Tag Archives: reading

A Complicated Confession

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Day 4?  I’m not sure anymore.  After a long apres-lunch walk by the lake, I was anxious to hear the afternoon speakers – David Bezmozgis, Miriam Toews, and a senior editor from Knopf Random House.

Bezmozgis, writer of both short stories and novel, talked about the different processes he uses to write in both worlds.  It was interesting to hear now that he’s written a novel he has a hard time writing short stories. One would think that after running the marathon, a sprint would be a piece of cake.  Not so for him.  I wonder if this is true for others?

Miriam Toews…Funny thing about Ms Toews.  Only yesterday, I spoke rather strongly about her book, A Complicated Kindness to one of my classmates. Not in a particularly good way.

Note: I am a Banshee of very little brain sometimes and in my defense, I have evolved as a reader since I was given that particular book.  Before, I was a reader of habit.  In literary terms, I was stuck in a rut for…hmmm…let’s see…decades.  I read historical fiction, chick lit, the occasional mystery…are you snoring yet?  Yeah, it was bad. I read books that were the literary equivalent of mac and cheese – pure comfort food.

When I began to get serious about writing, I joined a book club. I didn’t like the people in my club or the books they read so that didn’t last. I was there for the wine, the nibblies, and the evening away from my kids.

However, it was there that I was exposed to a little book called Blindness, which ironically, was a real eye-opener for me.  It was horrible, violent, disturbing, and somehow irresistible.  Having gotten through that book, I of course said yes when a young woman in my office recommended A Complicated Kindness.

Maybe it was too soon.  Maybe I hadn’t dug myself far enough out of my literary rut to appreciate the story,its dark humour and its offbeat voice.  As I read it, gritting my teeth, I wondered:  am I just too old to get this story, this protagonist?  I finished it, tossed it on the floor beside my bed, and thought grim, unflattering things about the whole matter.

There are painful issues brought up and confronted in this novel – a mother who disappears, a father who cannot cope and becomes intractably sad, a teenage girl left to basically fend for herself.  My former stuck-in-a-rut self loathed reading about sad things, complicated things (especially if they dealt with children).  It wasn’t the book, it was me.

Today the Writer’s Workshop was lucky enough to have Miriam Toews give a talk on “Mining the Family in Literature.” After listening to her speech, I found the woman I had not recommended the book to and said, “Get thee to a bookstore and buy that book.  Now.”  In the 45 minutes that the author spoke about her background, the importance of an authentic voice, her family, the Mennonite community she was raised in, I got it.  I got the whole book in a flash of delayed insight.  Damn, I’m slow.

Not everyone has the opportunity hear an author talk about their work in person; however, if you do, leap at the chance (don’t leap on authors – they are a skittish species.  Dust will fly and your book will remain unsigned).  Ms. Toews was refreshing (she did a mock interview with herself instead of giving a boring speech), funny, and all-round lovely.  Hearing her speak about her work changed my view of it or, at least made me willing to give it another chance.

The senior editor at Knopf Random House had many insightful things to say, not the least of which was:  great writing breaks rules.  Light bulbs could be heard popping on in brains all around me.

 

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In Praise of…Reading

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Several things brought me to this post:

  • The path to the hair colour aisle at the grocery store
  • Shakespeare
  • My novel in progress
  • Highbrow literary pursuits

Don’t worry, even those who love me and know me well have a hard time following the trails in my brain…

Item #1:  Yesterday,walking past the racks of magazines and “supermarket novels” in order to get to my box of Natural Instincts Medium Brown (aka Espresso) hair colouring, I wondered if my novels would ever displayed with Road & Track on one side and Mickey Mouse gift wrap on the other.  As I walked past the Clive Cussler paperbacks, the Jodi Picoult novels, and others whose names I didn’t immediately recognize, I wondered if I would mind if my book was sold in a supermarket…

And, then I thought about the fact that Jodi’s and Clive’s kids probably have had top-notch university educations, braces paid for in cash, and at least two vacations a year in lovely, tropical locations.  Nope.  I wouldn’t mind at all.

  I don’t pretend to be aspiring for prizes such as the Booker, Giller, Pulitzer, Oprah Book Club (if it even exists anymore).  On the other hand, I don’t want to be known as a overtly commercial book-churning roboton.  I aspire to write engaging and readable stories – well written, of course – something I’d like to read. I aspire to…dare I say it… entertain.  I do not aspire to have readers yanking at their hair trying to figure out the mystical meaning of the novel’s deeply buried sub-plots.  Relax, read, enjoy.

Item #2: Shakespeare has come up a fair amount in our household recently.  Sunday night we watched the movie “Anonymous,” which, for any die-hard Shakespeare fan, is a bit unsettling.  Surely it doesn’t really matter whether Shakespeare penned all of those great literary works or not – what matters is there are great literary works out there that should still be read, explored, and enjoyed. My daughter is about to embark on her very first Shakespeare experience with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She, like so many other students her age, is completely intimidated by the very name Shakespeare. 

But, if you believe popular culture’s portrayal of him, he was  a hard-working guy who was as confounded by the fickleness of muses as any other writer can be.  He struggled no doubt but also enjoyed great commercial success.  As both actor and writer, he lived to entertain.  Or, somebody using his name did, anyway.

Item #3:  The Novel is humming right along…except when I allow myself to worry that I’m not going to win a Booker, Giller or be the next Shakespeare.   I worry that I will worry myself right out of writing it.  Naturally, I tell myself to stop worrying and write it down – leave off the concerns until later.

Item #4:  I have had people suggest books to me that are uber-literary, and on the short list for this prize or that…nine times out of ten I give up after a few chapters.  Like a lot of people,  by the time I settle down to read, it’s late at night.  I’ve been writing and worrying over words all day.  After that, I tend to my family.  At bedtime, I don’t want to work too hard.  My taste in books runs to the witty, sharp, fast-moving, humourous (but not necessarily light).  I don’t do plodding, laborious, or deeply insightful; I hate books that have me asking “WTF?” at the end. 

I like to emerge from one of life’s greatest pastimes sated, happy (although sorry the book ended).  I stretch like a cat, yawn, and say, “Wow, great book!”  It is my greatest wish that someone emerges from their reading cocoon someday happy and sated after reading one of my books.  Guess I’d better get on with writing it…

Writing & Crying

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I read something interesting the other day about writing that connects emotionally with readers.  Because of my menopause brain I can’t remember where I read it, who wrote it, or what it said specifically (helpful, I know) but the gist of it was if a writer doesn’t have an emotional connection to what they are writing, readers likely won’t either.  Or, something like that.

Although I lost all the details, the general tenor of the article resonated with me.  I am sometimes moved to tears when I write.  Something about a turn of phrase, a subject matter, or the response of a character strikes an emotional chord in me.  The article said this is a good thing.  I’d always thought I was just overly emotional, irrational, and/or hungry when it happened to me.

The emotional connection cannot be forced- the result can be melodramatic, sappy drivel; the readers will see through this and be moved only to throw the book across the room or into the trash,which is not the hoped-for response.  I’m not saying tears must flow in order to write heartfelt prose but if they do, don’t try to stem them.  Grab a Kleenex and let the river run.  If you are tempted to stop and analyze “Why is this making me cry?”  – don’t overthink it – just go with it.

Of course, if you’re writing a comedy, tears might be a bad sign unless they are the result of laughing very hard. Generally speaking, you know what you’re writing about and if your emotional responses to it are appropriate.  The only time this isn’t true is if you think your writing is crap.  Writers are notoriously hard on themselves and thus not capable of rational judgment.  If your second pair of eyes turns green and runs for the toilet, then perhaps it is crap.  If they put the manuscript down, dab their eyes and heave a big sigh, chances are you’re onto something good.  And real.   Keep it and pass the Kleenex. 

 

Read to Me

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As the grim spectre of library closures and other insane budget-wacking measures hover over our city like so many Dementors (dreamt up by our illiterate Mayor and a city council with no…um…backbone), I’ve been thinking a lot about books.  Were it not for my love of reading books, I surely might not have embarked on any attempt to write them.

Books have always been an integral part of my life.  My mother, when she wasn’t needlepointing, feeding our menagerie, or enjoying a bit o vodka, could be found with a cigarette in one hand (bad) and a book in the other (good).  We were fortunate enough to have an entire room (albeit small) in our house lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves.  I dream of having such a room in my house some day.  Oh, sorry Mayor Ford: b-o-o-k, bound paper with printed words, some big, some small.  We’ll start you out with small words and lots of pictures.

I don’t recall my mother actually reading to me; instead there were weekly trips to our local library.  I was deposited in the children’s section while my mother went upstairs to the grown-up floor.  I spent a lot of time in the stacks of various libraries all over Maryland, beginning with the Falls Road branch in Bethesda.  There was no limit on the number of books I could check out.  A particular favourite:  The Tomten by Astrid Lindgren.  God, how I loved that book (it was one of the first books I read to my daughter).

Books encouraged me to write as well.  When I was ten my sister gave me Little Women for Christmas.  That book almost caused me to miss Christmas dinner.  From that very day, I wanted to be a writer.   Reading fired my curiosity about people, places, and things far outside my little suburban Washington, DC world.  Women authors from earlier times fascinated me because the odds against them were staggering.  The fact that the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson to name a few penned works that are still read today is nothing short of a miracle.  These gifted, determined women lit the path for the rest of us.

My husband’s family moved constantly; often his only companions in a new home (Africa, Korea) were his books.  Even though he reads at a snail’s pace compared to me, he loves to read – something instilled in him by his parents.  We are proud to say that both our children are accomplished, avid readers (and writers!) even in this day of electronics addiction.  When they were little, we read to them and made sure there were books at hand.  By the time they were toddlers, they were at the library, with me following them around saying “Shhhh” the whole time.  Nonetheless, they were exposed to lots of books early.

In these dodgy economic times, we’ve had to employ some austerity measures of our own and the library has been a godsend. My kids can blast through a book in a day; as much as I love supporting our local bookstores, I also love food and a roof over my head.  Bookstores can be expensive; checking out a book is not (although returning it late can be).

When I bitch and moan about our libraries I feel guilty.  I hate waiting; if there’s a book I want, give it to me NOW.  I get frustrated when care is not taken in the stacks – books out of order, computers that say the branch has five copies of something but they don’t have any, a travel “section” with three books about Costa Rica dating from the 1980’s, librarians who don’t care…I care very deeply about my local libraries.  I want them to be well-stocked, well-organized, and well-used.  They usually score one out of three: our local libraries are always teeming with people.

What city council and our Mayor have to realize is that libraries are an integral part of any healthy community.  Community is a very important word. The city of Toronto is NOT just a bunch of buildings strung together by highways.  Libraries  provide not only an affordable alternative to book stores but they play host to a wide range of community events – seminars, play n read groups for little ones, community meetings, readings, etc.  If nothing else, they provide a safe haven for children after school (as opposed to having them wander the streets).

Save our Libraries, Mayor Ford and maybe (just maybe) Santa will bring you a Dr. Seuss book for Christmas.

Reading Day

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I’ve been a very selfish banshee of late.  I’ve sat here at my laptop, preening and going on about me, ad nauseum.  I’m a wee bit sick of me.    No doubt my “friends” on Facebook are sick of me as well, what with the constant blog links and all…

So today, I vowed that I would get my head out of my own derriere and go exploring.  Today I am going to explore the other hard-working bloggers out there who are talented,are dedicated to their craft and who have so much to say on a variety of topics.  I might only have time to explore the blogs about writing but at least it’s a start.  Already, I’ve read so much that I feel full – like after a good meal.

Of course, some posts are not to my taste; some I don’t “get.”  But that’s ok.  I don’t have to like them all and I don’t have to get them all.  That’s not the point.  The point is the exploration.  Titles and photos catch my eye and pique my curiosity.  If I like a post, I’m sure to let the blogger know.

Let’s be honest: we love to be read.  We love to know that someone out there has taken the time.  There doesn’t have to be universal agreement, they don’t have to comment (although there’s nothing like a friendly or encouraging word to brighten my day).

I think every Friday will be Reading Day.  To loosely paraphrase an Annie Proulx quote that I just read on someone else’s blog, Reading is the best way to learn how to write.  Forgive me, Annie if I’ve not gotten it quite right…

Reading is also the best way to open your mind and get your head out of your own….well, you know.

Happy Friday, bloggers!!