Category: On Reading

Reading Guide for Forgetting English

By Midge Raymond,

Forgetting English has been chosen for several book clubs lately (thanks so much, readers!) … and I wanted to post a few discussion questions. So here they are:

1.    In what ways do foreign cultures and languages affect who we are, how we act, how we perceive ourselves? When you travel, do you tend to feel more removed from yourself the farther you are from home – or does it make you feel closer to who you really are?

2.    Communication – between sisters, lovers, friends – plays a role in several of these stories. To what extent does being in a foreign environment exacerbate or alleviate challenges with communication?

3.    A couple of these characters arrive in foreign countries having fled unpleasant circumstances in their own lives. Other characters travel for work. How are their experiences and revelations different, given the reasons for their travels?

4.    Loneliness is a theme in many of the stories in the book. In what ways do the characters try to preserve their isolation? In what ways do they try to forge new connections?

5.    Relationships play a key role in the stories in Forgetting English. How does being away from home — outside our normal, everyday lives — influence our responses to people we’re close to, as well as those we meet along the way?

6.    Choose the story that you responded to the most strongly. What do you imagine will happen to the characters after the story ends?

7.    What is the role of metaphor in these stories? Are there any metaphors in particular that resonated with you?

8.    Animals figure prominently in several of the stories. In what ways to they influence the stories and your perception of the human characters?

Anything else to add? Feel free to add your own comments / questions / random thoughts.

Why Writers Shouldn’t Dis the Kindle

By Midge Raymond,

At the Get Lit! festival last weekend, there was a lot of talk about the Kindle and all that it implies for publishing. John, who’d brought his Kindle along, pulled it out a couple of times to show writers how it worked — and reactions were similar to my first impressions. First: This is really weird. Then: I can get my New Yorker on here? I can take eight books on a trip on one thin, tiny device? This is pretty cool.

In this Wall St. Journal article about the Kindle, Steven Johnson describes his first “aha” moment in the adventure of electronic reading: He was sitting in a restaurant, “working my way through an e-book about business and technology, when I was hit with a sudden desire to read a novel.” He browsed through the Amazon store, bought a book, and read the first chapter before getting the check. It was in this moment, he writes, that he knew digital books would profoundly change the way we read, write, and sell books.


Johnson outlines the pros and cons of the Kindle — for example, making it easier for us to buy books, but also easier to stop reading them — and reminds us of the history of publishing and technology’s effect on ideas. He also imagines a world in which novels are impulse buys (great news for lots of us writers). He does worry, however, that because it’s so easy to switch from one book to another, one of the joys of reading — “the total immersion in another world, or in the world of the author’s ideas” — will be lost.

It’s an article worth reading — for both readers and writers. As a reader, for example, I love the Kindle’s dictionary feature, which allows me to simply click on a word for a definition; with a print book, I might be lazier. As a writer, I love the notion that I could sell Forgetting English as a book, or that I could sell the stories individually — and that this a la carte option might attract additional readers and a more diverse audience.

Like most writers, I don’t want to see print books go away, just like I didn’t want the Seattle P-I to disappear. But change happens…and maybe the best we can do is prepare for it, if not try to embrace it.

Dispatches from Get Lit!

By Midge Raymond,

My plan was to write about Get Lit!, from Get Lit!, on a daily basis — but I soon realized that I wasn’t going to have that kind of time (they kept us busy, in a GREAT way). So here are some highlights and insights, all wrapped up into one nice tidy little post.

Arrived in Spokane on Thursday afternoon, with the sun shining and the temperature at something-warm-enough-so-I-didn’t-need-a-jacket-for-the-first-time-in-six-months. John and I had some time to explore so we walked around the falls a bit …


… before heading to the authors’ reception at the Spokane Club, where we met other festival authors. John and Jane Smiley talked about where they went to high school (it’s a St. Louis thing), and I was happy to meet (in person at last) the wonderful people at EWU Press who brought Forgetting English into the world.

Afterward we went to the Bing Crosby Theater for a hilarious reading by Laurie Notaro, followed by Jane’s reading from Ten Days in the Hills and a Q&A afterward. Among the things she discussed were the pros of living in a small town (Ames, Iowa, in her case), where distractions are few, day care is good, and everything is close enough so that the time you might spend driving around a bigger city can be spent writing … how, after writing 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, she no longer compares books to one another but takes each on its own merits, appreciating them for their individual idiosyncrasies … how she tackles research differently for each book … and how she no longer reads reviews, knowing that not everyone is going to like everything she writes and not minding it at all.

The conversation continued in the morning at our panel, A Female Perspective on Writing — where Laurie, Jane, Kate Trueblood and I talked about our writing processes; inspirations; and thoughts on topics from humor, style, and writing from a female point of view.


That evening, Charles Baxter read a piece he’d never read in public before: “Conversation Piece,” a lovely, poetic work that he’d written to accompany a dance performance. He then read from his novel The Soul Thief, which was inspired by a friend of his who had, inexplicably, started impersonating him, going around Southern California telling everyone he was Charles Baxter and even doing readings). The friend eventually called and confessed, asking afterward, “Do you think I should go into therapy?” (I don’t think a writer’s material gets much better than that.)

Baxter spoke afterward about, among other things, his process (to write, he needs a room with a window, but no phone or Internet connection) and about why so few stories are happy ones (“stories begin when things start to go wrong”).

On Saturday I did a reading with Brenda Miller, who read from her beautiful new book, Blessing of the Animals, and then co-taught a workshop on revision. That evening, we went to a fantastic reading and talk by scientist-environmentalist-author David Suzuki, which was a call to action to save the planet that was somehow not depressing but amazingly inspiring and uplifting. Visit his web site for info on anything from global warming to human health to sustainability — it’s worth it.

Sunday: left Spokane in the morning, stopped at a winery along the way (used the “it’s five o’clock somewhere” rule to justify tasting eight different wines), and got home to find that spring has arrived in Seattle at last.

Celebrating the story

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s New York Times has a great article in praise of the short story — though it begins with all those negative things we hear about short stories and their writers: “To call an American writer a master of the short story can be taken at best as faint praise, or at worst as an insult” … “A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome” …

…but the article quickly points out that the great American novelists that appeared on your English class syllabus were terrific story writers (among them Melville, Hawthorne, James, and Poe). The article also highlights three recently published biographies — of Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and Donald Barthelme — and celebrates the amazing work of these authors. But, in the end, it’s a celebration of the short story itself — with a call to action for readers.

The article questions whether the Kindle might be like the iPod in bringing short stories to a bigger audience, one by one, and poses a challenge: “If you can buy a single song for a dollar, why wouldn’t you spend that much on a handy, compact package of character, incident and linguistic invention? Why wouldn’t you collect dozens, or hundreds, into a personal anthology, a playlist of humor, pathos, mystery and surprise?”

This is, of course, a wonderful idea — one that’s already being done in print (for example, the literary magazine One Story) — and my husband, John Yunker, is one of probably many entrepreneurial writers who has a story on Amazon for Kindle download, his prize-winning story “The Tourist Trail.” (At $1.59, it’s a great deal, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my husband.)

The article concludes with what those of us who love short stories already know: “…the great American short story is still being written, and awaits its readers.”

Cool stuff for writers (and readers)

By Midge Raymond,

I just wanted to mention a few great resources for writers (and readers) …

For all of you writers who need a little discipline, check out 100 Words, where you pledge to write 100 words a day (exactly) of whatever you want. If you complete your 100 words a day for a month, you’ll be a featured member, and you can then post what you’ve written. It’s fun to see what other members are writing as well.

And my friend Jennifer Simpson has started a cool new venture, Writers Out Loud, and is now taking audio submissions of writers reading from their work. Visit her submissions guidelines, grab a mic, and start reading. Even if you’re not a writer, visit the site to hear an excerpt from Jennifer’s lovely memoir, and check back later for more.

And for all writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest, check out the offerings at the Get Lit! Festival, starting next month. Even if you’re not from the area, it’ll be well worth a visit (have I mentioned it’s in wine country?). I’m excited to be a part of it, of course, but am even more eager to enjoy all the other events — far too many to mention here. Visit the web site to see a complete listing of authors, readings, panels, workshops, and more.


Brilliant people I know

By Midge Raymond,

I was just updating my Goodreads page and realized how many of the amazing books I’m currently reading have been written by people I know. For example: Diana Joseph‘s hilarious and touching memoir I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, and Telling True Stories, co-edited by Wendy Call and Mark Kramer.

And as I was thinking about what to read at tomorrow night’s Hugo House Teacher Reading, it reminded me that I’ll get to see Carolyne Wright, whose gorgeous Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire I’m reading now, and Clare Meeker, the award-winning children’s writer who is also my writing buddy.

And I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of Janna Cawrse Esarey‘s The Motion of the Ocean, and Audrey Young’s The House of Hope and Fear.

And, to venture beyond books for a moment, I just saw Rob Postrozny‘s beautiful short film, Forgetting Betty, and it’s very clear why it got such great reception at the festivals, including Best Short Film at the Chicago Film Festival.

NOTE: This is just a partial list of the brilliant people I know…I’ll keep updating.

Publishers on the Recession

By Midge Raymond,

I just came across this series of interviews with independent publishers on how the recession is affecting their business. It’s interesting to see that, in general, the small, independent presses have tended to fare far better during the recession than the larger publishing conglomerates, due to, among other things, a smaller lists of quality books, low overhead, and loyal readers. And, the independents are keeping a close eye on digital technologies and new options for approaching and serving readers online.

David R. Godine, the publisher at Godine, points out a few major differences between the small presses and the large New York Houses: “First, we are privately held and cash flow is far more important than profitability. We are not answerable to stock holders for ever improving scores on the bottom line or the balance sheet. We own our own warehouse and ship our own books, so we can print for three or four years, and not just for a season. We are not expected to offer huge advances or munificent royalties, so people aren’t disappointed when we live up to our, or their, expectations. Finally, we provide a fairly identifiable “quality” product and we have a fairly loyal and predictable customer base — both consumers and bookstores. When times are tough, people inevitably move to quality. They may buy less, but they buy better.”

Allan Kornblum, the publisher at Coffee House Press, echoes this in response to a question about Houghton Mifflin’s troubles: “Houghton Mifflin’s mission is to make money for shareholders first, and to serve literature second. As a nonprofit, our mission is to serve the public good.” He also adds that authors have more realistic expectations from a smaller house: “Our authors don’t expect to be picked up at the airport in a limo when they tour. They sleep on couches in the homes of friends, not at the Hilton, when they give readings.”

In the interview with Margo Baldwin, president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing, Baldwin had very interesting things to say about the future of publishing. And, because this company focuses on sustainable living issues, Baldwin adds that it has done quite during the recession. “If you want to eat, you learn how to grow your own food. If you want a house, you can learn how to build it yourself. If you want to reduce your energy use, you can figure out how to harvest your own power. Survival is a wake up call, and we have the books to educate people on that front.”

Richard Nash, editorial director of Soft Skull Press and executive editor of Counterpoint, talks about how it’s getting more difficult to get books into bookstores — but again, it’s one of the many challenges small publishers are used to. “More and more you have to prove to the retailer your book will sell. But frankly, Soft Skull has almost ALWAYS had to do that. Our books, either because they seem to be very nichy, or very literary, or very alternative, or very hybrid, have always faced significant challenges when sales reps present them to bookstores. So in a sense these challenges that we’ve faced for our entire existence likely have us better prepared for the current challenges.”

Fred Ramey, co-publisher (with Greg Michalson) at Unbridled Books, mentions changes he’s noticing in book-buying behavior, which would affect bigger publishers more than independent ones. “If instead of buying the book they’re told to buy, readers are heading toward books that are hand-sold to them or that their online friends recommend, toward books they find links to on Amazon/Powell’s/etc., then what has previously appeared to conglomerated publishers as the surest thing will become much less so.”

Declan Spring, senior editor at New Directions, acknowledges, “None of us got raises this year. We’re trying to cut costs, and interestingly, we’re finding that the printers are more eager for business. We find we can bunch up more titles and bring down the printing and binding costs this way for titles that sell more steadily. We’ve always run sort of on a shoe-string, so while we’re certainly being careful about keeping expenses down, this is something we’ve always done anyway.”

Grammar Goods

By Midge Raymond,

I just discovered the coolest web site (well, “cool” may be relative in my case). But writers and grammar geeks everywhere will enjoy Grammar Rules, which offers products for the “grammatically aware lifestyle.” It may sound a little odd (except to people like me, perhaps) but the products are so well done — a combination of coffee-shop simplicity and typewriter artsy — that they’re rather irresistible, even if you already know your linking verbs from your gerunds.


In addition to the plates and mugs, you can buy greeting cards that cover everything from verb tense (“Today we do it. Friday we did it. We have done it often.”) to direct objects to contractions.


Now, I shop. Tomorrow, I will be poorer.

Thrilling Tales in Seattle

By Midge Raymond,

I’m getting a little addicted to the Seattle Public Library. At first, it was the cool building, designed by Rem Koolhaas, the funky Dutch architect. It’s a gorgeous modern structure with neon escalators and this amazing hall that is painted completely red (somehow it always reminds me of The Shining).

Then I discovered the cool little gift shop (having a sale now) and the Chocolati Cafe (need I say more about that?) And the top floor’s gigantic, sun-filled reading room (well, in Seattle that’s a stretch — let’s say “light-filled”; on a cloudy day it’s still very bright in there) is perfect for reading and even better for writing.

And today I went to another lunchtime session of Thrilling Tales, during which the fiction librarian, David Wright, read T. C. Boyle’s story “The Lie.” (In case you missed it in the New Yorker, read it now. Better yet, have someone read it to you). We also heard a short piece by Etgar Keret called “A Souvenir from Hell,” which was great. I love being in a place where stories are celebrated.

Last but not least, the Book Return is this space-age auto thingy that sucks your book up into some machine. The whole place is like a Disneyland for writer geeks like me.


This is a new one…

By Midge Raymond,

As readers of this blog know, I get a little cranky when I hear about memoirs that turn out to have been made up. Today’s NY Times has an interesting story about the Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, whose two recent novels (2666 and The Savage Detectives) are not in question but whose biography is.

Apparently Bolano, who died in 2003, was not into heroin, nor was he in Chile during the military coup that brought Pinochet to power, as he has claimed. And American critics and publishers are being taken to task for “deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.”

It’s no secret that writers and publishers need to think about sales — and aside from the writing, it helps to have youth, beauty, or some other angle or platform that helps sell books. But when writers have to start re-creating their own personas to sell books, we might be taking things a little too far.

All publishing, all the time

By Midge Raymond,

Lately it seems that the publishing industry is making headlines in a bigger way than usual, with the layoff of Publishers Weekly’s editor-in-chief Sara Nelson yesterday and the former publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt joining Riverhead, not to mention the many other layoffs and reorganizations in the industry over the past few months.

In addition, I’ve noticed several articles on “the new publishing,” which in many cases refers to self-publishing, on which the NY Times has a cover story today. It begins, “The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them” — though I have long wondered whether we’re there already.

The article outlines the pros and cons of self-publishing, of which most writers are aware, and mentions one surprising fact: this month, Author Solutions (which operates iUniverse, AuthorHouse, and other vanity presses) bought Xlibris — and combined, the company represented 19,000 titles in 2008: almost six times more than Random House, the world’s largest traditional publishing house. (And keep in mind that these books did not have editors.) It’s a strange statistic.

But those in the self-publishing business know that it’s not about books but about money. Lulu’s CEO, Robert Young, admits that most of its titles are published for few other than the authors and their families. “We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind,” he told the Times.

And yet for all those niche books that will sell only a few copies, there are authors out there who know there is a larger audience for their work — and it is for these writers that I’m glad self-publishing is now easy and cheap. Today’s success story is Lisa Genova, whose first novel, “Still Alice,” was turned down or ignored by 100 literary agents. She self-published the novel for $450 and, though perseverance and fantastic luck, eventually sold it to Pocket Books for a mid-six-figure advance. It debuted on the New York Times trade paperback fiction bestseller list at number five this Sunday.

Cheaper, Wilder, Trashier

By Midge Raymond,

This is among the portents of the new era of publishing, forecast in this Time magazine article — a very interesting look at what’s happening in the industry, thanks in part to the technologies that make digital printing (i.e., self-publishing) cheaper and easier. The novel, writes Lev Grossman, is “about to renew itself again, into something cheaper, wilder, trashier, more democratic and more deliriously fertile than ever.”

The problem, Grossman writes, isn’t that people aren’t reading — it’s the publishing business itself, a system of author advances (which often translates into publisher losses) and consignment sales (more losses) that dates back to the Depression. Under this system, the publisher takes all the risks and suffers all the losses. And they are less and less able to handle that, especially in these difficult economic times.

Enter the digital age: the Reader, the Kindle, and Google. And while self-publishing used to be a last resort (and, many agents and editors warn, a career killer), it’s now becoming a more respectable option — and even a better one for those writers with a good book and a good platform, and who want to keep more of the profits themselves. And while the majority of self-published books are self-published for a good reason, the article points out just a few of self-publishing’s successes, including Brunonia Barry’s self-published novel The Lace Reader, later picked up by William Morrow in a $2-million, two-book deal; and William P. Young’s The Shack, which spent 34 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Grossman writes, “Old Publishing is stately, quality-controlled and relatively expensive. New Publishing is cheap, promiscuous and unconstrained by paper, money or institutional taste. If Old Publishing is, say, a tidy, well-maintained orchard, New Publishing is a riotous jungle: vast and trackless and chaotic, full of exquisite orchids and undiscovered treasures and a hell of a lot of noxious weeds.”

And while he maintains that Old Publishing won’t disappear anytime soon, we’ll see lots of changes in the meantime: without the constraints of physical pages, novels will be longer and doled out episodically, Grossman predicts. “We’ll see less modernist-style difficulty and more romance-novel-style sentiment and high-speed-narrative throughput. Novels will compete to hook you in the first paragraph and then hang on for dear life.”

I agree with Grossman that this is all neither good nor bad: “it just is.” I love to see writers such as Elle Newmark find their homes in the publishing world. Newmark’s story is a great one: Her agent submitted her novel (The Book of Unholy Mischief) to publishers and received several rejections; Newmark rewrote the book and tried to find a new agent but no one would take it on; she thought about giving up. In the meantime, she turned sixty and still believed in the book, so she decided to self-publish it. She hosted a fantastic virtual launch party, and within 24 hours received several offers of representation from top literary agencies. She signed with William Morris, her book went to auction, and she eventually received a two-book deal from Simon & Schuster (and I seem to remember reading that this was a seven-figure deal).

So among many other things, New Publishing also means that there are greater chances for all writers who believe in their work enough. And this is definitely a good thing.

A Joyous Day

By Midge Raymond,

Because this is a blog All About Writing, I wasn’t going to ramble on and on about how great today’s inauguration was. We already know that.

Then I realized I could ramble and still keep it All About Writing — that one of the many (many) reasons it’s thrilling to have Barack Obama as our new president is that he’s an accomplished author. And by this I don’t mean just a bestselling one, but a truly gifted writer — which by definition means, to me at least, that he’s a gifted thinker and communicator as well as able to do lovely things with language.

Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I remembered when I was teaching writing at Boston University, how every spring semester, we’d a have the day off, and how every year, I would give my students a copy of his “I Have a Dream” speech and ask them to tell me why it’s such a beautiful piece of writing (in case you’ve forgotten yourself, you can read and listen to it here).

And today, Obama’s inaugural address echoed King’s dream: “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

I’ve kept copies of many of Obama’s speeches as I have Dr. King’s — for now, so I can read and remember history in the making. There are probably few out there who haven’t heard Obama speak and who haven’t been moved by his words. But non-writers tend to forget that these were words on a page before they were ever spoken. So I’ll also keep them for future classes, when I might hand them out along with Dr. King’s speech and say, “Now here’s a great piece of writing.”

Now, I’m off to watch more of the the inaugural festivities…

I’m procrastinating.

By Midge Raymond,

The other day at Pike Place Market, I saw that procrastination t-shirt – you know the one:

Top 10 Reasons to Procrastinate:

…and I almost bought it. I should have.

But in the midst of all this not-writing, I’m discovering new blogs, one of which I thought I’d share: the blog of YA and short-story writer Nova Ren Suma, appropriately called “distraction no. 99,” which has a post on her favorite first lines of short stories. They’re fantastic choices – and very inspiring. Enough, in fact, to get me back to my own writing.

Yes, again…

By Midge Raymond,

I didn’t expect to read another author-caught-cheating story so soon after my last cranky blog about it (see “Not Again…” below), but I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised. This time it’s Conversations with God author Neale Donald Walsch, and he has plagiarized a Christmas story while “believing the story was something that had actually come from his personal experience,” according to this NY Times story.

Now, I myself have a notoriously poor memory (ask my husband, who always gets a little freaked out when I can’t remember movies we’ve seen together or articles we’ve discussed) — but even I have yet to adopt other people’s memories as my own. The Times reports: “Except for a different first paragraph in which Mr. Walsch wrote that he could ‘vividly remember’ the incident, his Dec. 28 Beliefnet post followed, virtually verbatim, Ms. Chand’s previously published writing, even down to prosaic details like ‘The morning of the dress rehearsal, I filed in ten minutes early, found a spot on the cafeteria floor and sat down.’ ” Wow.

By way of apology, Walsch claims “I have told the story verbally so many times over the years that I had it memorized … and then, somewhere along the way, internalized it as my own experience.”

The true author of the story, Candy Chand, told the Times she isn’t buying it, pointing out that as the author of the Conversations with God series, Walsch should recognize that the Ten Commandments include not lying and not stealing. What’s also interesting is that Walsch’s statement to the Times — “I am chagrined and astonished that my mind could play such a trick on me” — sort of calls into question the whole premise of his bestselling works, which is that he talks to God. Or, some of his readers may begin to wonder, was his mind playing tricks on him then, too?