24 8 / 2014
This is my first ever Stephen King novel. I have an active imagination and vivid dreams, and I have been too much of a coward to read his books. But I want to. I will do it. I picked up this book as a way to ease into it. It’s not horror, but maybe it counts because King wrote it right? But this book is just anecdotes and writing advice. Either way, I’m so happy I read it. It makes me want to write. It’s full of tips but is just so entertaining. I don’t know how he managed that in a “how to write” book, but he did it.
“If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good.”
I have generally grouped quotes and lessons into sections, but this one quote encompasses everything and also explains why Stephen King is just so good at writing. He loves it. I’m sure being good at it helps him love it.
“Books are a uniquely portable magic”
“If i have to spend time in purgatory before going to one place or another, i guess ill be alright as long as there’s a lending library.” -Take a book everywhere. There is always a spare minute or two where a book will come in handy.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Writing is telepathy. When you read it, “we are having a meeting of the minds.” Regardless of time and distance, the message is clear. That’s magical.
“Writing is refined thinking”
Make things easy to read because “language does not always have to wear a tie and lace-up shoes”
“Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe.”
“You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
“It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.” - Do not write and do nothing else. Let life pull you away, because it will make you WANT to write.
ALWAYS HAVE YOUR TOOLS
His uncle went all the way to the backyard to fix something and lugged the whole toolbox out there when he needed only a screwdriver. Why? “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
Put your vocabulary on the top shelf of your toolbox. Do not make a conscious effort to improve it and dress up your words. Use the first word that comes to mind if it’s appropriate. Meaning is very important, so why would you cloud that by using words that are the cousins of the word you really wanted to use?
Grammar is also on the top shelf. And then he totally tells off all the whiny, annoying, I hate grammar people and I love him so much for it. He literally tells them to shut up and relax. And then he explains himself.
“Communication…must be organized by rules of grammar upon which we agree. When these rules break down, confusion and misunderstanding result. Bad grammar produces bad sentences.”
“Grammar is not just a pain in the ass; it’s the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking.”
There is beauty in the delicious pliability of language, but you would do well to follow the rules unless you are certain you can do well without them. And to be certain, you must first understand the rules and have practice using them.
Passive voice is evil. Just kill it. “The rope was thrown by the cowboy” Nobody gives a damn about the rope. Focus on the cowboy for fuck’s sake.
KILL THE ADVERBS (NICELY)
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”
‘He close the door firmly’ explains how he closed the door, but shouldn’t context do that for you? If you are telling your story well enough, adverbs are just clutter. “Give it back” He pleaded, “It’s mine” You do not need to say he pleaded dejectedly. They get it. You don’t NEED it.
I understand this now. It’s tough because I love adverbs but I’m going to try to stop using them like crazy. Truth be told I often ignore them when I read so why should I write them?
And don’t replace the adverb by “shooting the attribution verb full of steroids.” No grated, gasped, jerked. Said. Said is beautiful. Use said. When I was little, I’d try to use as many different attribution verbs as I could because I thought ‘said’ was boring. But get over it. No one cares. Use them when you need them, but keep it on a tight leash. Make your story strong enough that when you say “he said,” the reader will know how he said it.
“Practice the art, always reminding yourself that your job is to say what you see, and then to get on with your story.”
“If I tell you Carrie White is a high school outcast with a bad complexion and a fashion-victim wardrobe, I think you can do the rest, can’t you? I don’t need to give you a pimple-by-pimple, skirt-by-skirt rundown. We all remember one or more high school losers, after all; if I describe mine, it freezes out yours, and I lose a bit of the bond of understanding forged between us. Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”
King goes on to say this joint writer-reader description is one of the things that makes the writer far more fortunate than the filmmaker, who is doomed to always have to show exactly what they are picturing.
Movies and tv shows are all well and good. In fact, they can be amazing. But my favorite thing about them is always plot and dialogue. The written word. The actors can be attractive, but the men in my head are often even more perfect. The cinematography can be beautiful, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the sights I imagine. But the way people talk, the beauty in the order and timing of when things happen is the real thrill. My personal love lies in the written word, even when it’s transformed to picture.
PLOT AND CHARACTER
The book is the boss. The material controls the author.
It amazes me that he doesn’t think of plot. That stories to him are like fossils to be discovered. You need a certain kind of mind for that. As a writer he is both the creator and the first reader, and if he himself is held in suspense, then we will be too. What I found most interesting (and King himself admits this can sound creepy to those who haven’t experienced it) is the liveliness of his characters. He often has a general idea of what will happen, but as the characters grow and become who the are, their decisions fuel the plot. I understood what the term “character-driven” meant when I first heard it in English class, but now I can actually imagine it. The story doesn’t just center around the characters. The characters actively decide how the story happens. And often their decisions result in an entirely different plot than the one first imagined.
THEME AND SYMBOLISM
You can’t go in hoping to make it all meaningful because then it will sound trite. Write it, and during the 2nd draft, go through the story looking for things that add up. If you find something even close to a common thread, work off it. Take out scenes that distract and add a few that enhance it. But do not just add a theme is none exists. Symbolism, similarly, is found in natural patterns if and when they exist.
“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
“To write is human, to edit is divine”
2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%
In between the first and and second draft, let the story sit for 6 weeks or so in a drawer without looking at it. if it looks slightly foreign when you return to it, you have waited long enough. Fresh perspective is essential. Make yourself wait.
Write the first draft with the door closed, and edit personally with the door closed. Write quickly and alone. Once you finish that, THEN show people your work. Later edits happen with the door open. Outsiders can make you too confident or self-deprecating in the midst of working. Save all that for later, when you understand your story well enough to explain it to others.
This was a very long and specific book response, but I do think it’s worth it. Some of these concepts aren’t just for serious writers. The importance of brevity and clarity is something I know I will carry with me. The way he talks about reading and writing is also just inspiring.
19 8 / 2014
So this isn’t so much a review of the book or me raving about parts of it. It’s just general parts of it and then rants about what they made me think about.
“Why is it that people only like it when you ask questions that they have answered a million times and hate you for stumping them? I love questions that stump me. I really enjoy thinking about possible answers to those types of questions for days and days. Does anyone else like to ponder anymore, or am I just a freak?” - Leonard Peacock
I love this quote. A big part of me agrees with it. I enjoy thinking about big questions that have no clear answer. But being me, I also love having the answer. It’s tough but I’m working on calming that second part of me down a little. Repeating the same things and being proud of yourself for being a parrot doesn’t get you very far, so I’ll make an honest effort to go beyond that. Embrace the beauty of being stumped.
Unrelated, but the quote also got me thinking about how it would be if we approached discussion the way we approached science. Where we don’t believe something and then try to prove it, but instead look at what happens and decide what we believe based on what we see, know, and feel. The scientific method forces people to keep an open mind. The evidence decides the answer. I get that ethical questions don’t necessarily have an “answer” but maybe at least considering the concept will open people up. Maybe we wouldn’t be so stubborn. Just a thought.
Leonard Peacock is alone, depressed, and suicidal. I feel for him and I convince myself I would have helped him if given that chance. It’s so easy to presume I’m a good person who would do what Herr Silverman did for this boy. But would I? When one of my best friends told me he was depressed I did everything I could to help. He called me the night he almost killed himself. I talked to him for hours about how he felt and gave it my all to convince him he was worth it. That people cared. That I cared. I understand this book on so many levels, but I just don’t feel I deserve to. When my friend’s confessions and stories started weighing me down, I pulled away. I told myself it was because I wasn’t helping him, and my on and off companionship just ended up hurting him. But I don’t know. Maybe I should have tried harder. Been a better person. I used to want to talk to him. Now I find myself actively avoiding prolonged conversation. I have thought multiple times about how I would feel if I found out he was dead. Would I hold myself accountable? Do I still believe I can stop it? Obviously I hope it won’t ever have to come to that, and that he’s not in danger anymore. I realize half of this paragraph is in the past tense too. Like I’ve relinquished all power I have in the situation. I want to fix this. Somehow. I’m not acting the way I want to.
The “letters from the future” concept in the book is interesting. Writing imaginary letters from the future you and people in your future life…It could help visualize something beyond the now that is worth sticking it out for. Then again knowing that that reality is just in your mind might not help at all. But it’s an interesting exercise. I’ll probably try it at some point. Leo’s letters were particularly amusing, with Al Gore being right about the world sinking and adventures with the loyal dolphin Horatio (so many the Hamlet references). I’ll try to make mine equally as interesting.
18 8 / 2014
We all enjoy being right. That’s just understandable. It’s enjoyable. Putting yourself out there in support of something and then collecting your returns through confidence and bragging rights. It’s like emotional gambling.
I don’t often argue with my friends. I get into fights with my family all the time. It’s often because I know them so well I understand what they are thinking, but also care about them enough to at least make an attempt to have them see it my way. The issue I’m having now is that I’m getting so close to my friends (living with them does a lot in that department) that I’ve started treating them the way I treat my family. Now this doesn’t create problems when my friends are like me. When they can argue for hours, debate, and look things up on the internet to determine the winner. Inevitably someone gets the truth rubbed in their face and has to sit through a mini gloating session. When my friends can handle that, like I can, it’s ok. Sometimes I get stepped on, sometimes they do. But in the end we converse, learn new things, and share a passion for something that honestly only comes through argument (which isn’t always negative). But things get complicated when my friends aren’t like me. When I jump into something with evidence and a list of things to say, I’m genuinely excited to talk about things. I promise. But people can take it to heart and think I’m being mean, which I really don’t actively try to do. I get caught up in it. And it’s exciting when someone gives me information I haven’t ever heard because I usually respond “oh really?” and if that changes my stance, I’ll go sit next to them and read the article or quote or whatever it is they have. It’s not always enough to convince me, but that’s ok because I still gained a clearer idea of an alternative view.
I have made the big mistake of coining the phrase “I’m usually right” (Notice I say usually and not always because always is just too easy to prove wrong). I don’t mean it. Not in the way people think I mean it. I am wrong sometimes (often actually), but I make an effort to not be to vehemently supportive of something unless I know enough about it to have a strong opinion. I don’t claim to know all the facts or ideas out there. I’m (really really) far from being the smartest person on Earth. But I adore discussion, and I adore being right. When I am right (and yes, it happens often when I talk about things with certain friends) I put on a smug look and give off a general “I knew it” aura. I get how annoying that can be, but I do it anyway.
I think my problem lies in the fact that I don’t have as many of those argumentative friends anymore. I did Model UN and IPLE in high school, and I debated at the beginning of college. It’s not what I want to do all my life, so when faced with the choice of continuing debate or joining a multitude of other clubs that beefed up my resume, I chose to let go of debate. While the idea makes sense on paper, it is really hurting me in some ways. When I went to debate, that “I knew it” aura never existed. It was weak and feeble compared to the strong personalities I came across. I wold provide an argument, and instead of backing down, they would hit me with a counter-argument and a case study that proved I was wrong. And when that happens…oh god it is so exciting. It makes me go back and look for articles and important people who agree with me and pushes me to not only fight for what I believe in, but take a step back and consider whether I should believe it in the first place. At debate I met people as smart or smarter than me, but unlike my other friends, they had the same skill for putting their thoughts into words that I did. They were not sensitive or annoyed by argument; instead it kindled in them a passion. We would stand there, pissing on each other’s points and sneering at our comments, and then leave as friends, relieved to have found people who didn’t crumble when faced with a challenge. Some of those debaters scare me. The really good ones make me doubt everything I ever believed in and make me want to just blindly follow them. They are awe-inspiring and I hate them and want to be them. They are, however, by regular people standards, smug assholes who think they know everything. It sounds stupid when I say they’re misunderstood but I get it. When I have something to say, I talk to all my friends the way I talk to my debate friends. Only in other circles, sneering and pushing points isn’t nearly as appreciated.
I am so sorry I ever said “I’m usually right” because it is an entirely inappropriate tagline to a basic belief I hold. I do not speak up unless I think I am right, simply meaning that I try to be informed and I want to share that. I wait until I have information and strength in my position to open my mouth. When I enter an argument, I do so with layers of backup. But the backup is often misinterpreted as an act of war. I don’t want to fight. I want to share what I know. I don’t want you to just listen to me. I want you to have an open mind to what I’m saying or give me a reason to question what I believe. When people can’t think of reasons, they sometimes resort to getting defensive, and that’s where I have problems. I am ok with being wrong. In fact, it’s refreshing. Being wrong often enough gives you a blank slate where you stand to learn a lot from the people around you. But when I do put myself out there and say something, I only back down when it makes sense to. Only when the returns of being right aren’t worth it in the face of gained knowledge. In the meantime, I end up hurting the feelings of those who don’t see argument as a healthy exercise.
I need friends who don’t get mad at me for being right, but engage me in a conversation where we explore the possibility that maybe everyone is right in a way. I need people that understand that when I get loud and feisty, I’m just excited. I need to try my best to explain this, but it’s tough because “maybe everyone is right” just sounds like a cop out. It isn’t what I mean, but neither is what I am saying now. I will try to take back the “I’m usually right” standpoint. I know it does more harm than good, and it’s far from being accurate. If there’s one thing I am always right about, it’s that I’m not always right. I just need to find a way to get that point across.
16 8 / 2014
I read this book 2 years ago and I never wrote about it but I feel I should at least keep track of what I remember because I still find myself referring to the book in general conversation.
The book deals with the medical field and the one issue that is truly wrong with it. “The phenomenon is secrecy. Doctors have secrets, and we have lots of them.” The conversational disconnect between patients and their physicians is the biggest problem facing the medical world, and the book deals with tackling it.
Doctors often don’t know how to say “I don’t know.” There was that test they ran where they gave doctors different EKGs and they often interpreted them differently not only than each other, but, down the line, themselves. A lot of medicine is complicated and unclear, but patients are painfully unaware of its complexity. They assume doctors went through medical school and are being paid for their expertise, which is true. Except with everything that is known, there are a million more mysteries left to be solved.
Testing is just not as accurate as everyone is led to believe. 97% of all mammograms positive for breast cancer are false positives. If you get regular mammograms for 10 years, you have a 50% chance of getting a false positive over the course of a decade.
Doctors give patients what they want and don’t stop to tell them what they need. 98% or something of ear infections are viral, but patients often come in asking for antibiotics. Doctors know this won’t help, but they have more important things to worry about so they write them the prescription so everyone is happy. Only now we face the potential of antibiotics resistance. And it is because of miscommunication. Viral ear infections go away in 7-10 days. People get them checked out after 3-5 days of having it. They start taking their antibiotics, which are essentially sugar pills in this situation, and when the infection goes away they attribute it to the pills. Doctors know this is false, but it is easier to nod than convince patients not to do anything. Antibiotics for strep throat are likely killing far more people than they are saving. We need to put emphasis on slowing down and talking, because it could prevent us from wasting medical improvements.
Medical knowledge grows, and people can’t learn it. This is what I discussed with Appa today. Medical knowledge doubles every 5 years. So the moment you get out of medical school, you are behind. When you are an established doctor who has saved hundreds of lives doing a procedure, it isn’t likely that you will listen to an intern who tells you you’re doing it wrong. They have no experience, and you’re in charge. But what they have is up to date information. So many doctors rest on what they know, but while they do not actively try to be closed-minded, they do end up shutting out new information. It is difficult, maybe even impossible, to keep pace with every new advance. Things get messy though, when you don’t know if the attending or the intern has the better answer. “Most men, when they have already heard one person expounding a subject, refuse to listen to those who discuss it after him, not realizing that it takes the same intelligence to learn what statements are correct as to make original discoveries.” -Hippocrates. Appa has given me so many business books that talk about the “stickiness” of messages. You want people to sit up, take notice, and remember what you’ve said so you can get attention and profit. This stickiness in the medical world comes from publications of well-known researchers, and high profile studies. Yet the medical field is much less stagnant than business. As a whole, you want a medial message to be sticky. People will pay attention and use it to save lives. But a few months down the line, you’ll want to rip that super sticky message out and put another one in its place. You need command strips for medical knowledge, and that is extremely difficult to achieve. How do you get information to sink in, if you know it will be inevitably uprooted in the near future? Yet in the meantime, lives are on the line. This phenomenon is intriguing to me. Messages that are made to stick, but be pulled off. Maybe the answer lies not in the message, but in the way we approach learning.
Either way, this book is amazing and has set a foundation for me to think about a lot of big questions. It is an enjoyable read and is not at all dense. Worth reading again years down the line (only the statistics are likely to be very out of date by then), and highly recommended.
As Aldous Huxley once said, “Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are dead.”
01 8 / 2014
14 7 / 2014
You know when people say that if you put everything in one big pile it always seems far more overwhelming? Well that’s just not true. Stuff is way more overwhelming when it’s spread out across your house, pulled out of drawers and dressers and cabinets and thrown across the floor like an ugly art project made by an overzealous kindergartner.
My house was broken into yesterday. We left for 2 days to spend time in Allentown with Jyotsna and her family, and we came back to a trashed house. It looked fine from the outside. In fact the living room and bottom floor were relatively untouched. Srikant walked inside and asked Appa if he had taken anything out of the tv stand. Appa said he might have, and no one thought anything of it. Then Srikant saw the kumkumum (red Indian powder) spilled over the dining room table and the avalanche of gift bags and photos coming out of the linen closet down the top of the stairs. That’s when we knew. We ran through the house, jaws open. Jewelry everywhere, clothes all over the floor, desks and cabinets broken, ac vents out, toilet lids askew…the house was a mess. My mother was clearly upset, but I was both angry and creeped out. My purses were unzipped, my clothes were sprawled across the floor, and I couldn’t shake the thought that they had touched them. The thought of it sent shivers down my spine, and today I stuck all my clothes in the wash.
I mean it sucks and I wish it didn’t happen. I wish we left a few lights on when we left, and I wish my mind would just stop being filled with “what if’s.” But I keep thinking it could have been so much worse. They were obviously just looking for cash. Thousands of dollars worth of jewelry and silver were scattered but untaken. The laptops and tv were in the same places we left them. My car keys and car were still there. Most importantly, no one in my family was hurt. They were petty criminals who did not want to be tracked, and for that I’m grateful.
After this experience, I am once again reminded of the importance of friendship. I took my brother to Malathi Aunty’s while the cops and detectives sweeped our house. The whole family stayed at Anoushka’s that night. We had dinner at Nachu Mama’s and the next day Rama Aunty made us lunch while Ram Uncle visited. These are just a few families in an entire circuit of people we could have called for help. Despite being a world away from their families and the place they grew up, my parents have developed a network of connections that they do not need to manipulate. They help because they care, and when they’re in trouble we do the same. It’s the same reason I had a place to stay as a 3-year-old while my parents fretted over my premature brother, and it is the same reason we are offered $4000 without question anytime my grandparents are sick and an emergency India trip is needed. We are nothing without the people who help us along the way, and the response to this break-in simply provided more evidence for that.
At the end of the day, we lost around $3000 (fingers crossed insurance will do what it’s supposed to do to fix that) and were forced to do some summer cleaning. My mother joked that she wasn’t sure if they had touched my room, since it was usually that messy anyway (she’s kind of right though) The robbers threw my clothes everywhere and I actually finally donated my old elementary school outfits while putting everything back in order. Maybe some things are just meant to happen.
10 7 / 2014
10 7 / 2014
*I call my mother Amma. I first typed this saying “my mother” but it doesn’t sound right. I’m using Amma.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of language. I volunteered with the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at the Bridgewater Temple, asking people to fill out surveys. They were designed to assess how much the South Asian population knows about HIV and how they feel about it. I walked up to so many elderly people but their children always stepped in and said “no we did one already.” I wanted individual answers, but the language barrier had forced them to abandon their individuality for the dependent oppression of “we.” Those grandmothers and grandfathers never filled out their own surveys. It was always done for them. Uncomfortable with English, they shut down when approached by someone in America. My fluency in Tamil is the only reason I’m able to have a relationship with my own grandparents. I know people who have no idea who their grandparents are, just because of the language barrier. They would sit in the same room as them and converse in monosyllabic form, inevitably running out of thoughts that can be that simply expressed. I say one word in Tamil, and everyone I know beams with pride. The language represents a preservation of the world I come from, and a real, usable connection to my roots. Amma works hard to make sure I don’t lose that skill. Everytime I call her on the phone she goes “No. I don’t understand English. Speak to me in Tamil or not at all.” And that is the entire reason I’m fluent. Whenever I needed to make my point or have an argument or explain something I’m excited about, I have had to do it in Tamil. Passion waits for nothing, and I was forced to either sound stupid or learn to speak Tamil. So I made the obvious choice.
The same saying Amma now uses to encourage me to speak Tamil was, however, a reality when she first came to America. She didn’t understand English. She knew when to come and go and how to ask for the bathroom, but the intensity of her personality was lost in translation even before she got on that plane. My father had to leave for America while Amma was still pregnant with me in India. They corresponded over months, entirely through hand-written letters. I remember the first time I found those letters inside an old brown purse at the bottom of her dresser. I asked her about them and she took them from me and said “Don’t touch those.” I found them again, and I read them all in secret. My parents still don’t know I’ve read them. The letters start off long, written entirely in Tamil. My grandmother was a Tamil teacher and I’ve been taught to read and write the language, but it was still hard work getting through those letters. They talked about Amma’s health, purchases made for me, and job stability. There were many “I hope you’re healthy”s and “I am well”s but not one “I miss you.” Still, everything was described in detail. Amma was living with my father’s family, and tensions were clearly high. My father’s only response was “You’ll have to learn to deal with that.” That sentiment is pretty much the same to this day. I read pages and pages of letters, and, suddenly, I reached a letter written in English. My father said “I think you should practice your English now. You’ll be living in America soon, It’s time you knew.” Amma’s letters got very short after that. No more details, no more stories. Her letters became the written version of silent nods.
My mother had never been on a plane, she had never travelled, and had only very rarely even been outside her own neighborhood. Her house was on the same street as the local temple, and she was friends with the shop owners and children in the area. She walked for hours to get to music class, and worked her arms getting water from a deep well behind her house. She had me, and we both flew over when I was 3 months old. Now, suddenly, she was in a land where everyone expected her to “learn the language or get out.” I’ve always hated that immigration argument. People don’t not want to learn. People who grew up in America have the immense luxury of learning and using the language the entire world is expected to know. Amma never had that, and she was thrown into a new world full of staring people with little way to communicate. And her go-to accessory was a crying baby.
Amma has had on and off jobs throughout the years, and she had cried to me multiple times in recent years about being a failure, unable to work and study they way she wants to. This might sound cliche, but in my eyes she is the biggest success I have had the pleasure of meeting. Amma handles all of my family’s accounts. Dish gets our bill wrong, and she calls up the company without an ounce of fear to set it right. English is hardly an issue for her anymore, and she holds easy conversation with everyone around her. After 19 years in America, I see her as the woman she was when she lived in her childhood home. Comfortable, strong, and loud. I am endlessly grateful to her for giving me the power to speak both English and Tamil. I have won debates, given endless speeches, written short stories, held intense conversations…everything. Amma had to start off at such a disadvantage, and she worked to become the woman she is now. I have the blessing of a thorough and global education, and I do not plan on wasting it. I often get told I talk too much. But right now, I see no reason to stop.