The Reader’s Delight: Being There

canstockphoto8858462As a reader, I am inexcusably fast. I say inexcusably, because as a writer I am learning the value of words, syntax, rhythm – the deliberate choices one must make while telling a story. Those details matter and they should matter to me as a reader.

One of my blogging friends, Bill over at pinklightsabre’s blog had referenced one of his favorite books several times, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Despite my voracious and eclectic reading habits, I’ve never read anything by Joyce and decided that it was time. I’m only 40 pages in and I started reading it four days ago, an hour at a time. It’s slow going. Normally, I can put a book away in four days.

canstockphoto2445398I’ve been stuck on re-writes for my own first novel, never gaining traction on the kind of writing I know I’m capable of – the frustration of knowing the story, knowing what it could be and never feeling that it will get there. So I flopped in my reading chair with Joyce, bathed by illusory sunlight. I say illusory because it’s -6°F/-21ºC with a windchill 18 degrees colder. Even the cats don’t find warmth on the window seat.

What Mr. Joyce does in a page, even a paragraph, puts my novel to shame. I’ve taken to keeping a notebook and pen next to me while reading. I’ve re-read several passages over and over, unwilling to move on until I figure out the puzzle. How did he do that? How did he put me so easily inside a child’s mind, shivering and homesick? How did he switch back and forth from imaginary scenes to reality, between past and present?

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to work at reading. The last time was with Toni Morrison’s Beloved. These are not quick reads, because the devil is in not absorbing the details, of not sticking with the shifts in perspective and time. It’s easy to get lost.

I tend to write without frills. There isn’t an adjective I fear striking through or a very, really, so that doesn’t get deleted. But I see the problem with brevity. Yes, I’ve communicated a story and yes, the reader wants to know what happened, but I haven’t brought them through the looking-glass. I end up writing a news story, not creating a world.

canstockphoto10595770Today, I put down Joyce’s novel and sat silently, feeling rather emotional. I’d forgotten one of the most basic joys of reading – being there. My comfortable chair in the sunlight disappeared. I was in a boys’ dormitory. It was dank, dark, miserably chilling. I missed home. I was scared of the dark and the lurking shapes and eyes imagined. I was no longer inside my own head.

While a good writer is capable of transporting us, taking us out of ourselves and away from our mundane lives, there is little he or she can do if, as a reader, I don’t take the time to absorb the story. As a writer, it’s natural that my writing would suffer in the details, if I don’t notice them while reading.

For all my desire to write fiction, I read a preponderance of nonfiction. And I feel the effects rather acutely while working on the novel. I’m not sure when it happened, but I began to read to acquire information and not for the sheer pleasure of reading.

On this brittle day, when cabin fever is at its February peak, James Joyce reminded me of the passion that put me on the writing path in the first place – getting lost in a world entirely not my own.

Books about Reading and Writing:

Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose (seriously, how perfect a name is that?)

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda

What book left an indelible impression on you?

What’s on your wish list to read?

59 Comments on “The Reader’s Delight: Being There

  1. I think you can tell a rich story and still be, how to say, forensic. I think of Ian McEwan, whose novels are rich in information yet spare in embellishment. It verges on being a cold voice, and yet his novels always turn on passion or sometimes an overturning of passions.
    Don’t let your reading throw you off your own style. Reading is someone else’s influence; writing is all you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read McEwan yet, but coincidentally just checked Atonement out from the library. It might be wishful thinking, since I have about 20 books checked out. I get pretty greedy at the library.

      I’m not sure I’ve landed on my own style for fiction. I seem to still be feeling around for pacing and characterizations. However, there are things I’ve read that make me want to learn certain techniques – not necessarily imitation, but skills.

      Like

  2. Michelle, YES, YES, YES: BEING THERE. I am a very visual reader and with well-written works, I soon forget that I am reading at all. I simply see and hear the story unfolding as if I were watching a movie. When I encounter bad descriptive writing, I actually SEE something really incongruous, and it shatters the moment as I ask, “WTF?”

    The other problem is with with describing actions related to real-life organizations or professions. If it’s something I know NOTHING about, I’ll just blithely go along with it; but if I do know something about the real-life counterpart to the fictional one, and the fictional one is way off, that blows the story for me. In such a case, I wish the author had just set their story in some alternate reality… a post-apocalyptic setting like “The Hunger Games,” or a quasi-medieval/magical world like “Game of Thrones,” say… to prevent that kind of dissonance in the first place. But even then, the descriptions have to be accurate, consistent, and believable.

    As far as the insides of characters’ minds – You’d think that would be easy but right now I’m reading “The Burning” by Jane Casey, told in first-person from two different viewpoints: one chapter is Maeve, the detective; the next is Louise, the murder victim’s friend; the next, Maeve again. You’d think it would be interesting but the two characters are written exactly alike. I’m afraid Ms. Casey is no William Faulkner; if you have read “The Sound and the Fury,” you know there are four different first-person points of view and each has a distinctive, recognizable “voice.”

    Guys like Faulkner or Joyce are great teachers, but you don’t have to be a Faulkner or Joyce to be totally enjoyable. I’ve read plenty of lesser-known or “non-literary” books that were fun and held my attention easily, sucked me right in and made me want to keep going.

    Keep going with your novel! My only suggestion is to set it aside sometimes and then go back and re-read it after a bit of a rest. Then you will see things that you didn’t see in first proofreading.

    (see my post on this very subject, here: https://formingthethread.wordpress.com/2012/10/09/creative-writing-descriptive-accuracy-even-in-a-fantasy-is-very-very-important/ )

    Like

    • I have to be careful while writing not to get hung up on research. For me, it’s simpler things like what flowers are in bloom in a geographical area during what time of year, so I don’t throw in an incorrect and offhanded scent or sight. I’m learning to make a note of it and research later, because a detour can set me back a good hour or two.

      In terms of voice, that is a huge challenge for me – just establishing one, much less multiple character narratives. I’m working on it now and it drives me crazy, but I just have to dig in. I admire writers who can pull it off, but you point out a real problem with multiple POVs – being consistent and differentiating them enough from each other.

      I read widely and I love a good story. I think there is a difference between good storytellers and literary writers, with a few writers that fall into both categories. Maybe I want to be a better writer than I am, but I can only improve by reaching. Sometimes that means reading less accessible writers and working on technique. Sometimes it’s just learning how to tell a damn good story.

      Like

  3. Gosh, I’m so happy you’re enjoying this Michelle. It is truly my favorite book, and I might credit it for being a writer myself. I think I’ve read it four times now, and non-intentionally, the first three times were like, every four years or something like that, at different points in my life where I obviously got something different from it, but always an appreciation for the language, and how Joyce expresses and comes to understand himself, here. I won’t spoil a thing, promise…but curious to hear how it unfolds for you and if it shapes your writing more.

    I read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in Germany this past summer. It was one of those give-you-chills moments, kind of an affirmation for what I want to do, themes and styles I’ve felt in myself, and proof it can be done by others. I’ve also wavered at times feeling intimidated and ‘woe is me, I can’t do this kind of thing’ when I read people like Joyce, or this DFW. You know this better than I, but you have to stay on the other side of that feeling, to not let it impair your own capabilities. Breathe it in and make it your own.

    Thanks for the HT on this and happy reading. Take your time with it. (But I do want to hear if there are passages that stand out for you, when you’re done. I’ve dog-eared a few and you actually made me go back and look for them after I heard you’re reading this.) – Bill

    Like

    • The reason I’m even reading Joyce is that you have written some stories on your blog that are enviable in their deft characterizations of people and circumstances. If he inspires you, then I figure there must be something there. And there is.

      I’m in a particular funk between trying to re-write the novel and it simply being February in Minnesota. Reading something that helps me raise my game, reminds me of why I’m even writing, well, that’s a gift, my friend. I’m taking copious notes and will be delighted to discuss it at the end of the road. Thanks, Bill.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My pleasure Michelle. Here’s to replacing the bad funk with the nappy, good kind.

        Like

  4. The Harry Potter books, especially the later ones, left such an impression on me that I was actually able to make spells a couple of times. So immersed in that world of magic was I that I believed in it. One spell I remember was this: I have long had Restless Leg Syndrome making my legs repeatedly jumpy just before sleep. One particularly bad night I suddenly thought to put a spell on my legs to keep them still. It worked instantly, and I fell asleep. The power of belief, eh. Mind over matter. I wish it would have stuck, this belief in magic and spells. Unfortunately the ‘rational’ mind reasserted itself.
    Alison

    Like

    • I loved the Harry Potter series for just being a good story. My favorite version, though, is the audio series read by Jim Dale. He does the voices fantastically well. I’ve listened to the CDs and MP3s repeatedly.

      I think life without our stories, imaginations and magical thinking would hardly be worth living. They’re so needed to balance out our cynical, rational minds. And I truly believe in the power of the mind to soothe, comfort and sometimes release us from our troubles, spell or not.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I never had before, but I’m glad to be reading him now. My understanding is that when reading Joyce, it’s best to start out with Portrait or Dubliners. It sounds like Ulysses may be somewhat daunting without annotations.

      Like

    • It is, on occasion, an unfortunate quirk that if I think something is worth doing, it’s worth completely burning myself out on. I’m sure I’ll need to do some light reading after this!

      Like

  5. A timely post for me, Michelle. I’m about to start the first round of edits on my second book and have a pen and a notebook handy when I read something I really like…to write the way I know I’m capable of seems like an elusive dream…

    Like

    • I like to think what I’ve been doing is writing intuitively, but it really must come from what I’ve gotten while reading. To be better, I simply must read better. I wish I had started taking notes when reading earlier on, but we start where we are.

      Good luck with your edits, Helen. What started out as editing for me has become a nearly complete makeover of the first draft with large plot changes and a different vision. Always learning…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I always wonder how much these classic authors had to struggle through their writing. It would be fascinating to have been a fly on the wall witnessing the process from start to finish of one of these great books.

    Like

    • I’m pondering what the actual writing climate was like – bad lighting, unheated rooms, illnesses with no treatment, shorter lifespans, a time when food was not plentiful and clean water a luxury. It makes me feel like an incredible whiner, just struggling to write in my warm and comfortable study. It’s always good to get a little perspective!

      Like

      • Or the fact that Joyce wrote Ulysses (265,000 words) and Tolstoy wrote War and Peace (560,000 words in English) without benefit of a word processor. Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary longhand, that is, without a freaking typewriter, even.

        I’m a fan of Joyce and I’m of the opinion that the last paragraph of Ulysses is the most perfect ever written, but I think I might as well slit my wrists if I’m expected to compare my own writing to his. 😉

        Anyway, regarding recommendations, I try to read writers that I love and think about why I love them. There are lots of great books on writing. Stephen King’s is supposed to be good, but I’ve never read it. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones are two books that I have read and found invaluable.

        Like

        • I thought of that, too – my longhand is so atrocious these days, that a manuscript would be illegible. Likely, I’ll get to Ulysses, but War and Peace, despite that fact that I have a degree in Russian studies and being a Russian linguist, was a torment to read and I’ll probably never finish it.

          It says something about what an advice junkie that I am, that I have all three books you mentioned on the bookshelf behind me. I love Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King as well.

          Like

  7. Your reading has to be in good shape to take on Joyce. I’ve tried to read Finnegan’s Wake several times but never got very far. It’s like reading a dense (well-written) academic paper. Something that is deeply rewarding, only if you are practiced at it. The more you read, the more fit you become. It has got to make you a better writer.

    Like

    • You make a very compelling point about reading as practice. I have been doing some relatively facile reading for years now and those literary muscles are sadly out of shape. But my desire to be a more capable and skilled writer is really driving the need to read better literature. And if it doesn’t make me a better writer, I’ll develop an inferiority complex that will be richly deserved.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have been working on that same inferiority complex for years. To become truly good at it, you must be born with potential then practice, practice, practice.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. So good. Such a great reminder. I’m reading Tana French’s “The Likeness” right now. I loved her first book “In the Woods”—a crime thriller—and this is sort of a sequel.

    Details and fleshing out the story are problematic for me, too. I like to be brief and let the reader fill in their own details. There’s nothing that jars me more out of a story than when I find out my heroine’s hair color isn’t what I pictured! But too many gaps and a reader falls through. I get that, too.

    Like

    • That is a problem – the balance between too much and too little. Too much has me rambling down the road with 400 different stories, too little feels like I’ve just written something for my high school paper, focusing heavily on the 5 Ws of journalism. I know the only way forward is forward and to keep at it, but it definitely gives me a greater appreciation for the skills of good writers.

      Like

  9. I think you have coined the Reader’s Anthem: I read to ‘get lost in a world entirely not my own.’ I am now envisioning a t-shirt which reads: GET LOST! (in a good book).

    Like

  10. Michelle, for me it’s Dostoevsky. He totally transports me, and all my senses tingle when I’m in his worlds. But you’ve inspired me to pick up Joyce again … it’s been many years and I’m sure I would read Portrait of the Artist with new eyes. Thank for a lovely–and beautifully written–post.
    Donna

    Like

    • Dostoevsky is on my hit list for reading this year. Do you recommend one particular book to start with? It’s such a pleasure, as I focus on improving my writing skills, to visit “the classics” with new eyes and new appreciation. It’s odd, though, to have missed so much and it makes me wonder about what I’ve really been reading all these years. Thanks for the kind words on the post, Donna.

      Like

  11. The author of that book’s name is PROSE!!!! That’s as perfect as the title!

    (I must say that I find Joyce tedious. I love classics, but not Joyce. Not the Russian classics either — far too depressing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t believe her name, either, but she’s the real deal – no pen name!

      While I tend to veer away from the decidedly gloomy tales, I’m fascinated about the skills that serve the story in Portrait. Fascinated might just be another word for envious, but my purpose in reading it likely lightens the weight of the story itself.

      Liked by 1 person

    • A James Joyce joke for Elyse:

      Ernest Hemingway walks into a bar and sees James Joyce sitting there weeping. He says, “What the hell’s the matter with you this time?”

      “Ernest, I wrote nine words today!”

      “Why are you blubbering? That’s pretty good for you.”

      “Yes, but, I don’t know what order they go in!”

      Liked by 1 person

  12. It took me a long time to be able to read analytically with my own writing in mind. It shows so clearly what someone else is doing much better than I am. That can be discouraging, but I’ve come to the place where I finally see it as a free resource. My voice will always be my voice, but to see the technique, foundation, skeleton in someone’s story can be very helpful in figuring out where I’m falling short.

    Like

    • I am learning to take notes while reading so that I can enjoy a first read-through as a reader and then review parts as a writer. I don’t necessarily find it discouraging – instead, it urges me forward, makes me demand and expect more of myself as a writer.
      It’s just a tad exciting to find more techniques and methods of expressing an idea, to be able to stretch beyond my comfortable little writing patterns. As much as I grouse about my own writing, I’m pretty excited about being in the thick of it!

      Like

    • I read that post with a great deal of envy and admiration. To Kill a Mockingbird is on my list of top 10 books. Last year, I read her biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields.
      What a wonderful experience for you to have! I will confess that I have no intention of reading “Go Set a Watchman”. I’m not convinced she really wanted that released, nor do I want Scout’s story messed with one iota.

      Like

      • I have to read it. I think there’s little doubt that it’s being published under other-than-honorable circumstances, but I have to read it. I’ve managed my expectations accordingly.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. I read your first sentence as I was thinking about myself, “I am inexcusably fat.” Ugh. And I know what you mean about being there in the book. I haven’t read in a couple weeks, and I fall asleep when I do. I miss that old feeling of joy, lost in the beingness.

    Like

    • Very funny way to read a post on paying attention to detail! I have to read in the early morning or late afternoon or else I’m napping and drooling on my book. It is very easy to let time go by these days without reading an actual book, but now that I’m completely desperate and frustrated with my novel re-writes, it seems a better option.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Pretty dumb of me, I will say. But it shows how we read into stuff our own baggage, etc. I haven’t even drooled on a book lately. Maybe I need to force myself to do it and even if I drool I might get 5 pages or so in.

        Like

        • That’s very true. I know I do it. We can be downright tunnel-visioned at times.

          It seems odd to me that reading was something I did nearly constantly and here, in the dead of winter, I’m having to remind myself to make time for it. I really need spring and dirt and open windows!

          Liked by 1 person

  14. Both times I have read The Power of One, I have found myself savoring passages and immersing myself in the book. To Kill a Mockingbird I just finished for the 4th time — every time I read it, I uncover another gem, I swear. Currently reading All the Light I Cannot See for my book club — our last read was Margaret Atwood’s collection of short stories, Stone Mattress (she is such a vivid writer!). I do miss those lazy summer days as a kid losing myself in a book for days at a time ….

    Like

    • I’ve heard great things about All the Light I Cannot See and have Stone Mattress in one of my many piles! I’m taking some of that lazy time now – the winter is just begging for hot drinks and a good read.

      Like

%d bloggers like this: