Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Are word lovers "wordies?" Some thoughts on books about words

The end of summer means cleaning out the beach leftovers from my car…the orphaned flip flop, a broken beach chair, fraying towels, empty sunscreen bottles. Then there's that LL Bean bag stuffed with books I had planned back in June to start, finish or re-read.

A quick inventory tells me I've gotten at least halfway through almost every book. The same is true for a similar bag stuffed with yet more books I keep in the house. Plus, I also always have a book in my computer bag, bike backpack, car, gym bag and travel carry-on for those unanticipated moments where I can read a few pages. Almost every book is about words.

If someone who loves all things about food is a foodie, I guess those of us who love words could be called a "wordie." Not much makes me happier than an hour just browsing in a bookstore - independent, not a chain, of course (this earlier blog post makes the case for an indy bookstore in Columbia).

I’ve developed a travel habit of seeking out locally owned bookstores, buying several books I discover purely by wandering the aisles, and taking home a bookmark to remind me where each book came from (I threw that info in below in parentheses).

A friend recently asked me what I’d read this summer, but I wasn’t sure how to answer. I started a lot of books. I finished only a few – not because they didn’t hold my attention or weren’t interesting – I just had a lot of ground to cover because of recent travels to places that had great bookstores.

So if you like books about words, writing, writers, grammar or creativity, here are a few that have been riding around with me this summer.

http://bit.ly/2cEnwCqBetween You and Me, Confessions of a Comma Queen
Mary Norris (Malaprops, Asheville)

The author is a copy editor for The New Yorker. She had me at the chapter titles I read in the table of contents…"Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon" or "A Dash, a Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar."

She recounts with serious hilarity stories about the politics of dealing with editors, writers, proofreaders and typesetters. She describes the plague of the "indiscriminate sprinkling of commas." And, best of all, she devotes an entire 20-page chapter to the debate over gender pronouns. She makes grammar and punctuation fun and funny.

"Me/I " confusion grates on me like "2+2=5" would grate on an accountant...it's simply never right. This is my number one grammar pet peeve, as described in this earlier blog post. In this passage, Norris makes me realize I'm not alone in my dislike of this grammar disgrace:

Just between you and me, I suffer, and the whole body of the English language shutters, when, say a shoe salesman trying to gain my trust leans forward and says, "Between you and I…" Or when the winner of the Academy Award for best actress thanks a friend "for getting Sally and I together." Maybe it's the heat of the moment: maybe people think "me" might be OK at home, where you can afford to be a bit vulgar, but it can't possibly be right in a formal setting.

Bird by Bird
Anne Lamott (Hub City Bookshop, Spartanburg)

Anyone who writes or wants to write must own a copy of this book. It’s not only a great primer on writing, but it’s also brimming with life lessons Lamott so humorously and authentically shares with her readers. I’m on my third copy of this book having given my first two to friends.

Joy just oozes from this book no matter how many times I’ve read it. Lamott’s central theme about writing – and life in general - is always “just get something started.” The title of the book comes from advice from her father to her brother when he was overwhelmed by writing a report on birds. “Just take it bird by bird,” her dad advised.

Lamott’s advice on “shitty first drafts,” or SFDs in polite company, sums up her philosophy:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something -- anything -- down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft -- you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft -- you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Once you've started, then writing is about practice. Get more wisdom from Anne Lamott in this earlier Random Connect Points post about writing and practice as a process.

The Elements of Style
William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White (Litchfield Books, Pawleys Island)

My original version of this little nugget has followed me from college to a bookshelf in every office I’ve occupied. While admittedly my AP Stylebook has become my daily “go-to” for grammar, punctuation and style guidance, the cover of this 2007 edition of The Elements of Style caught my eye in an article about the book's illustrator. And, yes, I sought out the book for the cover.

Artist Maira Kalman illustrated this edition including the cover design with a self-satisfied basset hound which appealed to my soft spot for this breed. Dogs aside, however, the amusing illustrations subtly tell the stories of the grammar lessons being taught on the pages.

My favorite is the illustration for this example of a misplaced participial phrase:

Wondering irresolutely what to do, the clock struck twelve.

This whimsical illustration is on page 29 if you pick up the book.

Writing Down the Bones
Natalie Goldberg (Kramer Books and Afterwords Cafe, Washington DC)

Kramer Books was the first independent bookstore I ever experienced back in the ‘80s when I lived in Washington, DC. Several years ago, I came across this book at Kramer when I was visiting  DC. What better place to read a book about writing than in the store's cafĂ© on a cold rainy winter afternoon while I sipped hot tea and nibbled on cheesecake so I wouldn't get kicked out.

The chapters are short - most only two to three pages - and all can stand alone. I have kept this book in my reading sack for several years now because I like to pick it up and randomly open to a chapter. In rereading this book over the summer, I found a passage that stayed with me as I'm increasingly drawn to the creative flow of writing by hand instead of with a keyboard:

First, consider the pen you write with. It should be a fast-writing pen because your thoughts are always much faster than your hand. You don’t want to slow up your hand even more with a slow pen.

Much truth there. I've written before about my fear of writing with a pen.

Why We Write About Ourselves
Compilation of essays edited by Meredith Maran (College of William and Mary bookstore)

I’ve become fascinated by how different types of writers think, and how they use their own experiences in their writing. What better way to get inside their heads than to read essays about why they write about themselves. Some of my favorites like Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Pat Conroy and Sue Monk Kidd are among the 20 authors who give a peek into their creative processes and where they get the courage to write about their own experiences.

Each chapter includes an essay by the editor and an essay by the author. With honesty and diverse insights, they share perspective and advice about how they go about remembering experiences from their past to include in their writing. Each chapter ends with two or three bullets of wisdom from each author.

One of my favorite bits of wisdom was from Anne Lamott:

Don’t wait for inspiration. Point your finger at your head and march yourself to your desk. It’s a great dream to do something that connects us with antiquity and with last week’s news. So don’t be a big whiny baby. Woman up and write.

In the process of reading this book, I discovered several authors I’d never read before. What a treat to learn about David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy and Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped.

The Typewriter Revolution
Richard Polt (M Judson Books, Greenville)

I found this jewel propped up next to a vintage Underwood typewriter in the new downtown Greenville bookstore.

Typewriters have always fascinated me. I learned to type on a very rudimentary electric version when I was in the ninth grade (girls took typing, boys took PE) and hauled a lightweight electric Brother to college. A clunky blue Selectric greeted me at my first “real job.” I'll occasionally run my fingers across the keys of our orphan office typewriter just because I can.

Everything about this book visually appealed to me…its merchandising next to the old typewriter, the luxurious feel of the sturdy cover stock, the smooth texture of the heavy page stock, the cloth bookmark that looks like typewriter ribbon, the appealing large courier typeface of the title.

The contents didn't disappoint either. The evolution of this history-changing machine is fascinating. And I had no idea there is a whole movement of people who hold type-ins in city parks, get typewriter tattoos and participate in the "typewriter insurgency." This revolution invites you to take time out from the “data stream”:

The typewriter insurgency doesn’t ask you to chuck all your digital devices, but it does ask you to take time out from the Paradigm. Try digital detox for a day. Dance, cycle, read a novel (on paper), take a walk in the woods – and sit at your typewriter, which doesn’t process words at all, but just puts them on a page, mediating between you and the paper without remembering the information, without meddling with your choices…You may find that language and thought aren’t just information processing, but a matter of waking up to your own situation and the world around you…

This is a fun easy read. Plus, I found it makes a great conversation starter…everyone over 40 has a memory of using a typewriter at some point and those under 40 find them fascinating relics of another time.

Drunk, Naked and Writing
Adair Lara

This San Francisco-based columnist, teacher and writing coach focuses on the structure and craft of writing. The book is written in easy-to-digest bites of advice that sometimes read like a funny textbook. She admonishes the reader to get rid of "mushy adverbs and adjectives" and "flabby verbs." Bottom line, she reiterates writing is about getting starting and keeping going.

The most valuable lesson I took from my most recent pass through this book addresses one of my chronic editing challenges:

You know you are finished when you catch yourself changing stuff and then putting it back the way you had it before.

The appendix includes lots of fun writing prompts and exercises.

I still have a few books on my list to buy next time I find a good local bookstore. Tops on my list include:
  • The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
  • The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSavlo
  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • The Artful Edit by Susan Bell
  • Buy the Book, a compilation of essays from the New York Times book review column of the same name
Other suggestions?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Travelogue: A few thoughts on the Grand Canyon and a bit of joy

The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological. At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves.

I found this quote while doing research for my recent trip to the Grand Canyon. It really resonated with me, so I pasted it into my journal wondering if I’d have this same reaction to seeing the Grand Canyon.
A conference in Phoenix recently gave me the chance to fly out a couple of days early and experience this natural treasure. A Grand Canyon visit had always been a travel bucket list item, so being less than four hours away, it made sense to take an extra day.
Two willing travel companions – my sister, Bootie, and her 18 year-old son, John – gave me good reason to make more than a day trip out of the visit. We had a great two-and-a-half days at the national park experiencing this natural wonder on foot and on bikes.
We got some good insight on what we might want to do from friends and online resources, but had nothing planned beyond a hotel room and dinner reservations one night. The highlights of our trip were the things we discovered when we arrived rather than planned in advance. Over the course of our time at the Grand Canyon, I came up with a list of several things I wish we’d known when planning this trip. Maybe it will help others thinking about this adventure.
Getting there. We flew into Phoenix because that’s where I needed to end up for my conference after the Grand Canyon adventure. Plus, it seemed to be the best bet for visiting the South Rim. We arrived in Phoenix about 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The airport is much larger than I thought, and the shuttle ride to the rental cars is unusually long – about 20 minutes.
Since our flights were late, our lunch was a quick stop at an In and Out burger joint. It’s a chain of about 300 locations in six western states that’s been around since 1948. And in and out it was! The menu choices are burgers, grilled cheese and fries. That’s it. No decisions involved. Pretty cool.
To break up the drive to the Grand Canyon, we made a stop in Sedona to see the Red Rocks and do a little shopping in this town known as an artists’ colony. It’s a bit touristy, but the visitor center on the outskirts of town has some great info on how to get nice views of the Red Rocks.
We made stops at a couple of the lay-bys to take pictures and just absorb the magnitude and beauty of the landscape. The red in the Red Rocks can’t be adequately described in words. After an hour of piddling around the touristy downtown, we hit the road to our destination.
We took the scenic route from Sedona to the Grand Canyon on Route 89. It’s a two-lane road that gave us samples of several very starkly different landscapes. We left behind the cactus-scattered sandy land around Phoenix for the Red Rocks around Sedona then passed lush hilly ground that looked something like the NC mountains before reaching the mesas near the Grand Canyon. We could have covered the same distance on this 40-mile stretch in half the time on the parallel interstate, but the time was worth the delay to experience the beautiful and diverse landscapes.
The Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon National Park is well-run, clean and environmentally conscious.
A few interesting facts: The Canyon is 277 miles long. It’s a vertical mile from the Rim to the Colorado River which translates into about seven miles on foot accounting for the winding paths and switchbacks. It’s big!
I learned from the front desk guy at the hotel that the average visitor to the park stays only two to three hours. This is compared to when the park first opened in the 1920s – people stayed two to three weeks.
The hotels. There are four hotels in the park. If you are even considering the possibility of a visit in the future, book now (they take reservations starting 13 months in advance of arrival date). The hotels have varying levels of amenities from high end to motor lodge-style. Initially, I wasn’t able to book a room in the park six weeks in advance, but someone told me to “make it your job description” to try two and three times a day, and it worked.
We got a room in the motor lodge-style Yavapai Lodge. It had the basics, was clean and well-situated. Kind of reminded me of the old Howard Johnson days of my childhood with all three of us in wedged into one room with two beds and a rollaway (we discovered the design of a rollaway hasn’t changed since our experiences with them in 1970s). The cafeteria-style restaurant suited us just fine for pizza and a salad our first night after a 20-hour trip, but it’s not cheap.
Biking and hiking. We had two full days to explore but hadn’t made any formal tour arrangements. The first morning, we happened upon the Blue Angel Bike Rental shop purely by the luck of how we entered the Visitor Center parking lot. The shop has hundreds of bikes of all sizes for rent. I was able to rent a yellow bike exactly like my own making the bike adventure even more enjoyable.
A number of trail options fit every type of bike and cyclist. We opted for the 22-mile roundtrip ride to Hermits’ Point. We followed a mile-long paved path with gently rolling hills that threaded from the Visitors Center to the Bright Angel trailhead within the park. This led us to the traffic-restricted road to Hermit’s Point. Cyclists share the road only with the occasional tour bus…no cars allowed.
The 10-mile ride to Hermit's Rest included a couple of somewhat challenging hills but was certainly manageable for our fitness and skill level. We made a half-dozen or so stops along the way for pics and water (believe everything you read about staying hydrated!)
Words certainly can’t describe and photos can't adequately capture the beauty of this place or how the colors and shadows change so quickly yet so subtlety. At Hermit’s Rest, we cobbled together lunch from the snack bar and took a breather before heading back.
While the altitude did seem to have some effect on our stamina during the ride, it was nothing like what many people had described. Again, believe everything you hear about staying hydrated though. I drank more than twice my usual daily intake of water every day we were there.

The second day, we opted for a hike. We sought out advice at the Visitors Center for the best trail to try, and were strongly discouraged from any hiking between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the heat of the summer. Knowing this was our only day to hike, we decided to give it a try, and we would just turn around if it got too hot. We took the bus to the closest of several trailheads in the park, the South KaibibTrail described as a “maintained dirt trail.”
Before we set a foot on the trail, it was clear that we weren’t the only tourists who hadn’t heeded the park ranger’s advice about not hiking in the hottest part of the day. Fortunately, we were well-prepared compared to many of the hikers we passed. We had ample water, light backpacks, sturdy shoes (or at least Bootie and John did), and we were all in fairly good physical condition. Along the way, we saw sweaty babies in backpacks, people wearing flip flops and jeans, and families with flushed faces hiking back up having clearly run out of water.

The views again defied description, but what struck me the most was the hazards on the trail. It was loosely packed dry dirt with lots of roots, rocks and uneven surfaces… no rails or handles anywhere. I witnessed several near misses with kids horsing around or people just losing their footing.
The highlight of the hike was the turn-around point of “Ooh Aah’ point.” Large boulders (best word I can come up with to put perspective on these ginormous rocks) jutted out from the path giving breathtaking views.

We took lots of photos here but scrambled to head back up when we saw a posse of mules trudging up the hill toward us. They stopped for a bathroom break, and did their business in unison right there on the trail. We certainly didn’t want to be behind them should that happen again going back up!!
Interestingly the hike back up didn’t take as long as going down, plus none of us felt it was any more intensive.  Bottom line: water, water, water, good shoes, light backpack.
Food. You don’t visit a national park for fine dining, but the El Tovar Hotel’s dining room was elegant and inviting. Reservations are hard to come by at the last minute but, again calling over and over, we got a table for our last night at the Canyon. Food and wine choices were diverse and rivaled a high end urban restaurant. Patrons’ dress ranged from “right off the trail” hiking gear to elegant evening out attire.
The Blue Angel Lodge dining room also had a diverse menu. I can’t say if the food was unusually good or we were just ravenously hungry from our bike ride that day, but we all agreed this was the best meal of the trip.
The park’s General Store near the Yavapai Lodge had a good variety of groceries, tourist trinkets and a sandwich/breakfast buffet that served us well for breakfasts. I was a little put off by the $9 bag of trail mix and the $3 granola bars but what can you expect in a contained tourist destination?
Sunsets. Of course dazzling sunsets didn’t disappoint. We arrived the first evening just in time to get to the Yavapia Center to experience the sunset the first night. Even with clouds and a brisk breeze, the sunset gave a kaleidoscope of changing colors every night.
We learned there are several overlooks in the park where sunsets are supposed to be at their most spectacular, but I’m not sure they could be much better than what we saw from the Avapai Center and the porch of the El Tovar Hotel.
Weather. It was hot. Of course it was hot. We welcomed the escape from the humidity, but the 100+ degree temperatures didn’t seem any worse than what we are used to in SC. I wasn’t expecting the temperature at the Grand Canyon to be a good 20 degrees lower than Phoenix, and the evenings were downright cool. My trusty jean jacket was just what I needed to calm the slight chill.

So bottom line advice if you are planning a trip: Start planning early to get the best hotel (definitely stay in the park). Bring your own water bottle and refill it often at the many water stations around the park. Pack snacks and any other food you may want while you are there. Don’t forget a jacket because nights can be chilly even in the dead heat of summer. Plan on at least two days – that was exactly the right amount of time to experience the Canyon the way we wanted to – by bike and on foot.
Now….back to the quote I’d found about the Grand Canyon. The second morning, I woke up just after sunrise about 6. I packed up my camera and long lens and ventured out to the Rim. I’d recently taken a photography class and was enjoying the challenge of light and texture in the Canyon shots.
Sitting alone on a ridge with the first light of day reflecting off the Canyon around me, I was struck by the same sense of joy described in the quote. It was a joy springing from the beauty, the quiet, the miracle, the sheer magnitude of the space around me. I so wanted to capture that with my camera.
After experimenting for a bit, I realized my attempts at recreating that enormity in a photograph would never yield the results I wanted.
So I just sat … and absorbed … my smallness, the Canyon’s grandness, and the perfect connection between them.