Reading and Writing
I’ve been slacking.
Since arriving home from Nashville late on Saturday night (actually it was early Sunday morning) I’ve been pretty much Not Writing, which is a specific state of being characterized by a constant awareness that I’m doing everything but writing. This is because writing is such a stern task mistress that she wants to make damn sure you miss her when she’s gone.
Most of the time when I am Not Writing I wring my hands and flop about saying "alas" and sigh heavily a lot. But for the last couple of days I’ve been intentionally Not Writing, which is different. It is taking a break on purpose and without feeling guilty or worrying about it.
This period of Not Writing happened somewhat unintentionally, but once I was in the middle of it, I enjoyed it so much I made it purposeful. My first day home required a massive dose of house-cleaning energy. Let’s just say the home had seen cleaner and more organized days. Since my husband got whisked off to Abu Dhabi with two days notice I decided that it would not be politic to blame him and just got to it.
But then the reading bug took over and all day yesterday I lolled about in my newly clean house reading Isabel Allende’s latest book, a memoir called The Sum of Our Days. She writes it as a long letter to her deceased daughter (which was covered in her first memoir, Paula). One of the reviews I read said that perhaps she told a bit too much and at first as I was reading, I agreed. But then as I spent the afternoon sinking into the book and Allende’s life, I changed my mind. I loved reading about her nutty family and how they all live close together in the same neighborhood of Marin County, and all of Allende’s crazy schemes to marry off her son and otherwise meddle in the lives of those she loved. Somehow she does all this and still manages to crank out a book about every year or so.
As a writer, its tough to read anything and put away the critical eye. I usually feel like I need to learn something when I read–either about a non-fiction topic, or about craft, by reading novels and short stories and looking for technique. I wrote a post on Reading as a Writer a few months ago.
The topic has been on my mind again as Terry and I met with new Loft students last week. We discussed with them in the detail the process of writing an essay about a book they’ve read. This essay is a required part of every Loft packet, much as it is in all the MFA programs. Some students have mistaken the essay for a book review ("I loved this book because…") but that is not the point at all.
The point is to first choose a book similar to what you want to write yourself. If you are writing a novel, read every novel you can get your hands on. If you are writing short stories, read short story collections (drop me an email if you need some suggestions, I just compiled a pretty good list for a new student).
Next choose to focus on one aspect of the writing. If you struggle with dialogue, focus on that. If you write lackluster description, focus on that. And so on. The magic of writing an essay is that it forces you to drop down deep into the work you are reading and really look at how the author handled dialogue, or description, or plot.
Obviously, you don’t have to write an essay to benefit from reading this way. Once you start to write seriously you’ll find yourself examining every single thing you read for matters of style and technique. It’s inevitable.
So actually reading the Allende book was a bit of a busman’s holiday for me, since I wasn’t looking for techniques on how to write a memoir, but simply enjoying it.