From the Basement

August 10, 2010

Free Indeed: Writing & Reading Outside of Academia

Today, it struck me how different my summer would have been had I been accepted to grad school, particularly in terms of reading. In the eager anticipation of entering a doctoral program, I had prepared a list of “must read” books – notable 19th century novels, notable theorists. A small sampling:

Nathaniel Hawthorne – Blithedale Romance

George Eliot – Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss

Matthew Arnold – Culture and Anarchy

Catherine Gallagher – Nobody’s Story

Judith Butler – Gender Trouble

Since grad school didn’t work out, I’ve been reading very different sorts of books – the sort that doesn’t secure cultural capitol in academia. Genre fiction, memoir, Christian living. Desiring God and Women Food and God were two of the best reads this summer, and I just finished Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress (I didn’t realize Janzen was an English professor until I started reading). I’ve been traipsing around Egypt with Amelia Peabody and indulging in the romantic comedies of Jennifer Crusie, whose titles (Welcome to Temptation, Faking It) are apt to send the literati into seizures. The disappointment of the summer was James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series – I made it through four books before tiring of the formula.

The closest I’ve come to grad school reading material is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and maybe The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. And I’m almost done reading the short stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies, but I don’t know if that counts since I would read her stuff even if she hadn’t won the Pulitzer. She and Atwood are quite possibly the only literary writers I enjoy – reading Toni Morrison is like pulling teeth and I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter of a Salman Rushdie novel, sorry.

All this has me wondering: exactly why did I want to go to grad school? I’m terrific at forcing myself to read books I don’t want to, mainly because it feeds my English Major Ego – I could force down Native Son again if my professors told me to. It’s about being able to say you’ve read this novel or that novel or this theory or that theory…

The question arises: what’s the point? I might pick up one of the aforementioned novels, because I really am interested in reading more 19th century work, but they’re obviously not my priority or I would have read them already.

Here’s the thing: if you give me the option between writing a novel and studying a novel, I’d rather write a novel. My English major was an external result of a deep love and appreciation for the power of a good story. I think literature is of critical importance in a society, mainly because good stories are absolutely critical to the nourishment of the human spirit.

My reading this summer has been the sort that nourishes that spirit, or at least mine. It’s encouraging, revelatory, instructive, hopeful. In its own way, it teaches. (It also teaches you how contemporary novels are structured, because I’m sorry, but Middlemarch and Pamela are utterly useless when it comes to learning how to write a novel.)

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a close friend. We were talking about how God had leveled our plans and expectations. My friend had thought she wanted to pursue teaching or higher education in public policy, when what she really loves is being on the ground, working with the people, loving the people. For me, I’d thought I wanted a doctorate in literature so I could teach about other people’s stories, when what I really love is writing my own stories. God took away the chaff and gave us the wheat, the small, concentrated portion that had been driving us the whole time.

God’s taken us both to a place where our real passion is evidenced. She’s working on the ground with people, and I’m writing a novel. Unemployed and living at home, but writing! I can read whatever I want to, and no one is going to judge me. I can write whatever I want to, and who cares if people judge me? My goal is to write a good story, imperfectly told, that is emotionally honest and accessible.

That’s what I want. I don’t need to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri; I’m content to learn from her. I don’t need a Pulitzer or a Booker or to be “literary” or to please my professors or even to please my friends… I need to tell the best story I can, one that is honest and emotional, that demonstrates the value of the human spirit. A friend recently texted me these words of encouragement: “You have something to share with the world that no one else does. God has words for you to communicate – not even necessarily sacred writing – but stories.”

And who knows? Maybe someday I will want to read Middlemarch and Pamela, and maybe I’ll want to pursue a doctorate… just not right now. Not while I’m writing, gloriously writing. For the first time in years, I feel free.

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August 1, 2010

Reconnecting with Old Friends (a.k.a. Books)

The last few days have been a bit discouraging on the writing front. So today, I eschewed working on the novel in favor of reconnecting with old friends. I plowed through The Serpent on the Crown, one of the later installments in the Amelia Peabody series, and honest to goodness, it does not seem an overstatement to say it was good for the soul. It was such a pleasure to hang out with characters I’ve known since my early teen years, to laugh and (almost) cry, to enjoy a good mystery, to just enjoy reading again.

So I’m curious – what books do you pick up when in need of restoration? Which old friends do you like to visit? What stories make you forget that you’re reading?

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