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A Writer Recommends: ‘A Writer’s Portable Mentor’

It’s less a nuts-and-bolts how-to book and more a real-life guide to developing solid, necessary writing skills, from the basic to the advanced, from pen on the page to completed stories, essays, or poems.

A Writer’s Portable Mentor

By Priscilla Long

(Wallingford Press, 2010; paperback $17.95)

When I open up a book about writing, I hope each time that somewhere in its pages, I’ll discover something that my twenty-plus years of writing have not yet revealed. The answer. The key. The thing that will finally make writing an easier endeavor. Rationally I know no such answer or key exists.

Priscilla Long’s book The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life doesn’t, alas, provide that elusive answer, but the author does propose that if you follow her guidance and suggestions, you will write things and finish them (which for this writer is always an accomplishment). And while you are writing pieces and finishing them, if you take on some of her time-tested exercises, your writing will become better. “My goal,” she writes in her introduction, “is to help you realize beautiful and accomplished works on a regular basis and to get them out in the world.” Then she goes on to note the six areas “of vital concern to the practicing writer,” including “basic productivity,” “language work,” and “grasping and employing deep story structures.”

It’s less a nuts-and-bolts how-to book and more a real-life guide to developing solid, necessary writing skills, from the basic to the advanced, from pen on the page to completed stories, essays, or poems in the mail on their way to a magazine or publisher.

But her first item of advice?: write every day. She suggests a realistic minimum of only 15 minutes, and preferably by hand in a notebook (remember that? writing on paper with a pen?). I don’t necessarily agree with the daily directive in every situation and circumstance, but it certainly can’t hurt. And her approach is especially appealing to new writers who are just starting out, as well as experienced writers who are trying to get themselves back to the desk. “Fifteen minutes is obtainable,” she points out, “ . . . whether you are a physician with a grueling schedule or a working mom with three toddlers (or both).” And, she suggests, you can shape this mere 15 minutes so that “it advances your own [writing] goals more efficaciously.” There is “no need to moan and complain,” she writes, “and there is no need ‘to journal’ at all if you are sick of it.” Instead, you can spend the 15 minutes working on a scene for a new story, or write a short essay from beginning to end, or brainstorm on your next project.

With “the 15-minute write” as a foundation, Long goes on to guide the reader through a series of exercises and primers that connect the writer to language, sound, sentence strategies, and a range of story and essay structures that any writer can mimic, practice, and apply to their own subject matter.

One of my personal favorite “hands on” exercises is her Lexicon Practice, in which you create your own personal dictionary. She says she can tell when her students are actively doing their lexicon work — the language comes alive, their sentences breathe and pulse. “This is not a typical vocabulary list full of horrible Latinate words you don’t know and don’t want to know,” she writes. “The rule is put in only the good words, the juicy words, the hot words.” I discovered, for example, after writing a poem with the word “zipper” and then investigating its anatomy for my lexicon, that a zipper’s teeth are called “elements” and that the piece at the very top of the “tab” is called a “crown.” I learned that a hummingbird’s eyes often outweigh its brain. I learned that the safety pin was patented in 1849 by a mechanic from New York, New York, named Walter Hunt but that it dates back to the Mycenaeans during the fourteenth-century BC (when it was called a fibula). Even in just these three entries (I have 34 total so far), I am pulled into words and their histories, objects and their inventors, facts about animals and plants (did you know that the flattened part of the antlers of certain animals, like moose, is called a “palm”?). This practice reconnects me with my love of language, of sound, of the minutiae of the world that our language accommodates.

Also included in her hands-on practices (there are SO MANY), are “Working Verbs,” “Learning to Repeat,” “Writing Color,” “Writing Gesture,” and “Writing into Structures.” She digs into sentence-making (with whole chapters devoted to a singular type of sentence, such as “The Complex Sentence” and “The List Sentence”), the art of the paragraph, and the ins and outs of punctuation. She addresses the variety of ways you can open a piece of writing, how to make transitions from one paragraph to the next, and how, when using metaphors and similes, to avoid “literary shipwrecks.”

Before she signs off, Long gives substantial advice on revision, on how to send work out, and on how to handle failure (and success!). You get the feeling that she poured everything she knows about writing and the writing life into The Writer’s Portable Mentor. No answers. No keys. But a whole lot of help.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor is available at your local independent bookseller. To find an independent bookstore near you, click here. []

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