It’s National Grammar Day in the US (doesn’t look like it’s observed here in Canada, but give us 15 years), and I just completed my first webinar at Poynter News University. I’ve known about this site for a while, but never took any of the courses before. For those writers, teachers or language enthusiasts out there, it’s worth a browse. There are plenty of free, self-directed courses on the site, as well as cheap webinars and certifications.
The webinar I took today was 7 Tools for Next-Level Writing, at the bargain price of $9.95. If you’re interested, it was recorded and will be watchable on the site in a couple of days. As part of the lesson, the presenter emphasized the use of “mentor texts,” finding written works that have helped formed your sensibilities as a writer, re-reading them, deconstructing them and figuring out exactly what it is that makes them great. It got me thinking of some books that I’ve used in that way.
The Dork of Cork by Chet Raymo is a book I’ve read several times since first discovering it about 20 years ago. I even recently found notebooks where I had copied out passages Raymo used to describe the night sky, the flight of birds over water, the drape of a shall over a woman’s shoulder, just to try to get a sense of what it would feel like to write like that. The book itself is one of those love-it-or-hate-it deals — either you’ll find the language in it beautifully descriptive and lyrical, or you’ll think it’s self-indulgent tripe. I, obviously, am in the first camp. Not only do I find Raymo’s use of language beautiful, but I’m also fascinated at how he weaves the threads of so many lives together so smoothly.
While Canadian writer if epics Guy Gavriel Kay has written several books since, my favourite is still A Song For Arbonne. Poetic and intensely visual, Kay can juggle dozens of characters, generations of family history, and explain centuries of political intrigue without getting boring. The plot keeps moving, straight and unwavering, through everything that happens. One of my favourite themes in this book, and one that I hope to capture in a story of my own one day, is the notion that magic is much more powerful as a political force rather than a mystic one. If you’re heavily jonesing for the oft-delayed next installment of George R. R. Martin’s Westeros saga, this may be a balm to soothe your itch.
I’ve been working on a short story for years now that I can’t seem to get right. It’s one of those tough ones, where most of the story revolves around a single character doing… well, not much. This week, it occurred to me to reread Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea for help. When I first read it back in high school, I hated it. I was obliged to hate it because “they made me read it.” Now, with age, wisdom and the guidance of Coles Notes, I’m getting a deeper understanding of why this is such a classic. I still have more time to spend with it, but Hemingway’s economy of words and iconic imagery make this the mentor text I’ve been looking for. I’d also like to use it as a teaching tool when the time comes.
Does anyone else have any books they use as go-to mentor texts for their writing?