Every Blade of Grass by Thomas Wharton

everybladeA couple of years ago I took Aaron Sorkin’s online masterclass on screenwriting. I’m not a screenwriter, I’m just a huge fan of his and a firm believer that, by and large, writing is writing, regardless of the medium. The course mostly focused on things like storytelling, dialogue, and character development, but the most impactful lesson, for me, was about how to approach story structure.

Sorkin asks his students to visualize their story as a clothesline. At either end of that clothesline is an intention and an obstacle.

For any story to work, there needs to be a character that wants something (the intention) and there has to be something that gets in the way (the obstacle). If both of these are interesting enough, then the clothesline is pulled taut. At this point, the writer can hang as many things from it as they want: conversations, side stories, plot twists, intellectual tangents, you name it. But if the intention and the obstacle aren’t interesting enough, if they don’t keep the viewer  wanting more, then the clothesline has too much slack, and those aforementioned things–conversations, side stories, what have you–start to weigh the clothesline (i.e. the story) down.

In other words, if the driving action of a story is compelling, the writer is freed up to add in as many colorful touches as he or she wants without losing the viewer’s interest. That’s when you have them.

“I worship at the altar of intention and obstacle,” Sorkin says.

If Every Blade of Grass is any indication, so does Thomas Wharton.

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Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations is a series of writings by Roman Emperor and philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (famously portrayed by the incomparable Richard Harris in Gladiator). Essentially his nightly diary, Meditations is an incredibly introspective look into both his personal and political lives. Through his relationships with colleagues, subjects, family, friends, and teachers, we see an honest, humble depiction of the often mythic Aurelius: he was a simple man, a lifelong learner, and a Stoic who just so happened to be the leader of the entire Western world.

These private notes–never meant for publication–are mostly centered on the Stoic philosophy (made famous by Socrates), which sees happiness as the acceptance of every moment as it happens. The goal of a Stoic is to stop being ruled by his/her desire for pleasure and fear of pain. It is about treating others fairly and working together in pursuit of justice.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

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Icefields by Thomas Wharton

IcefieldsI’m often asked why I write about books in my free time (and for free, no less). For a long time, I struggled to come up with a concise answer. Writing about my reading comes with a lot of positives–community, encouragement, inspiration, challenges, exposure, reinforcement–but I’ve always stopped short of saying these were reasons that Another Book Blog exists.

After reading Icefields by Thomas Wharton, I thankfully don’t have to. Suddenly, after five years of doing this, the reason for this blog has become very clear.

There’s a moment in Icefields where two characters are talking about poetry and journalism, and the moving target that is writing. With each field, the goal is never perfection. The best a writer can do, they surmise, is produce something that simply approaches what he or she really feels. That’s because even getting close is incredibly hard.

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“How Should One Read a Book?” by Virginia Woolf

Woolf ReadI used to think that constant hand wringing over book choices was the exclusive domain of anxiety-ridden bloggers.

  • Am I reading enough classics?
  • Should I be reading something “smarter”?
  • Do I read too many dead white guys?
  • Should I read more non-fiction?
  • Do audiobooks even count?
  • Is 50 books a year enough?!

We all do it. We’re all self-conscious. We all write at least a post a year as a solemn decree to read what we want, when we want, and let the snobs be damned. Then we go back to asking the same questions again and the cycle never ends.

As it turns out, this process has been going on for at least a hundred years, as evidenced by Viriginia Woolf’s read-whatever-you-god-damn-well-please essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” (Available for free right here.)

So today, on what is Woolf’s 136th birthday, let us give Virginia the stage. Let her ease our worries, and clean our guilty slates for a year of reading whatever makes us happy in 2018.

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The Fullness of Life by Edith Wharton & Keeping Quiet by Pablo Neruda

In her short story, “The Fullness of Life,” Edith Wharton wrote about a woman who dies. In heaven, she is met by the Spirit of Life, who rewards her with the chance to live for eternity with her soulmate, something she did not get to experience during her time on Earth.

Seems like an easy decision, right? But here’s the catch: the woman still feels a dutiful attachment to her former husband, who has yet to die. In a classic bit of Whartian tragedy, he’s always considered her his soulmate, and will surely want to spend eternity with her once he, too, passes on.

Thus, her dilemma: does she selfishly take the Spirit’s offer and spend eternity with her true soulmate, or does she stay loyal to the man she married?

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