Between the World and Me

Booksellers are notorious (in indie bookselling circles) for not reading popular books. They are the original hipsters and prefer to buy (at a steep discount) their books without the movie cover, thank you very much. In that spirit, it took me a while to get to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Better late than never. I’ve read a ton of Coates’ articles in The Atlantic and have always loved his precise writing, and the way that he always claims the shades of what he knows and what he doesn’t know. This is the clarity I want for my students. I spent much of a rainy Memorial Day tucked away reading his book.

I’m about halfway through now, but one of the things that struck me the most was the way that he talks about craft. I was not surprised to see in the beginning his clean layout of how the United States is based on the profits and plunder of slave labor while it claims unthinking exceptionalism. This is what I expected from the book.

But I also love how Coates talks about writing. He echoes Orwell as he talks about how the American Dream (which he sees as unaccessible to many), “thrives on generalization. . . on privileging immediate thinking, and honest writing” (50). Yes! The unthinking cliche is the enemy of good thought and thus good writing. Coates also sees “the craft of writing as the craft of thinking . . . . I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately . . . a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations” (51). Amen.

What are you reading? What are you learning about your own writing?

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4 thoughts on “Between the World and Me

  1. I want to read Coates’ book, but I have such a long list of books to read that I’m afraid I won’t make much of a dent in it.

    Lately, I’m looking for helpful writing tips and reading past winners of the Marguerite McGlinn short story contest to see if a certain one of mine might have a chance. But it’s the interviews I found with the Glimmer Train sisters that have taught me something about my writing.

    One suggested that I make sure I didn’t leave an important thing unsaid. My daughter says when I’m trying to be subtle, I have to turn that up to ten so a reader has a chance to notice my point. These two problems are similar and twisted up together in some of my stories, but not so much in the one I want to send. Well, at least not now that I’m bleary-eyed from addressing it. I just hope I don’t go too far and start hitting people in the face with story when I don’t mean to.

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    1. I had that problem when moving from poetry to prose. In poetry you just lay it out and the reader does the work. One of my wise friends told me that. And she added that in prose the writer has to do a lot of the work. That was news to me. So I’m trying to do the work, and I’m sure you are too.

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