Reading for clues

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I’ve been paying attention to my reading habits more closely this year, and I’ve been surprised by what draws me, by what I find my appetite craving. In children’s literature, it’s the classics that pull me in, even on the millionth read. I’ve also enjoyed without reservation reading fiction by men, this year (which, although I haven’t deliberately avoided in my long reading life, seems anomalous somehow). And I’ve been pulled, relentlessly, to non-fiction, especially memoir.

I enjoy a variety of styles, and often stand back to admire the craft involved in, say, a light and amusing “easy” read, as much as in a book that is complex and innovative. Sometimes I want to be entertained, pure and simple. Sometimes I long to be challenged, or to gaze in awe and wonder. The lightness or darkness of a book’s subject matter or intellectual heft does not matter greatly to me. My taste is broad.

I don’t read idly, however. I read professionally. I really enjoy this aspect of my reading life. It’s hugely energizing and inspiring.

Always, always, as I read, I look for clues. I read to discover how to write better — how to write what I would want to read. And what I want to read is a book that connects.

Here’s another way of putting it: I want to want to keep reading.

The books I love are not a chore. They do not bore.

I’ve observed that certain issues get in the way of my pleasure. Some are fixable, some perhaps not. Lazy copy editing is troubling and very fixable. Laziness in general is troubling. If I’m mentally editing out unnecessary passages, paragraphs, or stray words, it’s going to cause me to stumble in my enjoyment. I can forgive a story an enormous flaw, because I truly believe that sometimes stories are bettered by their flaws. (Consider, for example, Little Women, and Jo never getting together with Laurie, instead marrying that shambling professor who, despite Louisa May Alcott’s valiant attempts to tell the reader how much we should love him too, simply cannot measure up to what might have been — that is a flaw that doesn’t ruin the the reading experience, but keeps it going in the imagination ever after.) But I can’t excuse the lazy flaw, the needed-another-draft, the published-too-soon flaw.

A writer who works, that gives me pleasure.

The evidence of a writer’s work, craft, and practice comes across clearly, to me, in a book’s structural and narrative coherence and imagination. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s not brought about by the kind of writing people imagine writers to be doing: the fevered, drunken, mad creative flurry whose allure appeals in adolescence and fades sharply thereafter. I outgrew it too many years ago now to remember, without some effort, why I ever found it appealing (which I did, and which many aspiring writers/artists do).

What I admire now is the invisible work behind the seemingly effortless offering. Brilliant, I think. And also, thank you. Thank you for your work!

I’m reading two works of non-fiction right now (yes, simultaneously). One I’m enjoying enormously. The other, not so much. The comparison is not entirely fair, as comparisons never are, but there it is.

The one I’m adoring and rationing out while wanting to devour is The Books of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon, a memoir that defies easy description because it is about matters moral, ethical, disturbing, and deeply enlightening. The one I just finished, hurrying because I wanted the essays to end, please, is Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott, a memoir on spirituality that felt sloppy, incomplete, and, yes, that dreaded word, lazy. It was a book that seemed to want to give me advice. It told me what to think, rather than opened me to new thoughts. Hemon is telling stories. Lamott distracts with anecdotes. Stories are puzzles that go deep and don’t necessarily tell us what to believe, but instead ask us what we do believe and why, and we wonder how we got to where we are and whether we might change, and how. Where does an anecdote take us? Back to the writer herself, who sure as heck doesn’t want us to forget she’s there. Be brave enough to get out of the way, I wanted to tell Lamott, and let your stories speak for themselves.

I don’t think this necessarily divides along gender lines, although I’ll admit it troubles me slightly that the books I’ve been loving this year have mostly been by men. I don’t know why that is, and there may be no conclusions to be drawn. But here’s what I’m learning from my reading this year: I want to get out of the way when I write, whether it’s non-fiction or fiction. I want, also, to connect. And I do not think those ideas stand in opposition.

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Assortments from Life on this Thursday, June 6th

6 Comments

  1. Thanks so much. I love the photo. I’m older than you, raised on male writing. More. Later.

    Reply
    • I was raised on female writing, Sandra! And I’ve really only read male authors when I had to, for school, etc., with a few exceptions, of course. Anyway, there is a certain kind of male writing that I loathe and avoid, but I’ve been so moved and impressed by writers like Hemon, Colum McCann, Junot Diaz, even Julian Barnes, to name a few recent reads… anyway, I’m feeling open to those voices too.

      Reply
    • I was raised on female writing, Sandra! And I’ve really only read male authors when I had to, for school, etc., with a few exceptions, of course. Anyway, there is a certain kind of male writing that I loathe and avoid, but I’ve been so moved and impressed by writers like Hemon, Colum McCann, Junot Diaz, even Julian Barnes, to name a few recent reads… anyway, I’m feeling open to those voices too.

      Reply
  2. I have to cast my mind over some of my favorite reads and see if they’re men. Oddly enough, I’m reading Middlemarch right now which was written by George Eliot, the masculine pen name for a woman. It IS well-crafted! I so enjoy that. There are not many modern writers I like because they seem so lazy.

    Reply
    • Middlemarch is wonderful (and I should read it again). George Eliot had to take a male pseudonym to be taken seriously. But I don’t believe that to be the case anymore, or hope not. If you want to try out contemporary writing by men, the authors I listed above all qualify. Read “Let the Great World Spin” for starters. No laziness there, trust me!

      Reply

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