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?

Time Travel on Facebook


I’ve written before about my aversion to some social media. Besides the conspicuous consumption of time, Facebook is how I found out that my best friend from 5th grade had lost the use of both her legs and arms in a car accident. Which led me to a search where I found out that another classmate and her brother were both dead in their early 40s. It was jarring and traumatic. These faces, frozen in my mind’s eye, were young and healthy and living happy lives in some far off world. Anything beyond that failed to reach my imagination.

When I was in my teens, we moved to a house, town and school far away from where I’d grown up. It was, in reality, only about 40 miles away, but rural miles. No public transportation or extra family car or cell phone plans to keep in touch with old friends. We wrote letters. It seems quaint now, as if we’d moved by covered wagon.

The year before the move, on a parental whim, I had been pulled from the public school where I’d been since Kindergarten and plopped into a church school, where, as a girl, I was not allowed to wear pants with pockets. The culture shock led to a series of uncharacteristic pranks and mild hooliganism, including pouring unholy amounts of pepper into the school’s soup and some minor brawling during flag football. It was the same year in which the pastor of the church got caught embezzling and a teacher at the school molested my best friend. The following summer, we moved.

The student population at the new school was drawn from four rural towns and still my eighth grade class only had some 50 students. I settled in awkwardly, made friends at the fringes and envied the popular kids. With a deteriorating home situation, I got involved in everything: track, editor of the school paper, speech, plays, musicals, band, choir. I felt like a constant outsider, but pictures of my unwieldy teenage self are sprinkled liberally about yearbooks.

I worked, bought a car, started to drink, got high a few times, and went to frat parties in the nearest college town. Wherever I was, I felt, as so many teenagers do, that I did not belong. I had two best friends, one who was a parent’s dream and another, two steps from rehab and/or juvie. The three of us didn’t hang out together. I led distinctly separate lives. One had me competing in band and speech contests, the other got me acquainted with the police in two cities.

canstockphoto23898647At home, being tuned into every vibration of other people’s moods was self-preservation. It could mean the difference between being screamed at and hit or currying favor at just the right moment so that I could hang out with a friend. Sometimes it meant determining whether or not I would sleep in my bed or if the five of us, my mom, two brothers and sister would be staying in a dingy hotel room that night.

Living on eggshells and developing survival empathy made me weird. Other people became cults of personality in my head. I watched and listened keenly to what they liked and didn’t like, who their crush of the week was, what they wore and how they walked. I wanted to be them, but they seemed like these marvelous, otherworldly creatures to me – ethereal and unreachable. I was small.

It’s a particular kind of body schema to look out at the world, seeing and admiring other humans as big and important and full of life. It took me well into my late twenties to gain perspective in that rear view mirror, and years of living alone to step into my own life and take up space.

Which brings me to the other people. There were two friends. I have a picture of them together in front of the place where we all worked during the summer. They’re pretty girls with stylish hair and clothes I could never afford. Clear skin, beautiful eyes, casual in their bodies, bodies that had been admired and felt up by boys on whom I had revolving crushes. In my eyes, they had and were everything.

Our junior year, they were driving home from a game on one of those winding rural highways, cut into the earth, the pavement laid out four inches higher than the gravel. The driver over-adjusted when the tire slipped off the edge of the road. The car flipped and rolled, sending the two girls through the windshield. One of them died.

Teenagers grieve loudly and visibly or they shutter themselves in dark corners and write bad poetry. We mourned that whole year, gossiping in righteous indignation when the dead girl’s boyfriend began to date someone new. By the next year, life had found a semblance of normal. The friend who lived was still enviable, made more alluring by her survival of a tragic accident.

In a story of fiction, she’d go on to live a happy life, a joyful existence in honor of her friend, never forgotten. In real life, she was dead at 41 from cancer, leaving behind several children. A few years later, her older brother, the quarterback with a quiet smile and gentle demeanor, was crushed to death by industrial equipment.

canstockphoto14061639If I ever needed a reason to read and write stories, it is this: they explode the moments, magnify the minutiae and put some meat on the bones of our lives. Between youth and endings, tragic or not, we are more than our milestones, births, marriages, deaths. These lives, so full of promise, take up space. To see only the milestones and the end of their story has all the depth of a deflated balloon. I missed all the meaning in the middle and it feels like cheap voyeurism.

Crossing into the Abyss

canstockphoto2695154For the last year I’ve had this idea in my head to have a fiction writing blog. I love this blog and all the readers I’ve met and I like the casual, personal tone of things. It is my intent to continue writing from The Green Study, but I long to try my hand at fiction. After spewing out a novel during National Novel Writing Month, I have quickly run out of excuses.

Last month I heard an interview with Margaret Atwood on NPR regarding her upcoming serialized novel. The idea of serialized fiction took hold of me and I haven’t been able to shake it. It just sounds cool. I quite possibly will experience a massive failure, but that’s what I thought when I started this blog, which has taught me to write regularly, rain or shine.

When I think of posting fiction, my stomach turns in knots. I’m nervous. I’m anxious. I feel like I’m about ready to make a huge mistake. I’ve gained a lot of confidence in my writing, but I’ve been writing truths (at least my version of it). Now I have to lie. And lie lyrically. And lie convincingly. And lie well enough that people will continue to read.

Well, enough procrastinating. Welcome to TGS Writes, an experimental and serialized fiction blog. I’ll be posting short fiction there every weekend, taking feedback and comments into account during the week, before writing the next part. Ms. Atwood calls it improv for writers and that comparison alone makes me imagine it might be fun.

So, this is my invitation to you. I understand if you can’t possibly add one more blog to follow, or if you’re not much of a fiction reader or it’s just not your thing. But it’s mine now and I’d love some company on a journey where I might very well have to lean over the side and throw up.

I will continue writing from The Green Study and have added a link on the side for TGS Writes.  My work on the novel continues. I wanted to be a writer, so I’m not complaining. Just having a little freakout. Inhale, exhale….publish.