Reading Up, But Writing From Where You Are

I often read material that makes me question my own intelligence. Sometimes it is deliberate and I hunker down with a notebook and work my way through a book or article and hope that I come out the other side with something that will add to my own writing abilities – a new practice, some new vocabulary, a stronger sense of the story that I want to tell. Occasionally, I find myself imitating a voice and I have to write it out of my system until my own voice re-emerges.

canstockphoto8858462Reading has always been the gateway to writing for me, as it is for most writers. It is both solace and teaching tool, the prickly critic’s voice and the admirable storyteller. These days, I’m more deliberate in my choices and I often force march myself through work that is, well…work.

For readers who read for the sheer pleasure of it, force marching oneself through a book sounds painful and unnecessary. For writers, it’s one of the routes to expanding one’s repertoire, vocabulary, style, and rhythm. Some writers read and write exactly what they like. They seem the happiest with their work – the process holds value and pleasure for them. I am the insecure, constantly striving type who spends more time thinking about what kind of writer I should be, instead of working with what’s in front of me. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one.

75786The forced march through literary canon has inevitably led me to what I think of as dudebro writing. There are several things that characterize dudebro writing in my mind: leaving no amount of minutiae unexplored in the narrative, Gordian knots of literary devices, a rabid fanbase which gives the work a bad name, cardboard female characters, vocabulary that puts things just out of reach of the casual reader, and an unending fascination with all matter of human effluvia. Oh, so you’ve read Infinite Jest too?

I’m sure I’m being reductive. I don’t eschew this sort of writing. There is always something to learn, but it often comes at a price – usually at the cost of the reader’s ego and sometimes at the cost of the story. As a rule, I avoid writing book reviews because I don’t want to see everything through the lens of criticism, nor do I want to diminish someone else’s creative enterprise. It’s hard to write, in a neutral manner, about a book one loathes and admires simultaneously. Recently I finished Brian Birnbaum’s Emerald City, which was sent to me by JKS Communications. I’ve read several debut novels sent from them over the last year or so and it has been a great learning experience.

52756048. sx318 sy475 Mr. Birnbaum’s novel carries the definite echoes of David Foster Wallace in the sheer denseness of detail. Usually I take notes while reading and this book made me fill up pages – mostly of vocabulary and terms I hadn’t heard before. If you have one iota of insecurity about your level of intelligence or lean a bit puritanical when it comes to drugs, sex, and bodily fluids, this might be something you pass on. If you like wordplay and densely-packed sentences, are jonesing for DFW prose, and bend a bit toward the salacious, this might be for you.

That sounded like a bit of a review, didn’t it? There’s no accounting for our reading tastes. What appeals to and invigorates one reader, might put another in a coma-like nap. Fortunately, the democratization of publishing leaves room for all manner of writers and readers to find each other (Emerald City comes from the publisher Animal Riot Press, of which the author is a co-founder).

canstockphoto17375275One of the things I’m coming to terms with as a writer, is that I’ve spent far too much time aspiring and not enough time being. Reading tougher work has improved me as a writer, but it has also made me more paranoid about being older, not having an MFA, and not being smart enough to pull off a good bit of literature. My imposter syndrome has gotten more agile and wily. Now, any knowledge I gain from challenging reading serves more as a reminder of how obviously incapable I am of producing good work myself. You’re rockin’ it, imposter syndrome. Bring on the procrastination. We’ll make it a party.

Fall and the start of school is like a second start to the year – a time for clearing out, cleaning up, and getting on with things. Last year, I joined a writing group. This year, I’m doing a little less group and more focused writing, with less judgment and more curiosity. Seeing what is in my writing, not what I think should be. Maybe that will be enough.

If you’re in the mood to read harder, check out Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge. 2019 is just about up, but keep an eye out in December for the 2020 challenge.

Literary journals have become my not-so-secret pleasure for reading “up”. It’s a lot of bang for the buck – covering a multitude of genres from journalism to poetry. My favorites are the Paris Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Missouri Review, A Public Space, and the Kenyon Review.

Leaning into the Fraudian Complex

canstockphoto17112100I’m a writer.

I speak several languages.

I am fit and active.

I love my family.

I believe love is the right choice.

But, but, but…

What about the fact that I’m none of these things consistently or expertly?

What about the fact that I don’t spend each and every day honing my writer’s craft? And that despite working on a novel, 80% of my reading is nonfiction?

What about the fact that if you ask me any question in the languages I know well on paper, I’ll have a blank look on my face?

What about the fact that I don’t look like an athlete? Or that I eat enough for four athletes…of the Sumo kind?

What about the fact that on Monday morning, I’m glad to see my family out the door?

And for all the love I purport to feel, to advocate for, why am I repeatedly calling fellow humans jackwads and dipshits while driving?

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I had the good fortune of hearing the author Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge, 2009 Pulitzer Prize), give a lecture last week. She talked about the value of fiction and why it’s important to readers. She spoke about how fiction gets to the truth of characters and in turn, to the truth of ourselves. I took notes and all I could think was – as a writer, I’m a complete and utter fraud. This is a bad thought to have a week before I’m scheduled to pitch my novel to three literary agents. But it’s bad in a way I have learned to value.

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When I started tutoring English learners, one of the students asked me in front of the class what languages I spoke. Ever eager to sound like I knew something of value, I muttered “I speak a little Spanish, German, French and Russian.”

It was, to my knowledge, true – if you wanted me to count to 10, list the colors of the rainbow or ask you where the bus station was. I’m proficient in asking for another beer in German or talking about military tank positions in Russian. I can accurately describe cows or the children at the swimming pool in French. In Spanish, I have a terrific food vocabulary, because Mexican food is the bomb.

So, in the back of my head, I really felt like I was telling a lie, even if I’d get off on a technicality. Lies bother me. Especially my own. I intone Jean-Luc Picard in my head Make it real. Since starting tutoring a few months ago, I’ve been relearning or building up languages. I start off every day on DuoLingo. It takes canstockphoto993916me about 20 minutes, but in the last two months, my language skills have improved exponentially. I started enjoying it so much that I’m ramping things up a bit with workbooks and online websites in those languages. I frequently wander the house repeating nonsensical phrases, sometimes mangling all four languages in the same sentence. International incident, here I come.

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I have never in my life looked like an athlete. I’m solid, but short and round. All my life I’ve been fairly active. I look in the mirror and it never reflects back at me who I think I am. This disconnect between how I feel and how I look frustrates me to no end. Years of martial arts, running, tromping around in combat boots hauling packs, endless numbers of push-ups, weight training, and in the end, I still look like a disheveled hausfrau. This time my body is a reflection of the lie.

canstockphoto2201991I’ve only ever dealt with half the equation – exercise. The reality is that I eat like a horse. A horse who could eat its own body weight in mashed potatoes. I eat well – really, really well. From my twenties on, I’ve resisted dieting, mostly to my benefit. But as my income grew, so did my access to all the foods I loved – foods that I didn’t get growing up and foods that I generally couldn’t afford or have access to during my Army and college years. Simple foods, even some that are quite healthy, I eat in large quantity.

My truth is that if I want the outside to truly reflect how hard I work, how much training I’ve done, I have to come to terms with the mentality I have, that whatever is in front of me now might be gone tomorrow, so I better get while the gettin’s good. I went through an absolute culling of personal belongings and clothing over the winter and found the same mentality at work. If I liked something, I bought two or got all the colors, because tomorrow it might be gone.

I want the reflection in the mirror to look like how I feel inside. I want to make it real. So I’ve begun doing that most mundane of dieting tasks – tracking calories and setting a target goal that I get all my servings of fruits and veggies. I just started Week 6 of an 8 week 5K training program. I’m starting to see results. My humble brag is less about the particular goals than it is about the fact that the lie had become untenable for me to sustain. It has simply become easier to make a lie the truth, than deal with the angst of wishing it to be so.

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Elizabeth Strout said it’s the job of the writer to be bring honesty to the reader, because it helps us get in touch with our own truths. That’s been rolling around in my head the last few days. My own truth is that despite all my experiences as a human, I am not an experienced writer. I have not, like Ms. Strout and so many working writers, spent my days and nights learning the craft.

Next week, when I sit in front of my first literary agent ever, I will be out of my depth. And that is the truth.

canstockphoto6167076Somehow, even confronting that truth head on, I find it invigorating. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Because when that conference is over, when I’ve gushed out the verbal vomit that will be my pitch, I will return home knowing that I need to make it real. I’ll spend my days and nights learning what other writers already know. My path is one of retroactive truths, but truths…eventually.