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BTRIPP
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Reports from Planet Writer ...

This came to me via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program, so has all the lack of foresight and intent that is involved in that channel (clicking a “request” button after reading a few sentences of description about the book). As such, the question “what was I expecting” from the book is somewhat moot – I was expecting to get one of four or five requested books sent to me for review. That being said, I rather enjoyed Joni B. Cole's Good Naked: Reflections on How to Write More, Write Better, and Be Happier, although I'm deeply puzzled at how it managed to get 94% 5-star reviews on Amazon, unless Ms. Cole encouraged her writing workshop students to pad the numbers with raves (but, then again, I rarely rate any book higher than a 4 if I am forced to give a star rating).

Frankly, perhaps my biggest gripe with the book is the title … it is, I suspect, yet another “marketing” decision, taking a chapter's (which has to do with sharing one's early drafts with others) title, that is ambiguous in a somewhat titillating way, with hopes that shoppers will pick it off the shelf or click on it, looking for the “naked parts”. For somebody who has spent his entire life in some form of marketing communications or other, I really hate those sorts of ploys. If they wanted to go with a chapter title, a much better one (in terms of conveying the feel of the book) would be “Every. Single. Day.”, which is a quote from a nightmare boss she had in an early job that required her to call people who were late with payments – but turns this into something of a therapy session for writers who have latched onto the idea that they are failures (or vile slackers) if they don't have a predictable writing schedule that rules their lives …
Sometimes we don't write for another reason that is harder to excuse, and that is that we just don't feel like it. … How can it be so hard to make ourselves do something we value so highly is one of those incongruities of human nature that defies explanation. But one thing I do know is that wanting to write, but not wanting to write, can lead to a lot of guilt.
In the way I described Stephen King's On Writing as a workshop on writing, Good Naked is like a series of “coaching sessions” with Ms. Cole … albeit ones that spring from her issues/experiences/challenges rather than (for obvious reasons) the reader's.

Now, I have to admit that I've never taken a writing workshop per se … I had writing classes in college that were something along those lines, but nothing where I've signed up to hobnob with (and expose early drafts to) other writers – no doubt attributable to my one-size-fits-all misanthropy (which has certainly not been tempered with my ever-deeper descent into curmudgeonhood). I have considered these, but never gotten into a place where I moved ahead with the concept. I bring all this up here because, generally speaking, this book is based in the authors workshops, either using the dynamics of these (and their participants) as jumping-off points for discussing particular writing issues, or expressing her own concerns as they arise in these settings. While the book does have a certain structure to it (it's in three parts with 6-7 chapters each), and sort of walks the reader through from “first things” to “endings”, but it isn't much on the linear side, so I'm not going to try to break out the “what” of the twenty chapters. I do, however, have quite a number of my little bookmarks stuck in this, and I'll try to suss out the passages that I was sufficiently enthused about to leave that trail of paper slips when reading it to give you some sense of the book. Unfortunately, Ms. Cole is not crafting bullet points here, and so most of the “good bits” go on into paragraph length … leading me to pass over some that, while excellent, would require quite substantial block quotes to get where they're going, and to selectively edit (love those ellipses) others. Oh, and the author name-checks other writers with quotes all through this, which is interesting in the reading, but a little “meta” in the citing within the review.

In the “Planet Writer” chapter (which has a delightful lead-in, but is a bit long to use for a description here), she gets into looking at happiness in relation to the world of writers, referring to various research that indicates that “positive emotional states” lead to all sorts of good results. This ends up here:
And yet, the myth of the suffering artist and its alleged value to the creative process prevails, and it is not hard to figure out why. Many of the world's most famous writers were as noteworthy for their psychic pain as their literary gifts. Depression. Addiction. Mental illness. Because creative expression is an outlet for pain, this is likely why people who are battling emotional demons, or confronting life's cruelties, often gravitate toward artistic disciplines. … It can demand an enormous amount of courage and stamina to create during these times of trouble and when filled with despair. Thus, all the more reason to credit the person, not his afflictions or circumstances, for his creative work.
In the “In Good Company” chapter, she says to “think of a workshop as a 'social-belonging intervention'”, which I found an interesting concept. She expands on this:
As writers, to be part of a creative community is to sheathe ourselves in white light. That white light stays with us, sometimes long after we return to the solitude that our work demands. It illuminates the vast difference between loneliness and being alone, and within that clarified space this is what often happens: We write more. We write better. And we are happier.
In “The Reverse Curse” chapter, she starts by describing a black magic practice of some Australian aboriginal tribes, called “the bone pointer”, and (cut down a bit) here's how she introduces this concept for writing:
Inside almost every writer's head is a Bone Pointer. Some internal sorcerer, some part of ourselves we have vested with the power of killing our writing dreams. … They have only to sneak up on our psyches … and curse our writing ambitions. From that point forward, fear quickly begins to lay waste to our future. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of exposure. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of finishing. Fear of letting go. Whatever form the fear takes, the outcome is the same. …
She goes on to counter this with a recommendation: “One scene after the other, then just slap on some craft.” (which reminds me of the observation made elsewhere that it is mighty hard to edit a blank page), although she notes that this may not be enough if one is letting the Bone Pointer in.

In the “Every. Single. Day.” chapter, she gives examples of a number of famous writers' daily goals … many of whom had targets as meager as 500 words (I used to do a “morning papers” regimen on the 750words.com site, which, unsurprisingly, had me spewing out at least 750 words when I got up every morning), with some running as high as 3,000 words. I find these numbers comforting, as I have often thought of “writing a book” (different from the dozens of titles I have in print, mainly poetry and reviews), and I could certainly make that sort of daily output. She notes:
When I say writers need a bar, however, what I mean is a tangible measure of productivity tailored to each of our creative processes and temperaments. Your bar may be higher or lower than my bar, but the same rules wold apply. If your productivity falls below the level of achievement you have set for yourself, then, and only then, can you feel guilty about your slacker tendencies. Otherwise, give yourself a break. …
Some of this is pretty autobiographical. In the “Drama Queen” chapter she has a bit of a rant that, while long-ish, I'll type up here, as it's a great look into her (and, by extension, lots of other writers') head:
      I straightened a pile of papers of my desk. For confidence, I skimmed a book I had previously written that I still like, though as is often the case when I reread work from my past, I experienced a feeling of disassociation. Who wrote that? I thought, appreciating a passage. That author was so lucky to have the words come out just as she had envisioned them in her head. I want to be an author! I glared at my book jacket photo. Just look at her, smiling, with her hair all combed. Authors have it so much easier than writers. Resentment towards my former self darkened my mood further, even as the same part of my mind was well aware that this previous book had not come any easier than the one I was wrestling with now.
In the “Seeing Blue” chapter, she has a list of “four rational responses to the question, Why does your writing matter?” … these are:
1. Your perspective.
… “every type of experience has been covered, but you will always be the first one to do it through your lens”
2. Your voice.
… “when you do settle into the voice you your story, you will own that material”
3. The future of civilization.
… “neuroscientists … have shown that stories allow us to have surrogate experiences that our brains process almost identically to lived experiences”
4. The color blue.
… “you only have to give them {your writing material} words, and what was absent before becomes visible to you and your readers”
… this last one is based on speculation that at one time people didn't see blue because there was no word for it, and it showed up in ancient Egypt only when they began developing dyes of that shade … and she points out some research on an African tribe that could not pick out a distinctively blue square on a screen with eleven assorted green squares.

In the chapter “A Walk around the Block” (as in writer's), she talks of a lecture she attended by Nobel Prize winning Turkish novelist Orham Pamuk, who spoke about the French Renaissance philosopher and essayist Montaigne, who is
… famously known for his motto, 'Que sais-je?' Translation: What do I know? As a skeptic, Montaigne recognized that he and his fellow philosophers actually understood very little about the world, and therefore he strove instead for self-knowledge, dwelling on his personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
      What do I know? This is the question that confronts all writers sitting alone at their desks, trying to figure out something meaningful or engaging to put on the page. Sometimes we cannot wait to start typing to discover the answer. When we are really on fire, it feels like we are conversing with some remarkably engaging and deeper version of ourselves. … But when we are struggling, what we hear in response to that question is silence, silence, and then a more prolonged, deafening silence.
She follows this up with some tales of times when her or others' blocks got broken in fairly mundane settings, with details (in a more conjectural frame) of how these might play out as a method.

In the “Decluttering” chapter (which does also have to do with tidying up) she gets into a concept about writing that is interesting:
… editing can feel overwhelming if you focus on the whole. This supports another benefit that comes from acknowledging the reality that writing is rewriting 41,000 drafts. It frees us from the expectation that we are supposed to be able to address every issue in our manuscript at once.
Now, “41,000 drafts” sounds like an impossible amount of work, but this is all the bits and pieces … she describes a sample as:
You revise a sentence. Then you delete the revised sentence. Then you press Control Z to restore the revised sentence and revise it again, but it is still not right. Then you take a shower, and the perfect wording comes to you as you are lathering your hair, so you run foam-headed and dripping to your computer and revised the revised, deleted, restored, re-revised sentence one more time.
… she also counts that as at least four drafts!

Anyway, I hope this has given you a sense of how this book proceeds. There's a lot of wandering off down sub-referential alleyways, name-checking of the famous and/or important, and tons of personal anecdotes, but it does attempt to create a logical arc covering the writing process, at least as processed through the sausage-making machinery of writing workshops.

Good Naked just came out in April, so it's relatively new. Oddly, the online big boys don't have it at much of a discount, nor do the new/used guys have it at any much deeper deal … so you might as well go in search of it at the brick-and-mortar book vendors who carry this sort of title. While there wasn't much that was an earth-shattering revelation to me here, I did quite enjoy reading it, and, as I noted up top, it did feel a bit like having private coaching sessions (or a whole series of coffee dates) with the author. If that sounds appealing to you, by all means do pick up a copy.


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