Monday, November 21, 2011

I want to write better, so I read more.

When asked for writing tips, Chuck Palahniuk advises: write the book you want to read. Sounds straight forward enough. But for those of us (like me), who enjoy literary fiction typically shortlisted for awards, this advice has the power to paralyze.

But, now heard, I knew this was advice I would be incapable of brushing aside. So, I’ve been mulling it over. And it occurred to me: now that I’m falling quite comfortably into my writing routine (an hour or so before bed, an hour or so at sunrise) and meeting my “other job” commitments from 8:30-6:30, I am spending virtually all of my time in front of one computer or another.

To make this schedule possible, something had to give. The stunned and helpless victim? My bookshelf.

Some people need a minimum balance in their bank account to feel calm…me? I need at least 10 unread books on my shelf. Otherwise anxiety kicks in. When I stood before her (er, my bookshelf) the other day, there they were: the same 10 unread books that were there three weeks ago. My newly empowered inner writer had a few choice words for them: I don’t have time for you, sweet alluring titles. I’m busy upstairs trying to write a book I want to read.

It was then I had to stop her. If I am really to take Chuck’s advice to heart, then reading needs to be as much a part of my writing routine as, well, writing. As I’m reading, as I'm losing myself in the pages, I need to be asking myself: what sentences stop me dead in my reading tracks? And why do they jolt me so?

So, I picked up 2 of the 10 on the shelf: Irma Voth and The History of Love. And, of course, I found myself jolted on virtually every page. These are two talented authors, and great books. You land upon sentences like these, and you can’t help but reflect on your own life:

“That to truly know happiness is to know the fleeting nature of everything, joy, pain, safety, and happiness itself.” (Irma Voth by Miriam Toews)

“She [Alma] was gone, and all that was left was the space where you’d grown around her…for a long time, it remained hollow. Years, maybe. And when at last it was filled again, you knew the new love you felt for a woman would have been impossible without Alma. If it weren’t for her, there would never have been an empty space, or the need to fill it.” (History of Love by Nicole Krauss)

I read these sentences (and, honestly, anything Miriam Toews writes), and I feel both inspired and hopeless. Inspired because I am reminded of the power of words; hopeless because, really, can my words ever find such strength?

I choose to feel inspired. So, now, when I’m sitting in front of the screen, it is these sentences that I strive to create. I may never get there, but with the greatest of bars set, I hope I’ll create the very best I am capable of.

So, which authors set the bar for you?

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