forgive me, I’ve done it again


I have eaten
the plums

No, no, not really. I have not eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast.

But I have found another book that you really must own. Really. Must. Own. (if you are a writer, that is).

And it is: The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long.

I stumbled across an ad for this book while I was cutting out pretty pictures from old Poets&Writers magazines. I’m sure I’d breezed by the ad a hundred times before, but this time it caught my eye. I sought it out through the semi-secret super library nerd lending program (which one of my po-friends calls her “gateway drug” to new books; and: yes).

The book covers six areas in depth (from the introduction):

  • basic productivity — establishing a practice of writing in your notebook for 15 minutes each day
  • language work (already I am weak-kneed) — developing a lexicon, collecting words, words as sound effects
  • training in observation — strategies for close observation of color, gesture, voice, objects and settings
  • grasping and employing deep story structures — using the “bones” of successful pieces of writing as a framework to write into (for poets, this will look a little different, but the idea translates: working in forms, and/or creating what I call “poem maps” to write into)
  • developing sophisticated (rather than habitual) sentencing skills — examining the actual nuts and bolts of sentence-making (lest we forget!), transitions, and punctuation; deepening your use of figurative language, and enhancing the insights brought out in your writing accordingly
  • the regular practice of completing works and publishing them — keeping a list of works and their status; setting goals for submissions; basically making a practice of productivity and defining success for yourself

The book is full of concrete ideas and exercises to strengthen your use of your writerly tools. Most writers are no doubt already doing some of what the book suggests, but this book takes those habits and exercises beyond what I’ve typically seen in craft books (and beyond what I, for one, am currently doing). An example: Many places I’ve seen the suggestion that writers collect words that are interesting, concrete, vivid, sound good, and somehow trigger the writer’s interest. Long goes way beyond this, extending the practice and use of your lexicon by:

  • devoting real time to word work — trolling through dictionaries, trolling through memories, etc.
  • making a list of things you don’t know the names of (e.g., parts of a window, the names of the weeds in your garden) to fill in later
  • making “word traps” — individual lexicons for whatever specific project you’re working on at the time (a poem, a series, a collection)
  • making lists of words that sound good together
  • making lists of words that “belong” to a particular place, person, or time

Regarding sentence-making (poets, we can think of line here), she leads you through the process of building sentences that are not only well-crafted and interesting, but that enact their content.

Regarding figurative language, she presses through a vivid simile — “cul de sacs (that) spread like a virus” — to one that is both vivid and more accurate: “Well actually, culs de sac and viruses spread in entirely different ways. But perhaps culs de sac became as popular as white bread (Both  manufactured things, both are made by companies, both were seen in the 1950s as being superior to their previous forms… .”

These are just a few examples of how this book goes deeper than any craft book I’ve read to date (and I’ve read many). The word “enrich” comes to mind. I believe this is a book that will enrich your writing and your writing practice over the long haul. Check it out — I hope you find it as useful as I have.

And now, I have been trying to finish this post for three days. The beds are not made. I need more tea. Let’s not go in the direction of laundry. And nobody better come home sick from school today. Happy reading, happy writing. Amen.

6 thoughts on “forgive me, I’ve done it again

  1. When I tried to get this from my semi-secret-super-nerd lending program it said, “Did you mean the portable MILTON?” Um, no. Hell no, I did not. I shall now justify a book purchase.

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