Thursday, May 29, 2014

Time to Read

My younger brother started a new job in January of this year, and since then it has taken him from California to Nevada, which is within driving distance (comparatively – this is the West we’re talking about) from where my parents and I live in Idaho.  So once the good weather and some days off from work arrived, thanks to Memorial Day, we set out on a little adventure to visit him. 

Of course, the two and a half days we spent with him were the best part of the trip, and I hope to write about them soon.  Today, however, my thoughts turn to the actual drive.  It takes about 11 hours to get to his home in Nevada from our town in Idaho.  It’s closer as the crow flies, but highways in this part of the country have to take the mountain chains into account, and tend to weave about and add hours so as to avoid high passes.  I don’t particularly care for driving, so my parents took care of most of that, which left me hours of time to sit and do all kinds of things. 

I worked on monogramming a teddy bear I’ll be giving soon as a gift; I gave myself a manicure; I napped; I edited a chapter of House of Mirrors.  I could have probably written and/or edited a lot, but what I did for the majority of my 22 free hours was read. 

These days I mostly do my reading while I’m brushing my teeth in the mornings and evenings.  I take my kindle with me, set it on the vanity and read for fifteen minutes or so while going about my ablutions.  I actually cover a lot of ground reading that way, so I’m happy I multi-task in such a productive way, but even so, there’s a certain feeling of haste and time constraints which prevents me from fully enjoying what I’m reading. 

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a natural reading addict.

I don’t read books so much as devour them if I have the time.  When I was a little girl this voracious appetite for reading wasn’t so much about the story as it was about the actual act of reading, but now that I’m older and trained from four years of college where I had to read fast and analytically, I can read a book at top speed and then ponder it for hours and days after.  This is the style of reading which gives me true enjoyment.  Often when I do get a chance to indulge in it, I wonder around for several hours after finishing the book enveloped in the atmosphere of the story, thinking about it, remembering scenes and lines and characters. 

After a good book, I end up with my head in the clouds!
 That’s why I call my style of reading ‘devouring.’  Once it goes down, my mind starts work on digesting it. 

There are probably as many different styles of reading as there are people, so some may not understand my preferred approach.  For them, perhaps, it is better to read a page or two at a time and then contemplate that small section.  I find for myself, though, that thought I absorb the writer’s theme and ideas that way, I don’t fully appreciate his style.  If I can read the entire book in a sitting or two, on the other hand, the writing itself – choice of words, turn of phrase, striking images – pours into my awareness.  I find myself noticing authorial quirks I’d like to make my own, as well as writing choices that I myself would avoid. 

The two books I read this trip were The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  Both are dark books, but shot through with light like sunbursts through storm clouds.  What fascinated me most, though, was how the first book, while moving and in the end uplifting, was completely lacking in surprise.  I enjoyed it (even cried over it!) but every plot twist from the second half of the book I guessed pages before.  It was an interesting exercise to read a novel and realize that in the midst of its beauty it was still entirely predictable.  I don’t think I would have noticed that quality, though, if I hadn’t read 2/3’s of it in one sitting. 

I learned that to achieve an original plot, I may need to reread an entire novel of my own in one sitting so that I catch predictable story turns.  Further, I might need to plot the whole thing at one sitting, so that I can quiz myself on whether my story is taking the easy way out as far as plot is concerned. 

East of Eden, on the other hand, was astonishing in its perfect originality.  I think there was only one event in the entire story which I expected to happen.  Considering how long it is, that’s pretty admirable!  Of course Steinbeck wrote East of Eden after a long, successful career, whereas Mr. Hosseini started out with The Kite Runner, so the latter can be forgiven for not reaching the same level of artistry as the former, but leaving that matter aside, it was impressive how much the Steinbeck novel surpassed the Hosseini novel. 

Taking it fast suprisingly reveals the details!
Again, I don’t think I would have noticed these qualities as strongly, if I hadn’t read the two books almost all at once, within a few days of each other. 

Sometimes immersion is the best way to learn a language, and that includes the specific language of a good author, I think.  I’ve missed being able to take in an entire story and then ruminate over it at my leisure, while doing other things.  Such an approach ends up being more fruitful to my writing, as well, since while thinking of the stories, I learn new techniques and formulate new themes which may themselves prove the root of my own tales in the future. 

As I said before, though, everyone has their own way of learning from their reading.  I’d love to hear your method, if you have a moment to comment and tell me!

Thursday, May 22, 2014


Recently I came in to work on a Monday morning and found myself alone in the office with a rather recent coworker.  As might be expected, she and I exchanged pleasantries, asking about each other’s weekend and such.  However, since we’re only acquaintances, I didn’t say much about what I’d done but kept my observations totally general.

Then the Fashionista and her mother arrived.  They knew that my weekend had featured a quick road-trip to Seattle to visit a friend, so naturally they asked how my trip was.  I replied that it was very good and enjoyable, but again said little more.  At that point, though, the new coworker suddenly burst out, ‘You didn’t tell me you were taking a trip!’  As you might imagine, the atmosphere at once became rather strained. 

A private person can be the most delightful!
You see, I visited a friend who really values privacy, so I had little intention of telling anyone about the trip.  Even the Fashionista (one of my three closest friends!) only knew was that I was visiting my friend in Seattle and no further details.  I had no intention of discussing my little weekend adventure in the office, so I had to make blundering excuses to my coworker at the risk of treading on her toes (which I probably did, to a certain extent), even though really she had no particular right or need to know what I had done. 

Afterwards, because of the awkwardness involved, I got to thinking about privacy in general.  My coworker, while quite a pleasant addition to the office, doesn’t have much of a natural filter.  She spent one lunch soon after she was hired explaining the gastro-intestinal difficulties which her daughter suffers when she eats gluten.  Everyone at the table left wondering what the poor daughter would think if she knew her ailments had become the topic of lunch conversation! 

Anyway, I realized that there may be at present a certain lack of filter in all of society. 

I remember reading a memoir a few years ago, and while the book was delightful overall, the author felt it necessary to tell us not just that she had a flirtation with a French boy while she was an exchange student, but that she invited him to stay the night at her house-mother’s home, while the woman was out of town.  The story felt tawdry, and while I still enjoy the author’s blog and writing, I have never had quite the same respect for her since reading that far too personal anecdote.

Some things are private, after all, and too much mixing of them into public things becomes awkward and embarrassing. 

I guess I have always felt that if anyone else is involved in an event in my life, I’d better be quite careful about what I say about that event, in case it reflects badly on the other person, or even on myself and how I treated the person.  I do understand the impulse to be transparent and honest, to disclose even inappropriate things about my life in order to make myself accessible to my peers.  However, even if I have the right to say whatever I like about myself, I certainly can’t take the same liberty with other people.  They in turn have their own right to disclose their secrets or keep them, without anyone’s interference.

Since I write a blog (somewhat sporadically!), of course I feel the tension between wanting to reveal my private life and wanting to protect myself and those around me from the strange and wonderful world of the internet.  Perhaps because so many intimate and personal things are available and sometimes for sale on the internet, people have become used to a world without veils.  However, as any good writer knows, what’s not said is sometimes more valuable than what is said.  The omission prompts the curious human mind to imagine further, to fill in details, to create a mental world in which to set the story. 

I think that maintaining a certain privacy has the surprising effect of awakening our thoughts. 

In Lessons from Madame Chic, Jennifer Scott talks about maintaining an ‘air of mystery’ à la Française.  If a blogger sticks to her chosen topic with occasional, discreet personal anecdotes, she seems far more intriguing, far deeper than if she generates an audience by telling all her most intimate secrets. 

Beautiful things are often discreet!
I can’t say I’m immune to the appeal of the ‘confessional’ writer, but I never respect such people, no matter how fascinated I may be by their experiences.  Likewise, I have little respect for novelists who devote too much of their writing to the environment of the story rather than to the plot itself.  If, on the other hand, a novelist sticks to her story and doesn’t throw all her efforts into world-building, I always find her story to be cleaner, crisper and more moving.  Since I’ve been editing the TMI (in a manner of speaking!) out of my novels over the past two years, I’ve become much more aware of the value of saying little rather than much. 

If we parade our private lives in public, if we include every possible detail in our stories, we actually disrespect our acquaintances and our audience.  We assume that the only thing that will interest them is sensationalism; we distrust that they will be able to imagine the world we create without having everything described for them first.  Granted, people (myself included) may be drawn in by the easy entertainment offered, but from my own experience, I’d say we seldom leave it with a good taste in our mouths. 

Privacy and mystery and balanced minimalism actually build a structure in the world and in fiction.  We can imagine what we don’t see, supposing the best of others, imagining happy stories for them, envisioning the world of the storyteller as our world too.