Monday, April 5, 2010

Where to Begin

You should be careful what you ask people. For instance, I seem to be a pretty cool guy. I wear funny t-shirts. I've perfected the disaffected cool-guy nod. Sometimes I listen to indie bands in cafes, sipping a tea and reading some trendy lit mag. I've got this down.

And then, oh naive customer, you ask me about writing. And any level of coolness I possess melts away like an antagonist in Indiana Jones. I go from Arthur Fonzarelli to Henry Winkler right before your eyes.

Last week I had a customer ask me about Grub Street because he was looking to get into writing. I've only been to Grub Street once, but it seems like they've got a good thing going--a nice downtown writing space, a decent lit mag collection, reasonably priced classes led by people who write published stories. Also, they're non-profit, which happens to be true of pretty much any group of writers.

But the conversation, which took longer than I think either of us expected, got me thinking about what I knew when I first started writing and what I wish I had been told. So here are some tips for odds and bobs around the store and the web that can be of help to writers and serious readers alike:

1. The anthologies section: Did you know it's there, right after fiction on the southern wall, waiting for you to discover hundreds of new names or rediscover ones you'd forgotten? There's hardly a better way to get a sense of the different stylistic choices one can make than to read some Donald Barthelme followed by some Raymond Carver.

2. Literary Journals: You want to know where the newest of the new is in the store? Well, yeah, at the very front...but wait, you want something so new that you're just about the only one on your block to know about it? Follow me back to the magazine racks. You see that little stumpy end-cap in aisle 2? The magazines without pictures of movie stars or fashion models on the cover? Here there be gold.

Literary journals are the life blood of the writing world. They're the place where authors make it before they make it to the front of the store. And they're also where you'll find the newest stories from your favorite accomplished authors, before they gather them all up in collections. I mean, sure, the New Yorker is great if you want one story every 2 weeks. But have you looked in the Antioch Review or Tin House yet? Ploughshares, The Paris Review?

3. Remainders: Let's face it. Writers and money go together like oil and water. Which is why you should jump on the chance right now to snag up one of my favorite writing manuals while it's on the bargain tables. Francine Prose's book "Reading like a Writer" currently on the bargain nonfiction table, is the anti-writing manual writing manual. It has no rules. It makes no promises of publication. But it does for a budding writer what an analytical diagram of a Shelby Cobra does for a budding mechanic. Also, while you're at it, pick up Tobias Wolff's "Our Story Begins" because Wolff, well he's just too good to be ignored.

4. A couple links, because there's a lot of good out there: The New Yorker fiction podcast has writers reading other writers and then talking about those writers. The Paris Review website has interviews with the best writers of the past century (the cream of which are collected in books that we do sell, and which I may or may not clutch to my chest as I fall asleep every night).

Finally, we have many books. Keep reading. Whatever you do, just keep reading, and let the writing come.

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