On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

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Stephen King is commonly associated with the genre of thrillers or mysteries. But not all of his books are. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of them.

I originally read this book at age 16 as an assignment the summer before my senior year of high school. English was my favorite subject, and having to read a book over the summer didn’t faze me. Besides, I intended to go to college for journalism (which I did end up doing), so I wanted to improve my writing skills.

On Writing is officially billed as a memoir, but it also includes writing tips and tricks based on King’s own experiences, making it a little bit of a hybrid.

The first part of the book is the memoir section. As King writes, “It’s not an autobiography,” (p. 17). Rather, they are bits of memories that he recalls in somewhat random order. He grew up primarily in Maine with his single mother and older brother Dave. The two of them had many adventures growing up, which I could relate to since I have an older brother myself. King’s interest in writing began in childhood when he started making up his own stories, encouraged by his mother and brother. After having some run-ins with the school administration in his writing endeavors, which included inadvertent plagiarism and inappropriate content, they recommended him as a correspondent for the local newspaper. He continued to write and attended college, where he met his wife Tabitha. The years that followed brought the birth of their children and scraping by, until the success of his first novel Carrie, in 1974. King wasn’t afraid to include some personal confessions, such as his problems with drugs and alcohol during some years.

The second part of the book includes tips on writing: spelling, grammar, dialogue, and other basics. As a high school senior, I remember having to do assignments based on this section. King includes suggestions on how to eliminate unnecessary words and lists writing exercises to help practice. One of the most interesting parts was reading where King gets his ideas from. For Carrie, King had gotten the idea after discovering the tampon dispenser in the girl’s locker room during a stint as a custodian He talks about how ideas can come from personal experiences or interests, and how it can’t hurt to combine two ideas together.

A postscript talks about his experience with near death in 1999, when he was hit by a van while walking along a rural road in Maine. I was fascinated by the amount of detail he was able to put into his account, describing the moment he was hit, his injuries and the recovery. I imagine if I was ever in an accident like that that I wouldn’t be able to recall that much detail.

I definitely recommend this book for anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of writing and how one of the great authors gets his inspiration from.

In closing, my favorite quote from page 269, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriching your own life, as well.”


Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song

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In early 2008, I was in the music room at my high school waiting for musical practice to start. A classmate of mine sat down at the piano and started playing a song with a catchy riff.

“What song is that?” I asked.

It was “Love Song,” by Sara Bareilles, though I didn’t know it at the time.

A couple of mornings later, I was getting ready for school when the same song came on my alarm clock radio. I immediately recognized the tune, soon learned its name and came to like it and Sara Bareilles a lot. Being a piano player myself, it wasn’t often that piano-driven songs became radio hits. “Love Song” is actually one of the first pop songs that I learned on piano, and I would even make a YouTube video tutorial of its riff. 

Sounds Like Me: My Life So Far In Song is a memoir of Sara Bareilles’ life from childhood to present time (the year 2015, when the book was released.) Each chapter is based around a certain song she wrote, hence the title. The songs are: “Once Upon Another Time,” “Gravity,” “Love Song,” “Beautiful Girl,” “Red,” “Many the Miles,” “Brave,” and “She Used to be Mine.”

A Northern California native, Sara had a pretty typical childhood. Her passion for the arts began with performing with her two older sisters, and she did community and high school theatre. Music also became a passion, and she learned to play piano and write her own songs. At age 18, she moved to Los Angeles to study communications at UCLA while continuing to write and perform on the side. I found this part of her story to be the most interesting. Unlike some other artists that start early, have famous family or are on a television show, Sara started small and worked her way up to the top. I’m not saying that those artists aren’t talented, but it was refreshing to read about a musician who had the full experiences of high school and college, as Sara was in her mid-20s when “Love Song” came to prominence.

The chapter I related to the most focused on her song “Red.” (And no, not the Taylor Swift song, though I admit I briefly thought about it.) This chapter is about her junior year of college, which was spent studying abroad in Bologna, Italy. She talks about eating too much food, visiting European cities and meeting people from all over the U.S. and country, experiences I immediately connected with. But Sara goes more into depth about what her inner feeling were like during that time, writing “I could only express a fraction of what my brain was thinking or feeling, and it felt like I was projecting a dulled sense of my own personality.” I loved how honest she was, because I feel like that’s something that everyone has gone through. She further elaborates on the “temporary” life of studying abroad, saying “I was living in a strange limbo world, not totally connecting with what was immediately around me, but still incredibly far from what I would be going home to.” I didn’t necessarily feel the same way during my studying abroad experience (which was only three months), but it definitely describes my feelings during the final few months of college. The time when all your years of schooling is really coming to end and realizing that all the connections you made might not endure.

This is the kind of memoir that I think everyone would enjoy because of its mix of candor, humor and seriousness and how it can translate into music.

Uncommon Type: Some Stories

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Tom Hanks has been one of my favorite actors since I was young. Toy Story and Forrest Gump were both staple movies of my childhood, and I was mystified that the person who played character with the Southern drawl was the same person who voiced the animated character of Woody. So when I found out Tom Hanks was coming to the Warner Theatre in  D.C. to promote his new book, Uncommon Type: Some Stories, I decided to go check it out.


He and well-known author Ann Patchett talked for more than an hour about a wide variety of topics, including his experiences in the film industry, and how the literary world interweaves with the movie world. He answered several questions from the audience about how acting has affected his life, his family and his overall psyche. He didn’t hesitate to throw in a couple of curse words while he spoke, which I found realistic and relatable.

Tom Hanks

While many celebrities usually debut in the writing world with memoirs, Hanks chose to write fiction for his first full-length book. Uncommon Type is an anthology that contains seventeen short stories. What links them all together is that each story contains a typewriter in some way, whether it be a brief mention or a main part of the story’s plot. The plots themselves differ widely and are set in several different decades, although there are some overlapping characters.

Tom Hanks book

I could see several of Hanks’ own personal experiences within the stories. One is about an actor trying to make it in the New York City, which is where Hanks first moved after graduating from college. Another one is about a Greek immigrant who has just arrived in America, which echoes the story Hanks told about how his father-in-law got to the United States. The writing style changes throughout the stories; some are written in first person and some in third person. The narrator or protagonist of the story also changes the tone. For example, one story that focuses on a 10-year-old boy describes details from a child’s perspective. The theme of typewriters comes from Hanks’ own hobby of collecting typewriters, highlighted in this segment from CBS This Morning. 

I mostly enjoyed the stories, but I felt like a lot of them lacked substance. Those ones had characters and settings, but not a clear plot line. It was almost as if some were bits and pieces of longer stories instead of their own, and others felt incomplete. Hanks does have some writing experience; he wrote the screenplay for 1996’s That Thing You Do! and some pieces for the New York Times and Vanity Fair. 

The typewriter aspect was the best part of the book. Its presence in all of the stories showed it was an object used by everyone, no matter their background or life circumstances; a common link. He pays tribute to the machines by including a picture of one before each story. It makes the book worth checking out.


Broad, Casted: Gender, Media, Politics, and Taking on the Establishment

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Like I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, I grew up outside of Rochester, New York, in a small town of about 6,000 people. My parents would always watch the news as a way to know what was going on, and I soon realized that I liked watching it too. I was fascinated by how the newscasters got to go out and talk to all sorts of people everyday. Rachel Barnhart was one of the many newscasters that we watched. Broad, Casted: Gender, Media, Politics and Taking on the Establishment is her memoir that documents her run for the New York State Assembly against Republican Harry Bronson during the summer of 2016.

In the first several chapters of the book, Rachel writes about growing up in Rochester, attending public school and deciding to major in college in journalism. Reading about her early life reminded me a lot of my own, attending public high school and being a cashier at the local grocery store as a teenager. I also majored in journalism in high school, though I decided not to become a reporter, and instead headed to D.C. to work in communications.

I enjoyed reading about the campaign trail experiences, because it reminded me of when my dad ran for town supervisor back in 2009 when I was in high school. Rachel talks about the neighborhoods she visited, the people she met and the responses she got. My dad would come home each night with stories about his experiences going door-to-door and talking to all kinds of people. He didn’t win, but those four months gave us an interesting perspective into local politics.

Tying into that, another great part was learning about how local political races work. There’s the announcement, but then comes the marathon of fundraising, getting petitions, advertising, making campaign stops and more. I’ve only come to learn more about the different types of races and just how many there are: State Senate, State Assembly, Mayoral, Gubernatorial, Congressional, and of course, Presidential.

Living in the nation’s capital, the majority of our 2016 was consumed by the highly unusual presidential race, and the suspense of not knowing who would move into the White House next. I found it refreshing to read about a much more local race and learning more about the legislative districts that encompass the Rochester area.

One of the more serious issues Rachel talks about throughout the book is the criticism she received in person, online, and through the campaign mailers, and how it was linked to sexism. This was a common theme seen throughout 2016 in not just that race, but in the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The election generated millions of reactions around the country and world, causing tension between friends and even complete strangers.

I definitely recommend this memoir for people who are interested in reading about journalism and politics.

Five Year Anniversary

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Five years ago this summer, I was halfway through my college career, majoring in journalism. I had been taking the typical classes- writing and reporting, editing, and composition and critical thinking. I still had two more years of college to look forward to and more classes to take.

One of the requirements of my journalism degree was 400 hours of internship. The previous summer, I had held an internship with my hometown newspaper, covering local stories and learning the publishing process. Summer 2012 however consisted of me only working my job as a cashier, wanting to earn money for my study abroad semester that fall. I was still covering some town meetings for the newspaper, but I still felt restless and wanted to be doing something to keep my writing skills sharp. This was something I mentioned to my brother while he was up visiting from D.C.

“If you’re a journalism major, you should probably have a blog.” he suggested.

“But what about?” I asked. “People with blogs seem to have a focus, but all I’m really doing is college right now, and there are already a million ones about being in college.”

“What’s something that you like that you could write about?” he said.

I thought about it for a little bit, glancing over at the book I had been reading. Books. Reading.

“Maybe I could write about books.” I mused.

“That’s something,” he said.

And thus Books By Betsy was created. I came onto WordPress and made my account, choosing the notebook theme because I liked the look. Since then, I have reviewed over 100 books, although I’m pretty sure I’ve read more than that in the past 5 years. A few years ago I started to promote my blog through my Twitter account, tagging the authors, and even get a shout out from them once in awhile. As an aspiring author myself, it’s great being able to read different kinds of books and sharing my thoughts about the story.

A few months after I launched this blog, I began to document my experiences of studying abroad in a foreign country that fall. I called that blog Experiencing England, As you can tell, I like alliteration in my titles, but I also chose that title because I didn’t find it used anywhere else.

Thank you to those who have read my blog. If you have any books you want me to review or any other comments or suggestions, please leave them below. Keep reading!



Freedom: My Book of Firsts

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Five years after Jaycee Dugard released A Stolen Life, a memoir about her 18 years of captivity, her second book came out. This one, titled Freedom: My Book of Firsts, talks about her experiences since her recovery, reintegrating herself back into society.

Jaycee documents her experiences of  “firsts,” her first time flying, traveling to a foreign country, being at her sister’s wedding, among others. Her accounts also describe her family life, getting to see her mother again, reconnecting with her younger sister, and continuing to raise her daughters. She also talks about founding the JAYC Foundation, an organization focused on helping families that have become victims of trauma. The foundation also provides educational programs to elementary school children.

One of the more interesting aspects of her accounts is experiencing all these things for the first time at an older age. I realized that we have all traveled, met people, gone to school, learned to drive and done more. We never really give our everyday activities a second though. But I had never really considered about how it would be if I hadn’t learned all of that until I was older. To be completely cut off from society for so many years takes bravery and strength to overcome.

A Stolen Life

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Jaycee Lee Dugard was kidnapped in June 1991 when she was 11 years old. For more than 18 years, no one knew what happened to her, until 2009, when she was discovered living in the backyard of a convicted sex offender. By then, she was almost 30.

Two years after her reappearance, she released A Stolen Life, a memoir about her experience in captivity. At the time of its release, I was 18 and tried reading it, but found the content a little too graphic for me.  I was an avid fan of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, but realized that this account was very real and in no way fictional. Now, more than 5 years later, I decided to give it another go.

The book is written in the format of a journal, with each chapter documenting an experience. After each one, Dugard reflects on the section from her adult perspective. The interesting part about her writing style is the simplicity of it, containing many short sentences. This is due to the fact that she only had a fifth grade education, as she never completed school. However, she wrote it entirely herself with no co-writer, and didn’t hesitate to describe the details of what happened to her on a daily basis. She talks about giving birth to her two daughters as a teenager in captivity and raising them, and trying to maintain a positive attitude.

Although I in no way will ever be able to fully understand what she endured, I was continually awed by Jaycee Dugard’s incredible resilience and willingness to write about the details. As I read the book, on the subway to work, during lunch and on the bus, I found myself drawn into the story by her words and honesty.

I definitely recommend this memoir, as it tells an unbelievable story of someone who spent a lifetime as a captive, but found the strength to carry on. I hope to read the follow up, Freedom: My Book of Firsts, next.

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