The Company Writers Keep

“You are the company you keep,” parents, often mothers, say, usually when they heard bad things about the family of someone you’re hanging out with at school or they don’t like your college roommate.

Your folks aren’t crazy about the people you spend time with because they don’t want you to become like them. And there might be something to this idea. For example, a review of research found “that peer-related stimuli may sensitize the reward system to respond to the reward value of risky behavior.” 

Set the stage for the writing you want to do.

What if a similar idea applies to writers? Maybe what we read influences our writing.

It’s a widely accepted concept for new writers.

Stephen Pressfield and Joan Didion learned started by writing sentences Ernest Hemingway wrote. Poet Billy Collins began his career copying Wallace Stevens. 

And J.K. Rowling says on her website, “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”

But there might be a connection between what we read and what we write, even when we’re no longer writing rookies.

Sometimes, when I need to write something with a specific tone, I’ll read something similar. Doing so gets my mind in the right place.

For example, if I want to write a humorous piece, I’ll read something funny. The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs items are excellent for this. 

I still write in my voice, and I’m certainly not copying anything from these influencing reading sessions. Yet, they make it easier for me to tap into the right tone of creativity I need to deliver in my writing.

It’s difficult for me to write something funny right after reading a serious news article. I need something to transition my brain from being sad, stressed, etc., to positive and lighthearted, making room for jokes and funny analogies.

Singers do vocal exercises before performing. Athletes stretch before taking the field. Why shouldn’t writers also benefit from a warmup?

And when doing your warmup, consider picking something that sets the stage for the writing you want to do. We are, after all, the company we keep.


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When You’re No Better Than Your Parents: A Hand Soap Lesson

It seems adulthood is a series of choices we make to prove we’re not our parents. Take hand soap, for example.

Growing up, mom bought non-name-brand-but-not-quite-knock-off hand soap. It came in small, plastic dispensers wrapped in little designs, like seashells or flowers. And the soaps’ scents would be a version of something you might smell in nature, such as “spring rain” or “autumn spice.”

Mom never bothered with reusable soap dispensers. Maybe she didn’t want to fuss with cleaning them. Or, perhaps as a working mom of two who lived on a farm with a huge garden, she needed to take something off her plate.

A plastic bottle of hand soap on a bathroom counter.
Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

So our family of four pumped the hand soap out of the plastic dispenser in which it came. When it neared emptying, mom would drop a little water in to make sure we got every last bit of soap. Then when the watered-down soap was thorough, into the trash can went the now-empty soap dispenser, and out came a new, full plastic soap dispenser.

It’s a cycle I followed as a young man. I bought hand soap sold in a plastic dispenser and used it until it was empty. Then I tossed it into the trash and got another plastic dispenser of hand soap.

But when I reached full-fledged adulthood, defined by my ability to eat at a fast-casual restaurant whenever I wanted without worrying about the cost, I decided to leave my childhood hand soap ways behind. In hindsight, I switched to a brand that was probably explicitly created to capture that “early-stage Millennial out to prove they’re not their parents” market. 

This hand soap brand boasted that its packaging came in recyclable materials. Sure, other brands’ plastic dispensers were recyclable, too, but this new hand soap brand talked about recycling. And it smelled like something you knew, real stuff from nature, such as rose, honeysuckle, and lavender. Plus, the hand soap’s label looked like something the soap maker made in her home. You felt like you were buying a more environmentally friendly hand soap while also supporting a small business.

And for a time, you were supporting a small business. But then a big company bought the hand soap maker. The hand soap’s name, labels, and scents remained, though you could no longer pretend that the brand’s namesake was mixing the soap in her kitchen.

Then, one day, you toss a used soap dispenser into your recycling bin, and you recall an article you recently read about how China is no longer buying as much trash as it used to, creating a glut of plastic and glass that we in the U.S. hoped would be recycled. And you remember all the stories you’ve seen about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of gathered trash somewhere between Hawaii and California.

That’s when you understand that all this time, you thought your hand soap purchasing decision was superior to your parents’, but you now realize it’s not. 

You must do better. You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water, yet you’ll toss plastic into a recycling bin, knowing full well it’s as likely to ride the high seas as it is to be recycled. And even if the plastic soap dispenser finds a new life as, say, a milk jug, eventually, the plastic’s usefulness runs out

You wouldn’t take a boat out into the ocean and drop a plastic soap dispenser into the water.

Nicholas E. Barron

The plastic that was once your soap dispenser that became a milk jug that then became something else runs out of life. That’s when the plastic ends up in a landfill or floating in the ocean. And that’s what led me to recently making a switch in our home.

First, we bought reusable glass soap dispensers. Secondly, we changed to a hand soap that comes in non-plastic containers that are recyclable but will disintegrate if they end up in the ocean. And the soap’s made of all-natural ingredients.

The husband and I feel good about this change. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

Of course, it’s possible down the road we’ll have another epiphany and decide we’ve been wrong about our hand soap buying all this time. 

Because that may be the next stage of adulthood for us all, we first prove we’re not our parents. Then we find out we don’t want to be ourselves, either.


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Memorial: A Novel by Bryan Washington

Memorial: A Novel is a story about two gay men, one Black, and one Japanese, in a struggling relationship. The story’s set in Houston and Japan, and both men take turns narrating the tale from their perspectives.

In Memorial, Bryan Washington deftly probes the challenges and hang-ups that early 21st century same-sex, male relationships sometimes experience. We came of age and came out when it was easier to be gay than before. Replicating traditional marriages and families is available to us if we want it. And yet we sometimes still suffer the damage of being raised by homophobic, prejudiced parents and society.

Memorial: A Novel is a truthful, at times heart-wrenching book. My one objection is how the characters speak to and treat each other. It’s harsh and blunt, which I struggled to identify with and understand. People in my life, especially those closest to me, don’t talk to each other as they do in Memorial.

And I felt at times as if the characters were one character, really. Each character’s speaking style and worldview not much different from another’s.

But Bryan Washington’s Memorial is an engaging, honest story. I enjoyed it, and recommend it.

You can get Memorial: A Novel by Bryan Washington through my Bidwell Hollow store on Bookshop.org.

My rating: 4/5


Memorable Quotes from Bryan Washington’s Memorial: A Novel

“The thing about a moving train is that, sometimes, you can catch it.”

“But the block has recently been invaded by fraternities from the college up the block. And a scattering of professor types. With pockets of rich kids playing at poverty. The Black folks who’ve lived here for decades let them do it, happy for the scientific fact that white kids keep the cops away.”

“I still hadn’t learned that there is a finite number of people who will ever be interested in you.”

“Everybody’s somebody’s villain.”

“A nondecision is a choice in itself.”

“You’re all like your fathers.”

"We take our memories wherever we go, and what’s left are the ones that stick around, and that’s how we make a life." - Memorial: A Novel by Bryan Washington

“It’s hard to head home without succumbing to nostalgia, standing where so many versions of yourself once stood.”

“Promises were only words, and words only meant what you made them.”

“Most ideas are good at the time. We don’t find out that they’ve gone wrong until they actually do.”

“We all change. We’ll all have plenty of homes in this life. It’s when you don’t that there’s an issue.”

“That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.”

“Everyone thinks there’s more they can do, he said. The truth is that, sometimes, you’re already doing it.”

“We take our memories wherever we go, and what’s left are the ones that stick around, and that’s how we make a life.”

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

“A society at once rigid and unstable can do nothing whatever to alleviate the poverty of its lowest members, cannot present to the hypothetical young man at the crucial moment that so-well-advertised right path.”

“In so far as I reacted at all, I reacted by trying to be pleasant—it being a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people ‘like’ him.”

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious.”


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Memorial Book Cover Memorial
Bryan Washington
Fiction
Riverhead Books
2020
320

Benson and Mike are two young guys who live together in Houston. Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson’s a Black day care teacher, and they’ve been together for a few years—good years—but now they’re not sure why they’re still a couple. There’s the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other.

But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye. In Japan he undergoes an extraordinary transformation, discovering the truth about his family and his past. Back home, Mitsuko and Benson are stuck living together as unconventional roommates, an absurd domestic situation that ends up meaning more to each of them than they ever could have predicted. Without Mike’s immediate pull, Benson begins to push outwards, realizing he might just know what he wants out of life and have the goods to get it.

Both men will change in ways that will either make them stronger together, or fracture everything they’ve ever known. And just maybe they’ll all be okay in the end.

Following Joan Didion’s Footsteps

Maybe it’s that when I read this Nathan Heller essay about Joan Didion, I was entering my annual winter yearn for sunshine and palm trees. Still, I found the piece an enlightening exposition on a writer whose career could serve as a template for people like me.

Didion is synonymous with California, Southern California in particular. You can’t read a Didion essay or book without feeling the California sun on your skin or the Pacific Ocean’s waves in your ears. And so, as my desires shifted from snowy cabins to beach cabanas, I was an eager audience for Heller’s article, which let me mentally escape our gray East Coast winter.

Yet easing my mild case of seasonal affective disorder isn’t the biggest bonus to Nathan Heller’s essay. What makes the article stand out is his focus on Didion’s career.

Joan Didion
Joan Didion

“For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments,” Heller writes.

Heller explains that throughout the 1960s and 70s, Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took writing assignments to pay their bills. Didion published a few novels, her first, Run River, in 1963, but to make ends meet, she wrote what businesses, mostly magazines, were willing to pay her.

Didion chose interesting subjects, from San Francisco’s hippies to Sharon Tate’s murder. And Didion wrote illuminatively, brilliantly, in ways that set her apart from others and catapulted her to the iconic status she holds today.

Didion already rested at the forefront of America’s literary mantle by the time I discovered her. Her essay collections are phenomenal, some of the best nonfiction stuff I’ve ever read. Reading them, I assumed Didion pitched publishers on the books, they agreed, then she went and wrote the stuff that went into the books I later read.

Nathan Heller’s New Yorker piece proves otherwise. Most of the essays in Didion’s early nonfiction books, such as Slouching Towards Bethlehem or The White Album, come from columns and articles media companies paid her to write.

Many writers have a loose idea for how we’ll publish books. We get a book deal, then write the book. Next, the publisher releases the book we’ve written. We’ll write a book once someone pays us to write a book.

That may be some writers’ experiences, but it’s not how it went for Joan Didion. She and her husband had to eat, pay bills, and care for their daughter. That took money, so Didion and Dunne took writing assignments that paid.

It’s after Didion produced many articles and columns that a publisher was willing to release her book. Years later, Didion published her first nonfiction book that wasn’t a collection of work someone had already paid her to produce.

Most of us writers have to work for a living. We can feel frustrated and ashamed that we take writing assignments or work nonwriting jobs because we need electricity, food, health insurance. We want to write books, produce art, and yet we’re doing stuff we’d prefer to not in exchange for money.

But that’s OK. It might even be good. The work we do now can lead to the material we publish later. Perhaps it’s writing we repackage into a book, a la Didion style, or maybe it’s experiences and people we meet informing our future writing. 

There isn’t one path to getting published. Joan Didion forged one way, and now we get to walk through it.


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Here Are Three Charles Badger Clark Quotes to Read and Remember

Charles Badger Clark was a South Dakota poet I’d never heard of until this Smithsonian Magazine piece by Carson Vaughan.

It’s a good read and will fill you in on Clark’s life. Clark was a cowboy poet who became South Dakota’s first poet laureate.

One of the most fun part of reading Vaughan’s article are the Badger Clark quotes he included in the piece. Four, in particular, stand out to me.

Anyone without a regular nine-to-five job can relate to this Badger Clark quote:

"Lord, how I pity a man with a steady job." Charles Badger Clark

You’ll like this one if you sometimes wish you lived alone in a cabin:

“The world of clocks and insurance and options and adding machines was far away, and I felt an Olympian condescension as I thought of the unhappy wrigglers who inhabited it.”

Charles Badger Clark

Writers can identify with this sentiment:

"If they’ll pay for such stuff, why, here’s the job I’ve been looking for all along." Charles Badger Clark on writing

Be sure to read Vaughan’s article on Charles Badger Clark.

Then you can saddle-up to the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation’s website and enjoy some of Clark’s poems. You won’t regret it, pardner.

ColorZilla Helps You See All the Colors of the Web

ColorZilla is a tool I use so often, I sometimes fail to appreciate its utility. But it’s an amazing extension for your Chrome or Firefox browsers.

There are actually two parts to ColorZilla:

  • The browser extension
  • A color gradient generator

The browser extension is what I use, and it’s what I’m recommending to you. What does it do?

ColorZilla's browser extension in action.
ColorZilla’s browser extension in action.

ColorZilla for Firefox and Chrome lets you easily identify a color on a web page. The extension gives you both the RGB and Hex code for that color, so you can use it in your preferred design or graphics application.

For example, I sometimes use ColorZilla when making images for a website. I want to follow that site’s aesthetic, but I don’t know the website’s color codes or have the site owner’s brand palette.

Instead, I click on the ColorZilla extension to activate the tool. Then I click on the part of the web page featuring the color I want to sample, and that color’s Hex code is automatically copied to my computer’s clipboard.

Next, I go to Canva and use the copied code from ColorZilla to add the desired color to my image. The whole process takes less than five seconds.

If you make images or do any design work, you should give ColorZilla a try. Happy coloring!

Tool: ColorZilla for Firefox and Chrome

Cost: Free

Ideal for: Anyone who creates images.


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Tool Tip: ColorZilla, Advanced Colorful Goodies

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David Moldawer Encourages Us to Embrace Experimentation While Creating

David Moldawer’s The Maven Game is one of the best newsletters creative people can read.

Each Saturday, Moldawer sends one missive containing information, guidance, and inspiration about making art. Moldawer’s writing is superb, as you’d expect from someone who’s worked for years in book editing and publishing.

But what separates the best writers from good writers is the ability to see what the rest of us do not, to point out the truths we miss.

"Our job as creators is to spot patterns, and there are none to be found on the blank page. You need to go out in the wilderness. Clap your hands together, see what emerges from the underbrush." David Moldawer

Haley Joel Osment’s character in The Sixth Sense sees dead people that others can’t. David Moldawer sees paths to creativity and artfulness that we may not, and he puts that into his bare-bones newsletter that features no up-selling or social media support.

The Maven Game is simply one image-less email a week about how to be better artists. I highly recommend it.

Each week’s issue is worth reading, but I particularly enjoyed his March 11 edition, titled “Uncharted Territory.” Moldawer uses the piece to praise experimentation.

Another word for experimenting is to practice, to try, to play around, to draft. Moldawer urges us to enjoy doing so as part of creating.

It’s a tough lesson for me to remember because I’m focused on being efficient. I’m self-employed, earning a living from what I create, so it feels wasteful and costly to experiment.

But with David Moldawer’s encouragement, I’m making a point to experiment more throughout my creative process.

Who knows what we may find when we go into the wilderness and shake the underbrush?


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Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Notes of a Native Son is a collection of ten essays by James Baldwin, written in the 1940s and 1950s. The pieces give an honest, unvarnished look at being Black in America and then, in the book’s final entries, in Western Europe.

Despite when it was written, the essays in Notes of a Native Son remain frustratingly accurate. You could read one of them today, not knowing when it was originally produced, and assume it was a contemporary account of racism and prejudice toward Black Americans.

You can get Notes of a Native Son through my Bidwell Hollow store on Bookshop.org.

My rating: 4/5


Memorable Quotes

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am, also, much more than that. So are we all.”

“The story of my childhood is the usual bleak fantasy, and we can dismiss it with the restrained observation that I certainly would not consider living it again.”

“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”

“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”

“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

“I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”

“It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.”

“It is only in his music, which Americans are able to admire because a protective sentimentality limits their understanding of it, that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story.”

“We cannot escape our origins, however hard we try, those origins which contain the key—could we but find it—to all that we later become.”

“Americans are far from empty; they are, on the contrary, very deeply disturbed.”

“It is simply impossible not to sing the blues, audibly or not, when the lives lived by Negroes are so inescapably harsh and stunted.”

“It is part of the price the Negro pays for his position in this society that, as Richard Wright points out, he is almost always acting.”

“I can conceive of no Negro native to this country who has not, by the age of puberty, been irreparably scarred by the conditions of his life.”

“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”

“A society at once rigid and unstable can do nothing whatever to alleviate the poverty of its lowest members, cannot present to the hypothetical young man at the crucial moment that so-well-advertised right path.”

“In so far as I reacted at all, I reacted by trying to be pleasant—it being a great part of the American Negro’s education (long before he goes to school) that he must make people ‘like’ him.”

“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

“Most people are not naturally reflective any more than they are naturally malicious.”

Notes of a Native Son Book Cover Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin
Memoir
Beacon Press
November 20, 2012
208

Since its original publication in 1955, this first nonfiction collection of essays by James Baldwin remains an American classic. His impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as powerful today as when they were first written.

Nicole Eisenman’s Lessons for People Who Like to Create Stuff

Painter Nicole Eisenman’s recent New Yorker profile covers a lot of ground, from being gay to doing heroin, and all the art she’s made along the way.

The piece also has some handy missives for all creatives, including writers.

For example, many of us plug away at our art, hoping to create something that deserves attention, that causes people to feel something and to see us. We tweak, edit, and practice, never knowing if we’ll make it to where we want our art to be, which is in a place someone might call, “Good.”

In the excerpt below, Eisenman talks about how, after years of being an artist, something clicked in her work.

"In Nicole’s account of her career, things changed about fifteen years ago, after she found ways to infuse her paintings with some of the looseness of her drawings. She expressed this in the form of a question, her voice shrinking with each word: 'The paintings started getting good?'"

One day, if you keep at it, your art will start getting good.

And when it does, when others start taking notice, you may get busy. You could get overwhelmed. If that happens, it’s crucial that you step back, return to center, back to where you can create the art that makes you happy, that you have to make.

"She missed working alone, without hourly consultations with fabricators and assistants. (The list of materials used in 'Procession' includes a fog machine, mirrored Plexiglas, a telephone pole, a bee, tuna-can labels, and 'various twigs.' One figure wore socks knitted by Roeck’s mother.) She wanted to “push the world out.”

As you work, never forget that nothing in the creative process is wasted. You never know when that thing you made ends up being not something you toss, but a piece of the larger puzzle of your creation.

"In her sketches, she had drawn someone carrying a barrel, and someone else with a belt of knives. The barrel made it into the potato painting."

Drafts, sketches, extras, whatever you call them, are steps creatives take along the path to art. As John McPhee wrote:

Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

John McPhee

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Amazing Annie Dillard Quotes From Her Book About Writing and the Writer’s Life

Annie Dillard wrote a book for writers that arrived in my mail a few weeks ago. 

A supportive friend sent it to me as congratulations on giving full-time writing a go.

The book’s called The Writing Life. It’s a collection of anecdotes and insights about what it means to write and be a writer. 

Copy of The Writing Life, a book by Annie Dillard

The Writing Life isn’t a handbook on how to write. It’s more a documentation of what it means to be a writer. It’s a marvelous little book, humorous, entertaining, and inspiring.

Reading it, a writer finds themselves nodding their head as Dillard dissects writing and the writer’s life. 

You should get a copy of the book if you’re a writer. Or, if you have a writer in your life, your relationship with that person could benefit from you reading The Writing Life as well.

Below are some excerpts from the book that shined most true to me. These passages are a tiny dose of the beauty that awaits you when you read The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (paid link).

Amazing Annie Dillard Quotes on Writing

“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it?”

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it.”

“On plenty of days the writer can write three or four pages, and on plenty of other days he concludes he must throw them away.”

“Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you. There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”

“I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.”

“It is no less difficult to write sentences in a recipe than sentences in Moby-Dick. So you might as well write Moby-Dick.”

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case.”

“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

“Why people want to be writers I will never know, unless it is that their lives lack a material footing.”

“Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

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