Reading Like a Writer

I confess that, until now, there have been writing books that I have learned from, enjoyed, and even recommended to others, but there has never been one I loved, one that I could truly say is my favorite. 

Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them has changed all that. What is it about this book that puts it over and above all the other excellent tomes on writing? I think the first is that it appeals to me from the very premise—that writers, at least good ones, are first and foremost readers. They love literature not only for the stories they unfold but the mastery with which the author tells them. 

This book reads like an old-fashioned college literature class, one without a political or philosophical agenda. Prose maintains that literature should be read closely, examining words, sentences, paragraphs that all come together to make the whole work the masterpiece that it is. She doesn’t delve into larger things like plot and structure, instead choosing to focus on the things that truly make a book memorable and fresh—the language. When used correctly, it conveys the uniqueness of a story, a place, a character. It’s all about the words and how they are strung together into sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, and narration. 

To my fellow readers and writers, I recommend you run out and buy this book. It will transform your thought processes, the way you think about reading and writing. It will deepen your admiration and understanding of your favorite authors and allow you to see the intricate detail they bring to their storytelling. And it will inspire you to do the same.



Parting the Waters

By now I guess you realize that I don’t do “book reviews,” but I do tell you when I find one worth reading. And this one is definitely worth your time. (And believe me, once you dive into it, you won’t be able to put it down!) 

Parting the Waters: Finding Beauty in Brokenness by Jeanne Damoff is the beautiful account of her family’s journey through the drowning, then recovery of her son Jacob. It is a universal story, really, in that we all, as parents, know that tragedy can strike our children when we least expect it. Jeanne doesn’t hide the hard and the dark of the situation, but every word of the telling spotlights God’s faithfulness, His love shining through every piece of the story in ways that make your heart ache. And that is her point. Even in brokenness there is unfathomable beauty orchestrated by the sovereign hand of God. 

Jeanne’s story encouraged me to cling tight to the knowledge that ultimately God is good, no matter what the future holds, especially as regards my children. At one point she is asked why God didn’t protect her son. Her insight (you’ll have to read it to know what this is!) has broadened my understanding of how God “protects” our children when we ask him to.

I met Jeanne Damoff five years ago on our way to a writer’s conference in California. She had just finished this book and was beginning the journey toward publication. In the years I’ve known Jeanne, I’ve come to call her friend. I heard bits and pieces of her family’s story with Jacob, even met her delightful son. But while I have had great love and respect for her as a person, as a wife, and as a mother, to be honest, I had never actually read anything she’d written—except her Christmas newsletters, which are wonderful! But the lyrical words with which she tells her story confirms her as a writer I admire as well. 

I guarantee this book will encourage your heart, strengthen your faith and help you look for something beautiful in even the most trying of circumstances.



Elizabeth's Take on Emma

My children don’t let me see their writing assignments for school. I think it all started when they were in elementary school and I had to quit looking at those kinds of assignments because I wanted them to write at a level they were not capable of at those ages. 

Fast forward to now: high school and middle school. Now I still fear to look at their papers because I don’t want there to be any appearance that I have done the work for them. And yet, when I don’t, I cringe, knowing they will turn in work with simple errors that could have been corrected by my proofread. So I walk this tightrope, wanting to read their work and very rarely being allowed to. 

But last week as I straightened up the study, I found Elizabeth’s essay on Jane Austen’s Emma. Now this is one of my favorite books. I have been so excited that she had to read it. I knew the paper had already been turned in and graded for last semester, so I sat down to read this draft. After all, it had been left lying around in plain view. 

I was pleasantly surprised! Yes, there were errors that made me cringe, but it was her assessment of the story and its characters that made me smile. I saw her compassion for the manipulated and insecure Harriet Smith, her unabashed disgust for Emma’s thinking so well of herself and trying to control everyone around her to suit her ideas of how life should be. And I loved the “life lessons” she pulled from the story—that you can’t control other people’s feelings, that “we as human beings are blinded by our own ambitions and sometimes miss the yellow flags right in front of us,” and that our imaginations and dreams are not reality and we can’t live as if they are. I wish I’d had those insights when I was her age!


The Whole Wide World

Sometimes I get tunnel vision. I’m in the home stretch of my kids living under my roof and being constantly under my influence. So I’m focused on them, my own tiny little anthill of activity. And sometimes I forget there is a whole, wide world out there beyond our little bubble. 

But sometimes, like when I go to a writer’s conference or, like last night, to a business dinner with my husband, I remember. I remember that there are people out there who can talk about more than SAT scores, teenaged crushes, or the latest high school basketball game. I remember that people can have thoughtful, intelligent conversations on many subjects. And I remember that I am a thoughtful, intelligent person who can participate in those conversations. 

I need that remembering once in a while. For one thing, it helps me as I prepare my kids for the whole, wide world, for the people and situations they will encounter beyond the threshold of the very small world they live in now. But it also reminds me that I am, and have been, and will be again, a part of that whole, wide world. That when I look up from these intense years of child-rearing, my life isn’t over. Indeed, it has just begun. For then I will return to the wider world older, wiser,  more experienced, more understanding of human nature and of myself. 

This is why I can’t grieve over my children growing up and leaving home. Because all it means is that together we will expand the arena of our lives and our relationships will become all the richer for it.


Masterpiece Classics

I am not one who particularly likes movies made from my favorite books. Probably because Hollywood usually does a lousy job of it—reinventing characters, changing plotlines, etc. My exception to this comes in the form of Masterpiece Classics, the arm of Masterpiece Theatre that brings classic literature to life on DVD or your PBS station. I think my reasons for this are two-fold. 

First, I think oftentimes the British revere the literature more than we Americans. They don’t seem as eager to change stories and characters that have endured through generations. But my second reason is even more compelling. Masterpiece Classics productions take me back to classic literature. This happens in several ways. 

Sometimes the latest Masterpiece Classic movie reminds me of a book I read long ago and it inspires me to find it again and re-read it. What is so fun about this it that the book is always different than the last time I read it. As I grow and change, my response to literature changes. I see different nuances, identify with different characters. This happened last year as I watched the Masterpiece Classics version of Mansfield Park. I re-read the book as a mother, instead of a flighty (albeit married) college student, and suddenly I could see things in the older characters I had overlooked before. It was a powerful reminder to me that as parents, we understand and help guide the character of our children. 

Sometimes I watch movies based on books I’ve heard of but never actually read. This can often spur my interest or give me enough of a basic understanding of a story to give me the courage to attack a particularly daunting book. Like Bleak House. Its nearly 1000 Dickensian pages terrified me. But the story on screen captured my imagination. I plunged in and read the whole thing. Now it’s one of my favorites. 

On rare occasions, my reading and Masterpiece Classics will coincide and they will release a version of a classic I have recently read. Then, as I watch, I get to remember, to re-experience the story in a different medium. This was my experience recently with Tess of the D’Urbervilles. While the story is depressing, heartbreaking really, the telling of it on the page is beautiful. Besides remembering the lovely words and images, I liked watching the actors, seeing if I really believed them to be the characters that peopled my head as I read.

So if you get in the mood for classic literature and need a boost to get you into that book, pick out a Masterpiece Classics production and see if it doesn’t get you motivated to dive into those pages!



I realize that not everyone can suspend their disbelief far enough to enjoy a book based on the premise of time travel. But I think everyone with an overactive imagination and a love of history (like me!) has fantasized about time travel at one time or another. So it’s no wonder that historical time travels are ever-present in the world of literature. 

I just finished reading a very fun one. Gallimore by Michelle Griep was a great read. Filled with romance, suspense, unlikely friendships, and historical detail, Gallimore held me suspended between the world of today and that of medieval England as I followed the adventures of modern-day woman Jessica Neale and Gallimore’s knight Sir Colwyn Haukswyrth, two hurting people from two very different worlds. 

It is through books like Gallimore that time travel is possible, because you get a feeling not only of another place and time, but the difficulty of reconciling that with the way we live and view life today. So if you are hankering for a trip back to the 14th century, try Gallimore. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!


For Glory and For Beauty

Over the years I’ve come to love the later chapters of the book of Exodus. I used to think them mundane and boring, all the details for the building of the tabernacle and its furnishings. But now I see in it all the beauty I think the Lord intended—and I mean that literally! 

Do you realize that the priestly garments were made “for glory and for beauty”? It says so in Exodus 28:2. And when you really read it, picture the things described, both the clothing and the furnishings, you realize what things of glory and beauty they were intended to be. 

But for me, the beauty of these chapters does not end with the aesthetics. It extends to the actual work itself, and the people involved in it. Everyone had a unique part to play. Some gave to the work, whether gold or silver or bronze or acacia wood or spices for incense or oil or precious stones. Some gave fabric already made or skins in their possession. Some women spun material specifically for the project.  

Once all the materials were in place, two men were specified to take charge of implementing God’s instructions, men skilled in all areas of the work needed. Can you imagine? These were the guys that, as children and teens, people probably hated because they were good at everything! They could do it all! And that was for a reason. 

Others helped with the woodworking, with the gold overlays, with the engravings on gold and precious stones. Some helped with the sewing or the putting it all together. Some gave the ingredients and baked the bread. When everything was finished, the whole thing had to be set up, which was in no way a one-man job! Then, of course, Moses anointed it all and Aaron and his sons performed the services before the Lord. 

I love that the place of God’s dwelling wasn’t the work of one man, or even one group. It was everyone doing what the Lord had given them to do. For glory and for beauty—both the place and the process.



I have a stack of new books in my “to be read” bookcase right now. (It was a particularly good Christmas for books at my house!) Because these are books that I picked out (either said I wanted or bought with gift cards), I am especially eager to delve into each one. The anticipation is making me nearly giddy!

I’ve already finished and told you about one. Two others have been started. When I finish ones that are worth your attention, you can be sure I will let you know! For now, I will savor them like a gourmet meal, stretching the pleasure to last as long as it can, yet eager to experience each new taste on my tongue.


An Unusual Biography

Sometimes I don’t want to know the stories behind my favorite authors. Sometimes it ruins the experience of losing myself in the read when I know too much background information. But for some reason I didn’t have any of these qualms when I discovered the book Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic by Irene Gammel on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. I not only love all the Anne books, but most everything else by L.M. Montgomery. I’ve read most of them so many times that it wouldn’t matter what I now learned about the author and her writing process, the stories are forever ingrained in my mind.

So I asked for the book for Christmas. And my sweet husband ordered it for me. It was a fascinating read, a somewhat scholarly look at the influences that went into the writing of Anne—both in Montgomery’s life and in the things to which she was exposed from the world outside Price Edward’s Island. It was both a biography of Montgomery, the wirter, and Anne, the character. As a writer, I was spellbound by the way people—both real and fictional—shaped the conglomeration of physical and emotional traits that become Anne. And while Montgomery’s life story left me sad, I think I will read her books again with a new appreciation for her creativity and tenacity. 


How Are Your Eyes?

A funny thing happened to me yesterday. I got up and put in my contacts. Nothing unusual there. But when I reached the living room, I could tell something wasn’t right with my eyes. Things were a bit blurry. At least on one side. 

I could have panicked. After all, given my eye issues, I am always told to watch for changes that signal the need for immediate medical attention. But this has happened before, and I suspected the reason was the same. 

I returned to the bathroom, took out my contacts, then reinstalled them in the opposite eyes. Eureka! I could see! I have no idea how many days or weeks or even months they’d been wrong. It may have been awhile because it took a little getting used to. But when I tested each eye alone by reading the clock across the room, I knew they were again in the correct position. 

I’m not sure how this happens. Perhaps a tired night and I screw the wrong lid on the wrong contact. Or maybe (more likely) a tired morning where I mix up left and right. It got me thinking, though, about my spiritual eyes. How often, living in this world from day to day, do we mistakenly switch our focus? How many days or weeks—or even years—does it take for us to realize we aren’t seeing things quite right and recognize the solution to seeing clearly again?

My prayer for myself—and for you—this year is that our spiritual eyes would see clearly. That we would recognize when we’ve made an unintended switch of truth for partial truth and do what it takes to regain clear sight. 

After all, walking a narrow path is much easier when the edges aren’t blurry.