s not about her. It’s personal in a “this is important to me” kind of way, but it’s not personal as in “here are all the tmi details of my life” kind of way. Her partner is also a planter but we learn no more about him than any of the other characters. It’s about treeplanters (“we”) and treeplanting, not about Charlotte-the-Treeplanter. And also, as mentioned above, the crew parts of the book are only about half of the text. The other half is natural history, biology, ecology: all about trees and forests, which makes sense seeing as it was published by the David Suzuki Foundation.

I am realizing that I really like narrative—fiction and non—with nerdy biology stuff in it.

17: The Science Writers’ Handbook

The Science Writers' Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital AgeThe Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age by Writers of SciLance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bought new at Chapters on Robson.

Read in July 2013.

View all my reviews

In the event that the never-ending dissertation does eventually come to an end (positive thinking!), I’ve been thinking about the future. If you pay attention at all to academic things, you’ll have heard some variation on the theme that doing a PhD is crazypants because traditional academic jobs (tenured professorships) are going the way of the dodo and the majority of new PhDs are doomed (doomed!) to careers as underpaid adjuncts.

I guess I’d find this more alarming if a) it wasn’t the story of my entire life (Jobs? What jobs? I once got rejected by McDonald’s. McDonald’s! Doesn’t get much more deflating than that.) and b) I’d actually started this with the expectation that I’d end up a tenured professor. See a). At no point did I ever have that expectation. I’m an optimist (I’m doing the PhD!) but I’m also a realist (some may say cynic). Temporary is the new permanent.

Which is the tl;dr way of saying I went into this open to any possibility afterward. Apparently this is odd. I’ve since learned that for PhDs, any non-tenure-track job is considered “alternative.” Oookay. Pretty narrow view of what you can do with a PhD, in my opinion, but I’ve always been a bit of an oddball, so I’m happy to roll with it.

So I’ve been making a list of possibilities to pursue. And one of the things that’s bubbled to the top is science writing. Why science?

  • In part it’s because I’ve become increasingly annoyed by intelligent people, people with advanced degrees, joking about being innumerate. That’s not ok.
  • In part it’s because of the general lack of understanding of science—you don’t  get to choose to “believe” in evolution or climate change. It’s not ok to teach creationism in biology class or to deny climate change because you want to keep driving your gas guzzling SUV without feeling bad about it.
  • In part it’s because of the current Canadian federal government’s muzzling of scientists. Grrr. #standup4science

On the one hand, all you hear is STEM, STEM, STEM. And on the other hand, non-scientists’ understanding of science and math is regressing. Right now, it seems like science needs all the voices it can get that can translate it into everyday language even the innumerate 😉 can understand. And why not me? Science writing = science, writing, educating, communicating… even law. Perfect fit, right? (The only thing I can’t figure out is why I didn’t have a eureka moment post-undergrad when I spent all my time at the library reading university course catalogs—were science writing programs not a thing back in the day?)

The Science Writers’ Handbook is written by a group of science writers who call themselves SciLance (science + freelance). They have an excellent blog that I’ve been reading for a while so I knew the book would be worth buying. After reading it, I’d call it an essential reference if you’re interested in science writing/communication, and useful for any freelancer (a lot of the material is applicable to any kind of freelance writing).

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Be able to distinguish between topics and stories. A story has:
    • characters
    • journey or conflict
    • series of linked events (beginning middle end)
    • discovery or resolution
    • hook –> why now?
    • connection to a larger idea
  • Play first, write later. In other words, get out in the world and do stuff and meet people and you will find ideas. At the same time, you’re always working because anything can become a story idea (but same is true for all writers).
  • Pitch = story idea + relevance + timeliness + execution + extras + author.
  • As an editor, I enjoyed this: “Distaste for email attachments just may be the one thing all editors have in common.” (Thomas Hayden, p. 29). 🙂
  • Interview one source for every 250 words.
  • Notetaking: remember not to just write down quotes, but describe people, surroundings, sounds and smells, overheard dialogue, etc. so you can set the scene.
  • Toolkit for field reporting: digital recorder, notebook, camera—take photos for notetaking purposes, video clips of subjects… but you probably won’t be able to listen to all the recordings you make.
  • The one-sentence pitch!
  • Story anatomy—newspaper-style:
    • headline (hed) – clear sense of story
    • news lede – who what where when how
    • most important point – fleshes out lede
    • substantiating points – decreasing order of importance
    • background / context / reactions
  • Story anatomy—magazine-style:
    • headline – catchy
    • dek/standfirst – subtitle/clear sense of story
    • lede – lures reader into story
    • billboard/nutgraf – partially summarizes the story
    • body 1 – context / history / explanation
    • body 2 – what happened?
    • etc.
    • kicker – ending that ties the story together
  • Multilancing = reporting a story in more than one medium.
  • Creative procrastination (necessary, productive) vs. distractive procrastination.
  • Business: Start as sole proprietor, see how it goes. Incorporate if all is going well and you want to continue.
  • Email, email, email… you also have to talk on the phone and go to conferences and such but lots o’ email. (good for introverts)
  • Contracts: if you are uncomfortable with the language in a clause, speak up, suggest an alternative that would be acceptable, especially re: liability, rights, payment.
  • Ethics. If you’re reporting on a topic you shouldn’t also be doing PR for same topic. But you could report on Topic A and do PR for Topic B. Also disclose existing relationships, etc.
  • Blog. Just do.
  • Science communication (vs. journalism-style writing): companies, universities, nonprofits.
  • Look for mix of work: good pay but not as interesting balanced with stuff that excites you.

11: Why is Always About You?

Why Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of NarcissismWhy Is It Always About You? : The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism by Sandy Hotchkiss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one was passed along to me.

Read in March/April 2013.

View all my reviews

Part I describes the 7 deadly sins of the title:

  1. Shamelessness (shame = personal flaw)
  2. Magical Thinking (fantasy world)
  3. Arrogance (value = relative)
  4. Envy (need to be superior)
  5. Entitlement (expect to get what they want)
  6. Exploitation (lack of empathy)
  7. Bad Boundaries (violate others’ boundaries)

The boundaries one is worth thinking about—helps to understand why certain gifts can be so uncomfortable—these types of gifts are not about doing something nice, really thinking about the receiver, but about molding them in the shape of the giver (narcissist).

Part II discusses where narcissism comes from. Hotchkiss claims narcissism originates in toddlerhood—occurs when child doesn’t develop healthy sense of self. Adolescent narcissism is also a normal stage, but people can get stuck there. Children of narcissists often become narcissists themselves; those who don’t are shame-driven, drawn to people who resemble their narcissistic parent(s).

Part III discusses strategies for defending yourself from narcissists: know yourself, embrace reality, set boundaries, cultivate reciprocal (i.e. healthy) relationships. I thought this section wasn’t as helpful as it could have been. Sort of, “yes, and…?”

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do to help/change narcissists because the first rule of being a narcissist is not admitting you’re a narcissist. It’s like Fight Club. So someone you know is a narcissist, you have two choices: a) flee! or b) tolerate them. (Here’s the moment where you wonder “I don’t think I’m a narcissist. Does that mean I am one?” Well, if you’re questioning whether you are, you’re probably not. Self-awareness!)

Part IV describes narcissism in different scenarios (e.g. love, work, family). Narcissists, of course, consider themselves “special” so if you know someone like that (and you probably do), they might be a narcissist. Read Part I and find out.

Part V was about preventing narcissism.

Decent overview, but I wasn’t thrilled with her conservative agenda. If y’all just believed in Almighty God, society wouldn’t be overrun with narcissists, don’t ya know? 🙄

9: The Lonely Voice

The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short StoryThe Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O’Connor

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Borrowed from the VPL.

Read in March 2013.

View all my reviews

Some notes from the introduction:

  • “The novel is bound to be a process of identification between the reader and the character.” (16)
  • But this is not true of short stories: “There is no character here with whom the reader can identify himself, unless it is that nameless horrified figure who represents the author … the short story has never had a hero. What it has instead is a submerged population group,” (17) i.e. outlawed figures, fringes of society.
  • “there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel–an intense awareness of human loneliness” (18-19).
  • The differences between novel and short story are more ideological—with respect to national attitude toward society—than formal. The novel = civilized society, community. The short story = “remote from the community–romantic, individualistic, and intransigent” (20).
  • the short story “is organic form, something that springs from a single detail and embraces past, present, and future” (21)
  • the storyteller “must be much more of a writer, much more of an artist” (22) than the novelist—great novelists can be inferior writers; great storytellers are generally not inferior writers.
  • “the form of the novel is given by the length;  in the short story the length is given by the form” (26)
  • “the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length. It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling” (26)
  • short story = static, single episode, life telescoped. novel = episodic.

We have been told that the novel is dead, and I am sure that someone has said as much for the short story. I suspect that the announcement may prove a little premature … the novel and the short story are drastic adaptations of a primitive art form to modern conditions—to printing, to science, and individual religion–and I see no possibility of or reason for their supersession except in a general supersession of all culture by mass civilization. (43) [dated June 21, 1962]

The rest of the book is an analysis of work by various short story writers. There are some insights here and there, but also so many racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic stereotypes. I found it hard to take. The Katherine Mansfield chapter was especially terrible. So yeah. If you pick this up, you’ve been warned. The introduction was interesting, though.

7: On Writing Well

On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing NonfictionOn Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Knowlton Zinsser

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Borrowed from the VPL.

Read in February 2013.

View all my reviews

Here are some notes I took. I feel like I’m quoting myself; so many of these points are things I say all the time.

  • “Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important.” (7) We think if a sentence is too simple, there must be something wrong with it. ha!
  • Simplify! Clear the clutter.
  • “My reason for bracketing superfluous words instead of crossing them out was to avoid violating the students’ sacred prose.” (17) ha!
  • carpentry analogy: simple and solid first, learn to embellish later—comes with practice
  • deliberately embellishing is like wearing a toupee. be yourself. (I need to remember that one.)
  • first paragraphs and pages can be discarded!
  • use “I”—take responsibility for your ideas!
  • write for yourself, in the sense that you shouldn’t worry “whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life” (27)
  • think about how you writing sounds—read aloud
  • usage changes, but…
    • avoid jargon. be precise.
    • be liberal with new words and phrases.
    • be conservative with grammar.
  • think small—try to leave the reader with one provocative thought
  • nonfiction can be literature; it’s not inferior to fiction
  • interviews:
    • take notes; record only as backup. “Be a writer. Write things down.” (70)
    • quotes will need to be moved around, spliced together—but do not fabricate!
  • places are second only to people
  • memoir—narrowness of focus, like a window or photograph into a life
  • science writing
    • “describe how a process works”—exercise that helps people learn to write more clearly
    • think of science writing as an upside-down pyramid—start with one fact the reader needs to know, then build from there
  • jargon = people wanting to sound important. hahaha. yes.
  • “I consider it a privilege to be able to shape my writing until it’s as clean and strong as I can make it. … Students, I realize, don’t share my love of rewriting. They regard it as some kind of punishment, or extra homework. Please—if you’re such a student—think of it as a gift.  You’ll never write well unless you understand that writing is an evolving process, not a one-shot product.” (187-188)
  • distinction between a critic and a reviewer: “As a reviewer your job is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgment.” (215)

This was an older edition of the book, so some of the examples and advice (try a word processor! you’ll like it!) were dated. There’s a newer, 20th anniversary edition that I’m sure resolves those issues.

I think this should be required reading for 1st year university/college students. So much of it is stuff I find myself explaining to 3rd, 4th, 5th years—but I never know how much takes. Especially with certain students who seem to interpret tips like “simple is better” to mean “I’m too dumb to understand your deep thoughts,” having a “textbook” that backs me up might make them more likely to take my advice seriously.

5: Refuse to Choose

Refuse to Choose! : A Revolutionary Program for Doing All That You LoveRefuse to Choose! : A Revolutionary Program for Doing All That You Love by Barbara Sher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Borrowed from the VPL.

Read in January 2013.

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I saw this mentioned The Clutter Museum:

One of my favorite career-finding books, and one I recommend regularly to my students, is Barbara Sher’s Refuse to Choose. In it, she describes ‘scanners,’ bright people who are simultaneously and/or serially interested in diverse and sometimes divergent subjects and careers.

and for obvious reasons was intrigued.

Sher’s opening anecdote is about reading university course descriptions, wanting to take everything—and her sadness on realizing she couldn’t:

The conventional wisdom was overwhelming and seemed indisputable: If you’re a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll always be a master of none. You’ll become a dilettante, a dabbler, a superficial person—and you’ll never have a decent career. Suddenly, a scanner who all through school might have been seen as an enthusiastic learner had now become a failure. (6)

She describes different types of scanners. I was skimming along, identifying with a characteristic here and there, when I reached the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ type, which is so me, it’s ridiculous (right down to the detail that jacks don’t have the clutter problem that other scanners do). Some highlights:

  • do you have more certificates and degrees that most people—all in different disciplines? *cough*
  • are you good at just about everything you try? / have you ever thought your problem would be solved if you were good at only one thing?
  • many things come easily to you so you sometimes underestimate their value
  • you “have often complained that being good at almost everything isn’t the same as being great at one thing.” (202) !! I say this all the time.

Jacks have so much talent, but that’s not all they have—they are the ones who show up and deliver. They do the job. With all these qualities, they should be hugely successful in business or the arts or some profession. But they rarely are. (203)


Almost without exception, this type of scanner is gifted at something you don’t find on career lists: Catching the ball in a team situation. Bailing out the other players. Saving the day. (205)

She describes jacks as ‘rescuers.’

If you don’t have the needed skills, you’ll learn them fast, because you know how to learn. (206)

Yep. It’s always driven me nuts how job descriptions say stuff like ‘must be familiar with X’ or ‘must know how to use Y program’ b/c even if I’ve never done X or used Y, I can figure it out in like, a day. So no big deal.

She suggests scanners are best suited for an ‘umbrella career,’ i.e. one that allows you to do many of the things you enjoy—like freelance writer or researcher. heh 🙂 Indeed.

Throughout the book there are strategies for dealing with being a scanner. A lot of these are things I already do in my own way. The central one is keeping a ‘scanner daybook’—essentially a writer’s notebook—where you write all your random brilliant ideas 😉 down so you’re not overwhelmed/distracted by them.

While much of the book was a confirmation of stuff I already know, it’s always nice to get validation that you are not the only one, that you are a recognized type! Being a unique snowflake is overrated. Plus, now I have this post I can refer people to when they want to know what’s up with all those degrees. I can’t help it! I’m a jack-of-all-trades!

Immediately after finishing Refuse to Choose, I read this essay by Michael Dirda. Scanner alert!

When I talk to friends and editors about possible projects, especially about projects that might come with a significant cash advance, they usually suggest a biography. Sometimes I’m tempted, but the prospect of spending years researching and writing about someone else’s life offends my vanity. I don’t want to submerge myself in another man or woman’s existence, I want to write about me, about the books and writers that I like. And I want to be able to finish any commitment within a year at best, so that I can get on to something else. I have, it would seem, the temperament of a reporter—always intensely interested in a subject for a short while, but soon ready to move on to the next assignment.

4: Mourning Diary

Mourning DiaryMourning Diary by Roland Barthes

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Consists of the notes Roland Barthes took after the death of his mother, Henriette. She was widowed (via WWI, that recurring theme) when he was a baby and they lived together most of his life. The notes are transcribed as they were written, one note to a page. There’s a center insert with family photographs and scans of a few of the diary notecards.

(Sidenote: I didn’t realize Barthes had a brother. Specifically, a younger half-brother (Michel) born out-of-wedlock to his mother when Barthes was 12ish. This info seems to be elided from his standard bio; it isn’t on his Wikipedia page. Kinda weird, because reading MD, it seems like they were pretty close. Makes Mme. Barthes seem more human, less martyr, too!)

It’s likely the notes would have become the basis for a book but Barthes died (he was hit by a truck and succumbed to his injuries) only months after the diary stops. So what’s here are basically personal/private notes not written for a public audience. Except it’s Barthes, so…

At the same time, I think calling the diary whiny/self-indulgent (as I saw in some reader reviews) is silly because it’s a diary. If you can’t whine in your diary, please. 🙄

Some quotes:

In taking these notes, I’m trusting myself to the banality that is in me. (17)

Solitude = having no one at home to whom you can say: I’ll be back at a specific time or who you can call to say (or to whom you can just say): voilà, I’m home now. (44)

Depression comes when, in the depths of despair, I cannot manage to save myself by my attachment to writing. (62)

I have not a desire but a need for solitude. (91)

if these ‘changes’ … make for silence, inwardness, the wound of mourning shifts toward a higher realm of thought. Triviality (of hysteria) ≠ Nobility (of Solitude). (95)

M. and I feel that paradoxically (since people usually say: work, amuse yourself, see friends) it’s when we’re busy, distracted, sought out, exteriorized, that we suffer most. Inwardness, calm, solitude make us less miserable. (100)

Only I know what my road has been for the last year and a half: the economy of this motionless and anything but spectacular mourning that has kept me unceasingly separate by its demands; a separation that I have ultimately always projected to bring to a close by a book — Stubbornness, secrecy. (231)

Reading this got me thinking again about the difference between loss by death vs. loss by leaving again. When someone dies, those left behind still have their (good) memories. This, I think, makes it hard(er) to move on, because it’s possible to dwell in the past, in happy memories of the person who is gone. Whereas, when someone leaves, those left behind can’t dwell in the past—at least how they’d always remembered it—that’s gone. If it’s to be remembered, it needs to be reconstituted/reconstructed in a completely different way. So while death-loss drags you backward, leaving-loss pushes you forward. It almost forces you to move on, because there are no happy memories to return to.

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