I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.”
“Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky:
Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927).
Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.”
“This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.”
It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!”
“Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.”
Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort.
When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin.
One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind:
Writing As Practice
This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance… Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice.
Then, at the end of the chapter:
Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today.
I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read:
Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.
Don’t Marry the Fly
Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders.
A New Moment
Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’
One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that.
I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby.
Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand.
I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover.
My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall.
Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice?
I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says,
Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write.
I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book.
Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.
When Samuel Beckett was a young man, his parents wanted him to work in the family’s accountancy business and assume his place in Dublin’s Protestant merchant class. As Tim Parks writes in his new book, Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, “a battle of wills ensued between mother and son…As the impasse intensified, [Beckett] developed a number of physical symptoms — boils, anal cysts, pelvic pains, tachycardia, panic attacks…” The panic attacks would plague Beckett for years, and his biographer Anthony Cronin tells us, in Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist, that he didn’t reflect on his maladies in a conventional manner. In 1935 he attended a lecture by Swiss psychiatrist and former Freud protégé C.J. Jung. Beckett was 29 years old, in analysis, and believed he suffered from a neurotic disorder that “had its origins in infancy, in a time he could not remember,” Cronin writes.
In the lecture, Jung described the case of a young girl whose difficulties baffled him until he fell upon a simple, though rather esoteric diagnosis: “The girl had never really been born.” The idea immediately fired Beckett’s imagination. Cronin claims it triggered something crucial in Beckett and would become central to his self-understanding, and a recurring motif in his works. Beckett, he writes, “thought the diagnosis was a profoundly suggestive illumination of his own case, his sense of alienation from the world and of not being ready or fitted to cope with it, to join in its activities as others did, or even to understand the reasons for them.”
In Life and Work, Parks writes about Beckett and 19 other writers, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Georges Simenon, Muriel Spark, Peter Stamm, Haruki Murakami, Stieg Larsson, and E.L. James (Parks examining Fifty Shades of Grey is great fun). Here and there in the collection, one occasionally glimpses the true existential cost of the so-called “writer’s life,” where writing is both an act of self-abnegation — with all of its consequent anxieties — as well as a struggle against such a personalized nihilism.
Parks tells us that after Beckett published the novel Molloy at the age of 45 — finally setting the stage for literary renown after years of “retyping…for rejection,” as Beckett put it — he had his then girlfriend (and later wife) Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil write to his publisher. She requested they do not enter Molloy for the prestigious Prix des Critiques, because the prizewinner would have to schmooze and make speeches, and “it is impossible for the prizewinner, without serious discourtesy, to refuse to go in for the posturings required by these occasions: warm words for his supporters, interviews, photos, etc. etc. And as (Beckett) feels wholly incapable of this sort of behavior, he prefers not to expose himself.” In light of Beckett’s self-diagnosis, it occurs to me that a man who doesn’t exist, a man who isn’t there, can’t be expected to sign books and sip burgundy with a bunch of boring editors and press types.
But this malady isn’t unique to Beckett and his Parisian, mid-century modernist milieu. Julian Barnes had a similar feeling. In his 2008 memoir/treatise on death, Nothing to be Frightened Of, Barnes writes he has a “grown-up fear of just not existing.” Parks believes Barnes is unable to “find consolation for the eventual extinction of his personality… bereft of a reassuring metaphysics and given the findings of science, life this side of the grave is anyway irretrievably devalued, and individual personality doesn’t in fact exist.” For Barnes, it seems to be a rather simple conclusion: If there is no God, then there must be no “me” as well.
Parks suggests we can think of personality as something that emerges vis-à-vis “one’s negotiations with others,” and he notes this has always proved problematic for the South African writer J.M. Coetzee. In examining Coetzee’s autobiographic trilogy, Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime, Parks wonders what happens when you come-of-age in 1940s South Africa — at a time when tribal identification is everything — yet you don’t identify with any one community. In Boyhood the protagonist attends a new school where he must self-declare as Christian, Catholic, or Jewish. The boy is from an Afrikaner family, but they speak English instead of Afrikaans. He is born in a Christian milieu, but his parents are agnostic. Because his family is “nothing,” he randomly chooses Catholic, but this doesn’t work either, leading only to ostracization and disgrace. I wonder, if one is outside of all recognized models of community — as some writers are, or at least feel themselves to be — is it possible to know you really exist?
It’s unlikely that a gnawing sense of being unborn tops the neuroses of most writers these days, but I’d argue that Beckett’s Jungian insight is more commonly known today as anxiety. In the last century, writers largely handled it by drinking. Beckett’s mentor and friend in Paris, a certain genius named James Joyce, was so fond of the drink he had to forbid himself from starting before six o’ clock—but when dark came, he was as game as Hunter S. Thompson.
I think the daily act of sitting alone for hours and purposely conjuring up emotions and disturbing memories — precisely the kinds of things people use Percocet, vodka, food, and Netflix to forget — serves as the ideal petri dish for anxiety. Parks mentions that Barnes and Simenon also suffered from panic attacks. Without doing any real research, I can add the names David Foster Wallace, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck. These are all prose writers, of course. If we begin to add the names of the poets, the list gets real long, real fast.
In his essay on Peter Matthiessen, Parks describes a scene in the novel In Paradise, where “pilgrims” are meditating at Auschwitz in a kind of retreat/holocaust remembrance ritual. Parks writes, “The practice of meditation has the effect of breaking down the ego; in hours of silence, the mind intensely focused on breath and body in the present moment, there is no place for the narrative chatter that feeds the constant construction of the self.” In some ways this is not a bad description of the idealized writing state. I think it would certainly fit a kind of Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Zen-inspired, Esalen Institute vision of creative writing. But whereas Zen meditation is about an empty mind, writing fiction requires a full page, and that means cultivating lots of narrative chatter, ultimately pulling you back into yourself.
But just as writing may induce multifarious forms of anxiety, the right words are also a middle finger to the dying of the light. The God of the Old Testament announced himself to Moses with the startling declaration, “I am who I am.” And writing, at its best, is like that: a declaration of existence, an expression of self-hood and — when we’re not shaking with fear as Moses did — a reminder that heaven is not as far from us as it often seems.