Writing has always been a therapeutic activity for me. It’s not always easy and I sometimes struggle to find the right words, but it’s always satisfying.

When feeling low, writing helps me process my emotions. When happy, writing magnifies the joy. When in a dark mood, it can be an act of exorcism, purifying my thoughts as I lay it all down on the page.

These two books reminded me about the healing magic of words and writing. One is aspirational, while the other is motivational.

July has been a great month for reading, overall.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is the debut novel of poet Ocean Vuong. The novel follows an Asian American nicknamed Little Dog who is writing to his illiterate mother as he pieces together their family history—from the horrors of the Vietnam war to the struggles of assimilating into the United States.

This is an immigrant story with the relationship of a mother and child at the heart of it. The oft-brutal yet loving dynamic between mother and child is told with such compassion and honesty that it’s impossible not to be touched by this family of survivors.

I read this book in between tackling two chunky novels at the same time. It was a stark contrast from the dense, involved format and plotting of Infinite Jest and House of Leaves. While there is no comparison, because those other two are vastly different novels, the contrast did make me appreciate Vuong’s poetic prose so much more.

I love the way he lets the words breathe on the page. How he manages to write these harrowing vignettes with a light touch, yet the moment hangs heavy in your heart. How can words be so light and heavy at the same time? That is the magic of Vuong. 

His wordplay is also very enjoyable. In mulling over his fraught relationship with his mother, he uses the terms “single-use body” and a “single-use life” to illustrate our ephemeral existence. In another, he deftly uses commas and periods as metaphors for continuations and unexpected endings, relationships that are open and then inevitably shut. The heartbreak of a “comma forced to be a period.”

I didn’t know Vuong is a poet when I started reading the book, but when I found out, it made perfect sense. Because of course, he is! His sentences have a graceful cadence. They dance. They bleed. They leave a f*cking mark.

Novels don’t have to have plots to work or to be remarkable. This book is a testament to that.

And even though Vuong writes about horrific events and heartbreaking situations in a tender and loving way, it doesn’t mean that this is a lightweight novel. Far from it. It is, in fact, unflinching in its meditations of serious issues like immigration, gender, masculinity, race, drug addiction, and domestic violence.

This is technically a quick read, but the beautiful prose and masterful use of metaphors will make you want to savor the stories and mull over each instance of illumination.

FAVORITE QUOTE

Outside, the hummingbird’s whirring sounds almost like human breath. Its beak jabs into the pool of sugared water at the feeder’s base. What a terrible life, I think now, to have to move so fast just to stay in one place. — Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott is a humorous, heartwarming ode to writing. In reading this book, you will remember why you fell in love with writing in the first place. And if you’re not a writer, stay for the funny anecdotes and heartfelt life advice.

Other writers who wrote about writing or talked about writing have similar tips to give. Like Neil Gaiman, she encourages you to speak your truth.

Like Edith Eger in The Gift, Lamott cautions writers from falling into the pitfalls of perfectionism. Lamott wrote, “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people.”

Like Stephen King (also Gaiman), Lamott emphasizes the importance of committing to “finishing things.”

But what makes Bird by Bird special is not really the instructions on writings, but the one on life and how to handle the down times with grace. It’s the way she recounts her own failures and rejections and veers away from romanticizing the writing process that makes this a realistic and relatable take on the writing life.

Not everyone’s going to get published, and that’s okay. Getting published should not be the end-all and be-all of your writing life. The writing itself should be fulfilling enough for you, otherwise, you’re in for a world of hurt.

The whole idea is that you don’t transform into a great writer, or even a good writer, overnight. It’s a process. A commitment. As the author’s father put it: Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.

FAVORITE QUOTE

A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. — Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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