Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Book Review: Before We Get Started

Catherine, who blogs at A Spirited Mind, recommended this memoir by author Bret Lott, Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life.  It was an excellent read just a month before I embark on another novel writing month with the National Novel Writing Month organization (Nanowrimo). Lott presents a series of essays on aspects of writing and his life, as his writing has matured and gained exposure.

In the first essay, "Before We Get Started," Lott uses the story of Ezekiel commanding the dry bones to spring to life to encourage writers to just show up. He writes of Ezekiel, "He leaves it to God, and then proceeds - and here is the most important moment - to speak the prophecy he has been called to speak, whether he believes it or not, and not knowing as well what that prophecy means. He speaks, because he has been called to, and not because he knows what will be the outcome."

He continues, drawing the example closer to the writer: "And then, in the writer's answer to whatever has called him to write, and in his willingness to look at each word with fear and trepidation coupled with faith that speaking it will be an act in obedience to what has called him to speak it, those words will line up, will breathe, will become the vast army of sentences that will take up residence in the new Israel every story, novel, essay, and poem ought to be."

I found the second essay "Why Write Anyway?" to be especially helpful in the same way. The words reminded me that I write because there is joy in getting it right, no matter if what I write receives grand exposure or few readers. He quotes Raymond Carver who queries, "If the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it?" and answers, "In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave." Lott decides that writing is its own reward and that each writer is on his own in the process and the results.

He writes about rejection, providing stories of his own experience with rejection. He declares it will come to every writer. Expect it. Learn not to fear it. March on. Grow wiser in your submission, but march on.

But, I think the most powerful passage of all in the book, came when he quoted J.D. Salinger's words from one character to his younger brother, a writer: "If only you'd remember before ever you sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world ... [you] would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself... Oh, dare to do it... Trust your heart."

The book is more memoir than writing instruction, but several key points about writing do come out through the stories of the author's journey. He writes of being selected by Oprah and the big hub-bub that came as a result. Yet, he is very humble and writes over and over again of his limited understanding, making those of us who "don't know anything" like him, feel understood and encouraged.

After completing this book, I'm eager to get my hands on another book of his, also recommended by Catherine, Life & Letters: On Being a Writer. That one will have to be inter-library loaned because none of the libraries close to me have that one on their shelves. After reading that one, I'm going to give his novel, Jewel, a try. Heck, if Oprah selected it for her book club, it has to be a great read, right?

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