After 26 Books, I’m Still Learning How To Write

I’m a highly visual person and I think I got my training early, growing up in New York, a paradise of museums.  From elementary school onward, my parents took me on repeated trips to the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan.

My very first exposure to genius was when the Met bought Rembrandt’s “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” for an unheard-of sum.  I recall being very little and actually crawling through the crowds on my hands and knees so I that could get to the front.  The moody, evocative painting was breathtaking, an entrance to a brand new world.

But that’s what I felt in every museum, whether it was discovering Braque at MOMA, Kandinsky at the Guggenheim, or Monet at the Met.  I didn’t have words for my experience, but looking back, I know that time after time, I felt elevated, transported, and hungry.  I wanted to see more.

And I did, roaming gallery after gallery, and expanding my range to other museums like the Frick.  It was a world of magic, discovery, and promise.  I often felt like Henry James when he visited Rome the first time and wrote “I went reeling and moaning thro’ the streets, in a fever of enjoyment.”

I never imagined that I was going to be a painter, but from second grade on, I felt destined to turn the world into words the way these masters turned the world into experiences on canvas.  Each one was a doorway to wonderment and a world that was waiting for me in Europe.

Sculpture appealed to me, too, whether Greek and Roman glories at the Met or Brancusi’s stark, eloquent experiments in texture and form at MOMA and elsewhere.  Years later I would be moved to tears by a whole exhibition of Brancusi’s sculptures at the Tate Modern when I wandered through the near-empty galleries.  Like a character in Brideshead Revisited, I felt that I was “drowning in honey.”

When I started publishing fiction after years after creative writing classes and completing an MFA in Creative Writing, I was keen to paint with words, to describe what people and places looked like.  Sounds and aromas were secondary, not that it stopped me from writing many books and winning prizes, doing book tours here and abroad, finding my work being taught at universities, and even selling my literary papers and correspondence to a university library.

But in recent years, certain writers who appeal to more than the visual have captured me and taught me to be a better writer because they create an environment that’s also aural and olfactory.  Martin Cruz Smith does this in his crime novels set in Russia that expose corruption and bloated bureaucracy, the chaos observed by his cynical hero Akady Renko.  C.S. Harris also creates a mesmerizing landscape that is multi-dimensional in her Regency mystery series which often explores the wealth and privilege of the period’s upper crust.

In a league all its own is Janet Fitch’s best seller White Oleander about Astrid, a young girl coming of age despite the vengeful, seductive madness of her brilliant, demanding, poet mother.  Sent to jail for murder, her mother is the unhappy touchstone in Astrid’s life as she bounces from one foster home to another, learning harsh lessons about life, memory, and herself.  Her Norwegian name can either refer to strength or beauty, and both are qualities she discovers in herself through harrowing circumstances.

Fitch’s story-telling is powerful because it’s rooted in emotion and the senses, woven through with striking similes and metaphors:

By April, the desert had already sucked spring from the air like blotting paper.

I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this.  Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favorite music,  find it a comfortable chair.  Despair was the enemy.

So much going on in Kandinsky, it was like the frames were having trouble keeping the pictures inside.

The pearls weren’t really white, there were a warm oyster beige, with little knots between them so if they broke, you only lost one.  I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.

Of course Astrid doesn’t get her wish as her life gets broken apart again and again, breaking the reader’s heart because she feels so deeply and is so alone.  That last quotation is a perfect example of Fitch’s gift for taking an object and making it become deeply personal, emblematic of a character’s turmoil.

I was so caught up in the beauty of the writing and the fierceness of the author’s vision, I didn’t want it to end, but I also knew that it would inspire me to make my own books live and breathe more fully than before.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

Stephen King is Wrong: Books Do More Than Just Tell a Story

Stephen King once said on CNN Money that books themselves aren’t important since they’re basically just a delivery system for a story. But they’re much more than that: they’re canvases. I know. I’ve been painting on mine for years.

It started in college when I first bought books that weren’t required reading. I’d already been highlighting textbook passages with yellow marker, and scrawling my name inside, so of course I wrote my name on the first page of these books, too. But I also put down the date of the purchase, the book store, a recent event, and who I was with at the time.

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These scrawls sometimes proved amusingly opaque years later. Like: Great news on Wednesday. What about? Or: Argued with N. Who was N? And why were we arguing? Was it before I bought the book, after, and was the book connected in some way? I’ve tried going back and comparing my journal at the time, but the cryptic notes don’t open up their secret to me. More often, though, the inscription refers to a lunch with a lover or friend, and the scene opens up for me in a whole new way.

Having known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, once I started buying books as a matter of course, anything I read was also a subject of study. I underlined passages, circled words I didn’t know or wanted to use, bracketed or starred phrases worth remembering and quoting. Sometimes arrows would point to another page so I made sure I remembered a connection for later.

Great lines got the full treatment, and I’d note their pages in the front or back of the book, along with an identifying word or two, sometimes the whole phrase if it was memorable.

The more dedicated I became to writing as a career, the more the books I owned became a repository of ideas, notes, questions, descriptions of dreams inspired by the book, even short journal entries. It usually felt more immediate to keep the source of my inspiration and the idea closely connected. Some books have story titles, metaphors, character descriptions, opening lines written in the back or front — and even in-between. More than a few have whole scenes worked out.

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My books are also unexpected time capsules. I’m always running out of bookmarks, so many older books have had receipts, notes, to-do list and even letters tucked into them.

Once I started reviewing for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and magazines in the early 1990s, the intensity of my entrance into each book deepened. Though I wrote drafts on my PC, I usually started the review somewhere inside the book unless I wanted to pass it on to a friend or relative later. Then I’d have to restrain myself, keep pencils and pens away from the book at hand. It wasn’t easy.

Biographies are a passion of mine, and whether I’m reviewing the book or not, they still seem to call out running commentary as I compare my life to the one I’m reading about. But I don’t tend to write much snark no matter what the genre, because if a book pisses me off that much, I’m not likely to finish it. I do correct typos now and then. I can’t resist.

Occasionally a book feels so much like a freight train car covered with graffiti that if I want to reread it, I just buy a new copy of the book. There it is, virginal, unmarked, waiting for me to dive right/write in. But I also keep the previous copy or copies because they form a small diary of my relationship to that text.

I do have dozens of books on my iPad, but while I enjoy the convenience and speed of downloading, I miss the physical interaction. Every book tells its own story, but the books in my library tell my stories as well.

Lev Raphael is the author 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.