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.

A Day in Which I Write Nothing Relevant

I wore myself out writing a political post last week and answering subsequent comments. Then I read that Antonin Scalia died. Liberal pundits are off their nuts trying not to do a happy dance. I feel uncomfortable with this. To celebrate anyone’s death seems tasteless, if not unkind. I did not like his rulings or his beliefs, but he was interesting to listen to and had a level of integrity that I appreciated.

I’m glad one conservative is off the Supreme Court, but I wish it were Justice Thomas, who has never struck me as someone who has political or personal integrity. He can shove a copy of The Fountainhead right up his arse. Yeah, yeah, people are complicated.


Today I am starting David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, because my reading has become too facile of late, with relatable characters and interesting story lines. I realized that there’s no way for me to expand as a writer, if I don’t continue to expand as a reader. I read James Joyce last year and while I found it a long slog, I came away with pages of notes about literary devices, made-up words and scene development. I’m keeping my notebook handy for Jest.


canstockphoto5857227.jpgAh, Valentine’s Day. I bought myself a bouquet of tulips and thanked my husband with a smirk. I gave him some new swim goggles and my daughter got a gaming gift card. Romance is subtle in our household. My daughter made us sweet cards and then we all plugged into our devices, shows or books and promptly ignored each other. Love means letting each other be whoever we are – until dinner time or someone needs a ride.


canstockphoto24939985For writers everywhere, or just me, I’ve written this in big letters on my whiteboard: “Never hope more than you work.” (Both Rita Mae Brown and Beryl Markham have been credited with some form of that quote). It really explains why my novel re-writes are not done. Hopin’ and wishin’ and prayin’…that somebody else will do it.


Stinging bits of snow pelted my cheeks and my eyes watered. I could feel a burning sensation on my legs as the wind cut through my jeans. It was 2°F/-16°C with a wind chill factor running 20 degrees lower. I decided a 3 mile walk to the library would be the curative for cabin fever and listless writing.

I spent most of the walk thinking about the nature of discomfort and how I’d forgotten why it is a necessary thing. I live a comfortable life and I have reasoned, at times, that I’d earned it. That I’d had so many periods of difficulty and misery and struggle, that perhaps it was okay to have soft landings.

Here’s the funny old thing about my tough times. They shaped me. They taught me resiliency. They forced me to critically think and problem solve. They made me power through, overcome, and challenged every aspect of my being. They made me hunger for more knowledge and skills. In the end, they made me see the world in a broader context and made me, for all my failings, more compassionate towards others.

canstockphoto3180270I walked against the bitter wind, trying to keep my footing on ice-covered sidewalks. It reminded me of all the other times. The years without a car. The rain. The baking sun. The ache of carrying groceries or book bags. It reminded me that I did my best thinking when I walked, that all the physical challenges gave a pinpoint focus to my brain.

One of my visiting college professors told me I had the душа, the soul of a Russian. Dostoyevsky wrote that the soul of a Russian was the spiritual need for suffering. I thought it was a compliment. When I started reading Buddhist texts, it seemed less of one. It made me seem like a masochist.

So I began the steady path towards only watching, reading and listening to things that I enjoyed. I ate only the food I liked, worked only when it didn’t feel like work, dressed to excessive comfort, didn’t push too hard during workouts, only hung out with friends who didn’t irritate me and only when I felt like it. Cocooned, safe, precious and ensconced in my own navel.

It’s true that life is short and that there is value in spending time how I want to, but at what point do I stop growing? At what point am I willing to stop reaching beyond myself and my small corner of the world? At what point do I become so static that death would seem an adventure?

It reminded me that at 48, I was still hearty enough to carry my own weight, to put in the miles, to lean into the discomfort. I was reminded of how important and nurturing my connection to the outside world is – that observation and the senses yield so much. And when I returned to a comforting home and a warm cup of tea, my gratitude was expansive.

Every day is a new possibility – I hope your day is a good one.

And if Valentine’s day bugs the crap out of you, feel sorry for all those people getting shitty Whitman samplers with the chocolates filled with spackle and toothpaste. Pity all the lost hopes for marriage proposals that just turned out to be dinner at Applebee’s. Shake your head at all the grown-ass women getting stuffed animals and itchy lingerie. Roll your eyes at all the men shopping desperately at Targets and gas stations at this very moment…

And get yourself the good chocolate. It will be on clearance tomorrow.