From the Basement

May 9, 2010

Reading to Write

I get a lot of ideas for stories when I’m listening to sermons, which is admittedly not the most convenient time. But sometimes, I go to a church where I can pretty much guarantee that the sermon will not hold my attention, and so after worship, I let my mind wander …

This morning, my mind wandered to the land of Mother’s Day and all the rich stories that unfold in such a day. There are all sorts of mothers and not-mothers in this world, and when the sermon began this morning, the ideas started flowing for a short story.

Lately, my brain has been on fire, and it’s exciting. I haven’t been this prolific in months.

This burst of creative energy is due to two things, I think. First, I’m out of school, and I’ve been out long enough to get the “it-feels-like-spring-break” schedule out of my system. I’m itching to work on projects. Second, I’m reading again. That probably sounds strange, but I had a difficult time flipping between my academic reading and my pleasure reading (while they can be synonymous, there is a distinct difference between literary theory and murder mysteries).

During college, I forgot how essential reading was (is) to my writing process. To write, you must first read. And read a lot. At the moment, I’m engrossed in one particular book – Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, who is (in my humble opinion) one of the most talented short story writers living today. Her narratives are subtle and emotionally compelling. But my reasons for reading her work are twofold: I read to enjoy, but I also read to learn. I’m new to the short story craft, and for the last year or so, I’ve been latching onto different short story writers. Lahiri is one; the late Angela Carter is another.

Reading for pleasure and reading to learn often overlap. There are authors I read to learn from, like Lahiri and Carter. And then, frankly, there are authors I read who, while enjoyable, are also great teachers in the school of How Not To. I’m thinking of Grisham, Patterson, Brown. I just picked up Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series this month, and while I enjoy the stories, they don’t intrigue me on a structural level. It’s a lesson in How Not To.

Of course, I don’t write like the authors I emulate, either. I couldn’t write like Lahiri or Carter if I tried. I can only write like me. But that means that I need to spend time with me, reading with me, brainstorming with me, in order to learn to write like me. I can’t go for a month without writing (or pleasure reading, for that matter) and expect to pick up where I left off months ago. This is why writing every day is so wonderful – it helps me find my voice and remember where I left it.

When I’m writing and reading every day, wonderful things happen. Juices flow. Energy sparks. And if I happen to find both my voice and a story buried in a Sunday sermon, well … I’ll take it.

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