Thursday, October 26, 2006

Literacy Lessons: What Bernita Taught me About Reading and Writing

Interrupt gentle madigral music; cue ravages of Tech Child #2 hacking into Bernita's blog.

Update: Bernita is waiting for service and/or parts from Tech Child #3, but hopes to have computer access restored very soon.

But as an amuse-bouche, perhaps sufficient to satisfy until the grand repast of her return, here is a list of things Bernita taught me about reading and writing.

1. Read voraciously and revel in books; glut yourself upon the written word. Bernita has always done this by example: her library is prodigious and eclectic, her bedside littered with books, her study a jumble of literature that seems to sort itself into categories over time in the same way stones arrange themselves upon an arctic landscape. I was surprised to learn, years ago, that books I had always associated with my father (Kipling's Stalky & Co., the works of Joseph C. Lincoln) had been part of her literary lexicon long before they entered his. I concluded then that she was the well-spring of literature because it seemed she had read almost everything.

2. Read and read again. I learned to re-read books from Bernita, who reads many books repeatedly, gleaning new insights each time. Re-reading a book is analogous to editing your own work: almost anything worth reading once is worth reading again for the purpose of distilling (or critiquing) its subterranean structures, tropes, and meanings.

3. A good book is like a hammer: it is a tool meant to be used. My mother's books often develop sway-back postures after having lain open upon their spines: their margins support counter-texts, their seams accumulate a dusting of crumbs, and the pages sometimes soak up coffee spills. Books are not meant to be mounted upon shelves like so many stuffed owls or treated like hold relics: they are not objects but points of departure, thresholds meant to be walked through. And if they pick up some of the dust of travel, so much the better.

4. Inventory the world. My mother does not appear to be a diarist but has always recorded lists and kept notes, not only of prosaic tasks and deadlines but also of behaviours, inferences, predictions, meanings. Ash-marked and coffee-stained but written in her elegant hand, they would wait on the kitchen table for addenda and modification, turning often enough into poems, drawings, articles, and strategies. Should there ever be a Bernita Harris fonds, I would hope it would include some of these inventories.

5. Any motivated writer will always find time and space to write. As a child I remember waking up in the night and often hearing the sound of my mother's typewriter in another room. Throughout my childhood it seemed she did not sleep, but instead read, wrote, or wallpapered late into the night, perhaps because her days were spent caring for the four of us and my father and a variety of houses undergoing continual renovation. Now, as an adult, I rise early and write until dawn because often enough there is no time to do so later. But still, it is better to sleep briefly and write than to sleep long and awaken dully.

6. Write fiercely. Writing something tepid is often worse than writing nothing at all. Bernita writes with intention and care; it seems to me that her characters, settings, plots, and the meanings of their textual lives emerge from a set of clear perspectives and beliefs about the world. I think that her writing is never really idle, and infer that this is the source of her literary voice.

7. Do not write only or primarily about yourself. There is a good reason why diaries are usually secret: it is because they are generally self-serving, narcissistic, and narrow. Ditto most confessional fiction and semi-autobiographical first novels. Some authorities suggest that there is a value in getting this out of the way early in your literary career, but it is likely better to keep these works under the bed where they belong, with the rest of your dirty laundry.

8. Be open to receiving (and offering) honest criticism, but do not take malefic spite personally. Some writers, agents, academics, and critics are interested in cultivating and selling or buying good work; others seem intent on dragging everyone down into their own mire. One encounters both inevitably, but does not need to be stopped by either.

9. It's okay to wallow a little in the face of rejection, but only if you wake up the next day and carry on writing. Bernita is not much of a wallower at all, actually, but she indulges me when it seems necessary.

10. Write because it gives you joy to do so, not because you harbour fantasies of fame and/or revenge.

(The above image was taken by Auntie P (no relation) and is used under the aegis of a Creative Commons license.)


S. W. Vaughn said...

What a beautiful tribute to a beautiful woman! Thank you, Tech Child #2. We're glad to hear from you.

We all learn so much from Bernita. (Hope all is well... dear lady, are you suffering from withdrawal yet? We miss you! But rest assured your progeny are taking good care of us. :-)

Anonymous said...

Tech Child #2, you have posted well, but we are waiting for the one you posted about. Smile.

EA Monroe said...

Thank heaven for Techie Children!

Marcail said...

Cliche withstanding, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." You are a fortunate child and your mother, a rewarded one.

Dave said...

Well, we now know that wit, humor and intelligence is passed on to the child

Ric said...

What a marvelous insight into my dear friend!

So very lovely - she must be so proud of her children, and rightfully so.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Hey, Marcail stole my line :-)

Bernita is truly blessed to have children who have grown so well and wise!

Thank you tech child #2!

R.J. Baker said...

Well said.

Ballpoint Wren said...

Yay! Bernita gives me hope that somehow my children will think such wonderful things about me, too.

Jeff said...

Wonderful post! :)

Dennie McDonald said...

#10 definitely #10

MissWrite said...

I am about to tell you, I am impressed to tears.

Payday Loans said...
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Bhaswati said...

Beautiful is the first word that comes to my mind too. Even though I haven't read much of Bernita's writing, I can attest to all the points you made. She inspires me and commands my deepest respect because I know she speaks from the experience of having done it herself.

Thank you so much for sharing this, Tech Child #2. I can see Bernita has passed on her talent genes to her progeny.

Missing you, Bernita. :)

Bernita said...

My Dears, thank you.
It has been lonely without you all.

spyscribbler said...

Great tips! Thanks for sharing, Tech Child #2.