Reading and Responding are Great, But…

Don’t get me wrong: I think reading, responding, and critiquing the work of others is important. It was important to me as an undergraduate because deconstructing the work of others was a great way to figure out my own narrative weaknesses and begin to find ways to shore up my own shaky bits. That was even more true as I pursued my MFA in Creative Writing; there was no shortage of “even better” things to learn from “even better quality” stories.

Even now–even as a MASTER of the craft, as my diploma tells me I am–when I teach beginning level writers and respond and critique the submissions of private writing clients and other writer friends, I find the work of reading the writing of others with a kind-yet-critical eye to be an opportunity to learn.

Sometimes, being focused on reading, critiquing, and responding to the work of others can leave me feeling dizzy and distracted.

But, man, it can be a little overwhelming. It can also become a convenient excuse to not write.

I met with a couple of local writer friends today. We spend time eating and catching up on personal lives and all sorts of things, but we also spend time asking each other some key questions about our writing: what are we working on, what successes we are having, where are we struggling, creatively. Today, as I was talking about all the non-writing things I’ve been up to the last couple of months, I realized just how much time I’ve spent focused on the work of others, and how little I’ve spent on NEW writing for me.

This isn’t a disaster. I do get value from doing that work. But, it’s also time for me to make sure I’m carving a little more writing time for myself.

There have even been a few days when I’ve chosen to work on responding to others and put my own writing aside. Literally. And that, dear reader, is a warning bell: When the desire (and opportunity) to write is supplanted by something that–while good and valuable–isn’t actually moving your own writing forward, you’ve got a problem.

It may be creative fatigue, it may be the writer’s fear, it may be any number of “reasons” that we use to delay the hard work of writing, but it is most definitely a sign that you’d better take a good look at yourself and weed out whatever creative obstacle you’ve placed in your road.

So that’s where I am, this afternoon: proactively seeking answers in my own creative life. I’m taking a look at where I am, where I wanted to be by now, and where I can establish my next benchmark for moving toward the bigger and better writing life I have in mind.

I hope you are being creative and active in your writing life, but if you aren’t maybe you can join me in a little planning and strategy session to get things back on track. And, as always, let me know if I can help.

Have a great day, and Happy Writing!!


P.S. No. I don’t ACTUALLY consider myself a Master Writer, just because my diploma says I am… 😉

photo credit: shoothead via photopin cc


September Reading List

Here is the run-down of my reading list for September:

  • The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene – Greene’s masterpiece is both hauntingly beautiful and tragic. It was the sort of book I both didn’t want to read and couldn’t put down–at once painful and lovely.
  • Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems, by Yehuda Amichai – A lovely collection that preserves both the original Hebrew and provides gorgeous English translations. So many little nuggets of beautiful language and feeling.
  • Birds of America, stories by Lorrie Moore – Winner of multiple awards and a great entry point into the short story sensibilities of this wonderful writer.
  • What the Zhang Boys Know, a novel in stories, by Clifford Garstang – A newly published “novel in stories” by the author of In an Uncharted Country–a very good collection (read in June) in its own right…look for more about Zhang Boys in tomorrow’s blog post.
  • Spartina, by John Casey – Winner of the National Book Award and an engaging novel.
  • Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton – An aging novelist is approached by a young grad student who offers him some hope that his work will not be forgotten.

It was a fiction-heavy month for me, and in a good way. What a lovely list of books to come flying off my “to read” shelf! If you have read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them in the comments section, below.

As always, you can go back and review the books I’ve read for each of the previous months:

Thanks for reading!

Sept. 5th Already? (The August Reading List)

A long weekend followed by a productive Tuesday and BOOM…here it is, already the 5th of September and I haven’t posted my monthly recap of the books I read for August.

Without further ado (which is a phrase full of its own ado) here’s last months list:

  • Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill – A story of friendship between an aging, former model and an HIV+ office worker, told in that prose-morphs-to-poetry way that Gaitskill is so good at. This is a complex read, and in places I found it dragging a bit, but there is much here to admire about the way Gaitskill uses the language to tell her stories.
  • The Last Superstition, by Edward Fesser – The subtitle, A Refutation of the New Atheism, sums up the book well, though Fesser’s agitative style often overshadows the argument he is putting forth.
  • In the Middle of All This, by Fred Leebron – This novel contemplates one sibling’s response to his sister’s losing battle with cancer. Both heartfelt and funny.
  • The Goodbye Child, by Dominique Traverse Locke – A lovely poetry chapbook. Keep your eyes open for more about this book, and the author.
  • Writing About Your Life, by William Zinsser – Wonderful book, even if you aren’t considering writing a memoir or personal history. Zinsser is a fabulous writer, and the sections of this book demonstrate that brilliantly.
  • The Insanity Defense, by Woody Allen – The collected prose of Woody Allen is worth a read, though I suggest planning to read it in small chunks. Too much at once can become a little tedious.
  • Gulf Coast Literary Journal, Summer/Fall 2012, by various writers – 200+ pages of new fiction and poetry.

As always, feel free to click back through the previous months: January | February | March | April | May | June | July

I’ve Been A Bad, Bad Boy

Yes, I intentionally provided you with a provocative headline in order to get you to read. Haha!

Really though, we are almost half-way through July and I’ve yet to offer a single blog post? Yeesh!

I just wrapped up teaching two six-week writing classes: Legacy Writing and Fiction Writing Basics. I had a blast. I met some great fledgling writers. I really enjoyed teaching the subject matter. But, man, did it zap me, as far as having energy for my own writing.

That changes, right now!

Getting back on the blogging horse, so watch out!!

Thanks to all of you who have been reading, and continue to share with me via comments or email messages. I really appreciate knowing you are out there, reading.

I recently posted on my Facebook page that I would love to know if there are any topics you’d like to see me blog about in the coming weeks. Shannon Howell gave me some good suggestions, but I’m always open to more. So, what topic would you like to see me blog about? Do you have any burning questions for me? (For other kinds of burning, please see a qualified doctor.) Something you’ve wondered? Something you think you’ll completely disagree with me about? Let’s hear it! Drop a comment below, and we’ll see what happens next!

Reading as a Writer

New York City.

We were watching a movie last night, (Man on a Ledge, not that it matters for the purposes of this blog) and it occurred to me that other than a few places I’ve lived, I’ve probably seen more of New York City than I have of any other place on the earth. Movies and TV shows and documentaries and books and books of photos. Boxes of comics books. Maps and satellite images in the time after 9/11 when I was attempting to understand a bit more of the geography. All told, I’ve seen hundreds of hours of exposure to NYC.

Reading as a writer is like learning the ins and outs of an unfamiliar city: it takes a focused, systematic effort to first deconstruct, then apply the knowledge gained.

And I have no real idea how New York works.

I know there are boroughs, but I don’t have a clue how they relate to each other. I don’t know where any of the main streets are compared to other main streets. I can’t comprehend (without calling on my Google Lifeline) where the Met is in relation to Yankee Stadium compared to the location of the Empire State Building. I know there is a complicated transit system, and it might as well be the arterial system of the fetal pig we dissected in High School. Can someone walk from Times Square to Central Park?

All of the exposure I’ve had to New York, and I really know very, very little. I have the big picture: The city that never sleeps, the crowds, the attitudes, postage-stamp-sized apartments, traffic, noise, excitement, and the gritty reality of most residents contrasted with the decadence and opulence of the privileged elite.

But plop me down anywhere in the city, and I’ll quickly be relying on the good graces of some native (or, at least, resident) to find my way around.

What occurred to me, as I considered my relationship with a place I’ve never visited, was this is an analogy for the difference between reading for pleasure and reading as a writer.

I’ve been a casual observer of New York. It has served my purposes to just know the basic details of the city. I’ve never had to really study a map or consult the chart of transit line spaghetti to figure out how to get where I need to be by the time I need to be there.

And that is how we often read books. We get the big picture. We enjoy it, or not. We don’t lay the story in front of us like a map and try to understand how we could, if necessary, get from that opening scene with the house on fire to that final scene where the arsonist is frozen to death.

But, when we read as a writer, we dig in deeper. We try to figure out how the dialogue helps not only flesh out the characters, but builds tension. We attempt to figure out all the places where the author gave us hints about the protagonist’s spouse’s true nature, we pick apart images and scenes looking for foreshadowing and theme. We deconstruct the book so that we can better understand how this successful author accomplished her work, and hopefully find ways to improve our own writing.

Writing, Rather Than Reading

Next week, I begin teaching two 6-week classes on writing and as I prepare for the classes, I’ve been reviewing several text books and resources about writing.

One of the books I’ve spent a lot of time with is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. I’ve been re-reading sections of this book, first introduced to me in 1994 or so. (My copy is the 3rd Edition…I think she’s on #5 or #6 by now.)

Reading is an essential part of every writer’s life, but we live for those times when the work of others takes a back seat to our own fictional world.

Burroway’s book is a classic text for fiction writing. There are so many bits of wisdom that have become part of my everyday language for discussing fiction writing.

What I noticed today, though, was how many of the example stories I hadn’t read. As with most comprehensive fiction writing texts, Burroway includes a selection of short stories to complement her discourse on the craft of fiction story-telling. I remember reading several of the stories Burroway includes, back in my undergrad days, but as I look back through the book, now, I see several stories that catch my eye that I never read.

And it hit me.

At the time, I was a newby undergrad writer, with more stories on my plate than I knew what to do with. I had to actually choose which story I would turn in when it was my turn to go under the workshop knife, not to mention a novel I was writing well before I had any idea what it really takes to craft a novel.

In other words, I had plenty of writing on my mind and I didn’t read as much, right then. I read the assigned readings, but then went right back to writing.

This happened to me again in the first half of May. When I was in Wyoming at the Brush Creek Foundation artist residency, I had several books with me. I thought I would read a lot during the two-weeks I was there. Turns out, I didn’t. I wrote a lot, but every time I tried to read, my mind wandered. Over the entire two weeks, I think I only read about 200 pages or so. For me, that’s a slow pace, indeed.

I never stop reading, but it is a great feeling to be so lost in the world of my own fiction that other books are, temporarily, not so interesting. Reading is great. So is writing pages and pages of my own story.

April Reading List

Here’s what I read this month:

  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins – Yep. I gave in. The book was better than the movie, but I liked the movie pretty well. No. It isn’t a high-level, hyper-literary book. It doesn’t have to be. The plot is straightforward, but interesting. The characters are sympathetic. The world of the novel is full of intrigue. I’ll be reading the other two books of the trilogy in the coming months. (I promised I’d pace myself, not get too wrapped up in the Hunger Games world.)
  • A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle – I bought the 50th anniversary, special edition of the book, and re-read this childhood classic. I wrote a bit about the importance of this book, a few weeks ago.
  • The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann – This is another classic. Nearly 1,000 pages of the story of a young German who goes to spend three weeks visiting a cousin who is living in a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Alps and finds out he, too, must make a long-term stay of his own. The “Everyman’s Library” version of the book features the  John E. Woods translation, considered to be the superior version of Mann’s novel.
  • Cataclysm Baby, by Matt Bell – Twenty-six flash fiction stories, one named for each letter of the alphabet in the format of a baby name book, each story telling the post-apocalyptic tale of a world that can’t be our own, unless of course it one day becomes our own.
  • You, One a Good Day, by Aletha Black – Only one story from One Story this month. You, On a Good Day is a second person, short fiction piece (rare, indeed) about what you would, or wouldn’t, do, to prove that you are a good person, on a good day, in contrast to those things the narrator might do in her own weakness.
  • FictionQuarterly – Four-hundred pages of new short stories.
  • Poets & Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle both had new issues that came out in the second half of April. Be sure to look for them.

You can find the reading list for the first quarter of 2012 at these links: January, February, and March.