As a child, I spent countless hours in my attic bedroom, reading. My mom once told me she’d worried about me when I was a child, because I spent so much time alone in my room. The truth was, I was always lost in a book.
That love of reading has stayed with me through adulthood. Although my current schedule allows little free time, I read whenever I can. Last Christmas, my children gave me a Kindle. I love the look and feel of books, the weight and the smell. I didn’t think I’d like the Kindle, but it’s been a godsend. Instead of lugging 10 – 12 books in my suitcase whenever we travel, paying airline overweight fees, I carry my eReader.
An eclectic reader, I’ll try almost any genre – though, I admit, I have yet to read Steampunk – and I’ll give any book a shot, if the blurb catches my eye. I enjoy books that offer insight into our lives and daily struggles. The short story writer Andre Dubus is a favorite. I memorized the end of ‘A Father’s Story,’ his masterful story about a father and daughter, for a graduate class; years later, I still hear the rhythm and cadence of his language. Jessica Treadway, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her latest collection, Please Come Back To Me, also writes gorgeous, evocative stories.
Susan Straight’s elegant novel A Million Nightingales, another favorite, tells the moving story of a beautiful young slave girl in nineteenth century Louisiana. Sold upriver, Moinette is repeatedly assaulted and must rely on her intelligence to survive. This powerful story stayed with me long after I’d finished reading. All three authors, I feel, are grossly underappreciated.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy is my all-time favorite, the book I’d take to a desert island. This powerful novel transports us to a gray post-apocalyptic world, where humans have been reduced to animal instinct–for inhabitants of this new world, murder and cannibalism are a means of survival. Within this harsh environment, McCarthy gives us a tender, elegantly rendered father and son. This dark story ends with the promise of renewal and hope.
I also adore Stephen King. I love Chick Lit, 40s Noir, and murder mysteries. My guilty pleasure: the Shopaholic series, which my daughter Elizabeth convinced me to read. And I just devour thrillers and police procedurals.
For the last year, my husband and I have divided our time between the East and West Coasts; with all the travelling, my schedule has been hectic. The time crunch limited my reading, so I’ve focused on the amazing work of my indie author friends – Susan Salluce, Rachel Thompson, Amber Scott, Shelli Johnson, Ann Charles, David M. Brown, Michael Burns, Tess Hardwick, Emlyn Chand, Christine Nolfi, Rob Guthrie, Melissa Foster, Cynthia Harrison, and others. Margot Livesey, another brilliant writer, was one of my grad school professors. Her new novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, tops my Kindle list.
Reading as a Writer
In grad school, reading Saint Maybe, I fell in love with Anne Tyler. I read Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Breathing Lessons, The Accidental Tourist, Ladder of Years, and then went backward and read most of her earlier books.
Reading Anne Tyler’s early work inspired me – because I didn’t care for all the books. I never finished If Morning Ever Comes, her first novel. Please don’t get me wrong: Anne Tyler is a brilliant writer. Still, there is a clear progression from her earlier to her later work, when she won the National Book Critic’s Circle Award (The Accidental Tourist) and the Pulitzer Prize (Breathing Lessons).
Throughout school, I’d read only ‘big’ books; on my own, I read top literary novelists, such as Anne Tyler. The books intimidated me. Although I worked – and continue to work – hard at developing my craft, I couldn’t imagine coming close to Anne Tyler or John Updike or Margaret Atwood. Reading If Morning Ever Comes, seeing the early efforts of a master, gave me hope.
Today as a writing teacher, I remind my students that we start somewhere. My shelves are lined with books on craft. My favorites include: On Writing, Stephen King, What If? Ann Bernays and Pamela Painter, Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway, and The Art and Craft of Novel Writing, Oakley Hall. For inspiration, I reread Barbara Ueland’s wonderful book If You Want to Write.
For writers, reading is our most important tool. Reading, we learn to use language and internalize the various aspects of style and voice. Reading also helps us to hone our craft. To solve a problem in my writing, I always turn to a book. I’ll read or reread a passage, analyze the technique the writer used, and incorporate it or, more often, adjust it to suit my story.
Reading entertains me, takes me on a journey, and carries me to new worlds. Reading helps me understand life, gives me an escape, and teaches me to write. I owe my passion for writing to my lifelong habit of reading.
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