Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: November 2008

Another PSA: Discreet/Discrete

DISCREET: private, quiet, not publicly known. As in: Let’s keep this little matter discreet, shall we?

DISCRETE: separate, individual, unrelated. As in: ‘Discreet’ and ‘discrete’ are two discrete words.

How Do You Stay Sane?

Kelly McCullough has some excellent advice for writers.

I particularly like “whatever you’re writing is the best thing you’ve written” and “when you’re finished with it, it no longer exists.”

How Do You Feel When You Finish A Book?

This is how Roald Dahl‘s grand-daughter widow remembers him feeling:

He used to get grumpy when he was finishing a book and I remember saying, “But you should be so pleased you’re reaching the end!” And he used to say, “You don’t understand – it’s the fear of never writing another one.”

(Edited to correct grand-daughter to widow–I misread the preceding paragraph.)

On Obama, and on Prop 8

If you like sports, or just good writing, and you haven’t read any of Joe Posnanski’s column, for shame. I read his book, The Soul of Baseball, about his year spent with Buck O’Neil touring America, and found it a very affecting portrait of a man who knew what was right and was willing to wait for it.

Joe has a column in SI today which is about Buck, and Obama, and not about Prop 8. But I can’t help but take some of it in that light. If you can’t read the whole thing, here is what I think is the most relevant excerpt.

Buck O’Neil became the first black coach in Major League Baseball — that was in Chicago, for the Cubs, in 1962. He was, in too many ways, a token hire; he was as qualified as anyone to be a big league manager, much less a coach, but realistically they brought him in mostly to serve as a bridge to Lou Brock and Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and the other African-American players. The Cubs never let O’Neil on the field, not even to coach first or third base. “I would have liked to do that, even if it was for only one game,” Buck said. “But it just wasn’t time yet.”

He said that with no bitterness — Buck just seemed to have no bitterness in him. He believed in the passing of time and in the slow but steady rhythms of change. He had seen so much of it in his life.


Again and again, I saw him light up with joy as he saw what America had become. “Yeah, we have a way to go,” he would say to those people who sounded discouraged. “We’ll get there, man. I wish you could see what I’ve seen.”

He could not get enough. He spoke in classrooms and chatted with people at ballgames and went up to complete strangers in restaurants and at airports, and he believed in this America. It isn’t perfect, of course, nothing close to perfect, and there’s always a lot to do. Buck said that plenty. But, more, much more, he said: “Look how far we’ve come. Look how much we’ve grown. Look how much closer we are.”


Review: Passage

Passage, by Connie Willis
9/10, a science fiction thriller with gorgeous, real characters

I posted previously about the effective tricks Connie Willis uses to build tension in “Passage,” a science fiction thriller about life and afterlife. By the time I got to the end, it was seriously almost impossible to put the book down. I’m pleased to report that she brings it all to a satisfying conclusion as expertly as she built it up.

To tell too much about the book would be to ruin its surprises, so here’s simply the premise: Joanna Lander, a doctor at Denver’s Mercy General hospital, is studying Near-Death Experiences. NDEs are the visions people experience when they die and then are revived (possibly also when they die and aren’t revived, but those we can’t get any record of), and while Joanna is taking a scientific tack at them, the wonderfully named Dr. Mandrake at the same hospital is taking the John Edward approach, urging people to remember the angels he’s sure they saw. This infuriates Joanna and her scientific mind, so when Dr. Richard Wright shows up with a neurochemical-based approach to the research, she joins him in his project.

The tug between spiritual and scientific energizes some of the book, but is not the central conflict; this is a science fiction book, after all, and there’s little doubt which side is favored. That’s not to say it’s never in doubt (nor that the ending is predictable), just that there is a more central theme to the book. Joanna’s central problem is the quest for knowledge, for truth, and the lengths to which she will go to get it are what really give the book its momentum. In every scene, she gets maddeningly close to finding what she thinks is the key to unraveling the mystery of the NDEs, taking us along with her from promising lead to dead end, from helpful but annoying friend to frustrating but ultimately helpful colleague.

What keeps the book’s energy up throughout are the characters. Joanna is a terrific main character, driven and sympathetic, but I could rattle off half a dozen tremendously drawn personalities off the top of my head and still be missing another half dozen. From the over-protective mother of a dying little girl to a character who spends most of the book in a coma, Willis’s characters are all alive in a way that any aspiring writer should study and take notes on. We feel for them and want them to succeed, Joanna as much as any of them.

I admittedly have a weak spot for death/ghost stories, but I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone who loves a good thriller and doesn’t mind a few gruesome medical details.