A while back, I accepted a challenge to write a book review of Nancy Peacock’s memoir A Broom of One’s Owninonly four sentences. Starting well before the due date, I wrote the first sentence of the review over and over, and deleted it over and over. For a while I wrote the same sentence several times in a row. Then I made up a new sentence and wrote it several times in a row. After weeks of torment, I buckled down and produced the following review.
I like Nancy Peacock’s A Broom of One’s Own: Words About Writing, Housecleaning & Life so much that it’s taken me over two months and two missed deadlines to untangle my thoughts and write this four-sentence review, an irony Peacock, author of two critically acclaimed novels, would no doubt address were I in one of her writing classes.
She would probably tell me there is no perfect writing life; that her job as a part-time housecleaner, begun when full-time writing wouldn’t pay the bills, afforded time, solitude, and the “foundation of regular work” she needed; that engaging in physical labor allowed her unconscious mind to “kick into gear,” so she could become not the writer but the “receiver” of her stories.
She’d probably say that writing is hard; that sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically bring brilliance; that writers have to work with what they have; that “if I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love”; that there are a million “saner” things to do and a “million good reasons to quit” and that the only good reason to continue is, “This is what I want.”
So, having composed at least two dozen subordinated, coordinated, appositived, participial-phrase-stuffed first sentences and discarded them before completion; having practically memorized the text searching for the perfect quotation to end with; and having once again stayed awake into the night, racing another deadline well past the deadline, I am completing this review–because I value Nancy Peacock’s advice; and because I love A Broom of One’s Own; and because I consider it the equal of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; and because I want other readers to know about it; and because this is what I want.
This review first appeared on Whiskertips. It was posted here in 2015. I received a copy of the book for review from Story Circle Network. My opinion is my own, and it’s as strong today as it was when I first read the book. I recommend it to anyone who writes or wants to write, and to anyone who likes to read about writers and writing.
A couple of months ago, I wrote that I’d planned to write about Ernest Hemingway but decided against it. I changed my mind because I wanted to be erudite but that night just didn’t have it in me.
The truth is, I never have erudite in me. I am not an erudite person. If people read my master’s thesis, they might think I’m erudite, and maybe I was, a little, when I wrote it in 1985–I used a lot of semicolons–but overall, I am just not erudite. And I’m too tired to pretend I am.
So I’m going to write a little bit about Hemingway, but in a non-analytical, non-literary, non-scholarly, generally shallow way.
My working vocabulary has never been large, so I used thesaurus.com to find both synonyms and antonyms for erudite. I didn’t approve of the antonyms, so I put a few touches of my own on some synonyms, as one knows if one read the preceding paragraph.
(Using one in place of you and I smacks of scholarship, but it’s the only thing in this post that will smack of it.)
The antonyms I objected to are uneducated, ignorant, and uncultured. They don’t necessarily apply. I have a couple of degrees and I know a few things about Hemingway. As to culture, I make no claims, except to say I like opera, at least the old-fashioned ones with melodies, and I am never tempted to laugh when the soprano starts to sing.
I can say that as a young reader and writer I did not get Hemingway at all. My negativity may have been nothing more than a 1960s rebellion against the sensibilities of our parents. . . .
While some would claim that the passage above [from A Farewell to Arms] is strong, clear, lean, direct and pure, all I could see was dry, repetitious, undecorated, and dull, a movie star without makeup.
Well. I liked The Art of X-Ray Reading–I enjoy reading literary criticism and analysis, so maybe I’m a little cultured. But when I reached that passage, I absolutely fell in love with it. Because I didn’t get Hemingway at all either.
No, I lie. I didn’t like Hemingway. I’m a baby boomer, too, but my distaste for his books had nothing to do with the generation gap.
I didn’t like him because of all the fishing.
In my junior American literature class, we read “Big Two-Hearted River.” I’m sure it was a truncated version. But it seemed interminable. Nick, the main character, goes out into the forest to fish. He walks, sees a grasshopper attached to his sock, takes a nap, wakes up sore, sets up his tent, eats (pork and beans, spaghetti, and canned apricots), drinks coffee, kills a mosquito, and goes to sleep, all methodically, every move described in detail. But most of what Nick does is fish. Fish, fish, fish.
My grandfather took me fishing a couple of times, and I liked the way he did it. In the evening, he set out trotlines across the river, and early the next morning he went out again to run the lines. Looking back, I see it as inhumane, and I wouldn’t do it today. I think trotlines are illegal now, so he wouldn’t do it either.
But the thing is–my grandfather didn’t stand out in the middle of the river, baiting his hook with grasshoppers, and hoping to catch one fish at a time. He used Crystal White Soap and caught lots of fish all at once. Fishing wasn’t so much a sport as an art or what might now be called a practice: he was meticulous, every movement deliberate, as methodical as Nick. But not nearly so boring.
Regarding the story, it might have helped if I’d known that after serving in World War I, Nick is trying to adapt to life at home, where no one understands what he’s experienced. But I was a sixteen-year-old girl, so it probably wouldn’t have, not really.
Years later, I took a graduate seminar in the novels of Hemingway and Faulkner. It’s amazing what a little education can do. Close textual analysis under the direction of a formidable scholar and professor (and a thoroughly delightful man) forged in me a sincere appreciation for the novels.
Excluding The Old Man and the Sea.
I expressed my negative feelings (quietly) to a classmate. She asked if this was the first time I read the book. I said yes.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “If you’d read it in seventh grade, you’d love it.”
Sure. Old man, boy, boat, sea, alone, forty days and forty nights, catch, sharks, dreaming of lions.
Nothing but fish, fish, fish.
And that’s my shallow, non-erudite dissertation on Hemingway.
(Does anyone out there appreciate how difficult it is to compose a blog post with fifteen pounds of cat lying across your forearm, elbow to wrist, whence he has access to keys that can wipe out everything? IfHemingway had used a computer, with all those six-toed cats, he’d never have published a thing.)
My memory of “Big Two-Hearted River” was helped along by Sparknotes.