Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Reading and Writing

I am a facile writer – by that I mean I am comfortable writing a wide range of documents and can generally write pretty quickly. Lately, at work, I’ve been looking to make every word count, putting myself on a word diet as it were. That kind of work writing is always with purpose – I know where I want to go when I sit down to write. It’s about writing the most compelling grant proposal (show me the money!), the strongest letter of support, the best analysis of a piece of legislation, the most strategic memo. It’s not always easy to write with purpose but I always manage to get it done.

I am also an omnivorous reader. It started in the first grade when I read my way through those laminated cards that we had instead of primers. Although I’ve slowed down a bit – too much else to occupy me (work, friends, newspapers, magazines, television), there is nothing I treasure more than a finely written book. I look forward to traveling because that is when I get most of my reading done. And, I adore my kindle because now I can carry a small library with me in less space than a single book. Gone are the days of hauling 2-3 books everywhere because “I just am not 100% sure what I want to read.” The one thing that has changed over time is that I won’t finish a book if I don’t like it. I think that is a function of having less time and wanting that time to be enjoyable.

This week, I read substantially all of this blog with a critical eye. I found that I liked my writing (always a good start). An inveterate editor (never wrote a sentence I couldn’t rewrite the next minute), I saw some spots that could use some editing and some phrasing and alliteration that I fell in love with all over again. All in all, I was pleased with what I’ve written.

I did notice that I tend to wander – one week it might be a travel story and the next it is a eulogy that was not delivered. There are some things in here where I poke fun at myself and some stories that I obviously needed to tell. Some of the writing is strong and powerful and some is just me riffing on life. In some posts, I’ve dug really deep, bared my soul as it were, and in others I’ve been a little coy – leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. What is clear though is that it is my story unfolding. I like that. I like me.

Before stopping to read my own writing, I had been mulling over writing and the journey that it takes one on. Enough started out to be a road map for the future – so that my nieces and nephews would not wonder what to do with my mortal remains once I depart this earth. Morbid, I know, but it does seem like they should know what I want so they are not left to guess. After the first paragraph though, it was as if I had sat down with an entirely different purpose in mind. I was literally swept away by a story that somewhere inside of me I had been burning to tell. Over time, I had told bits and pieces of both the story and the story within the story. But they were just that, bits and pieces. A listener would be hard-pressed to figure out how those bits and pieces are a part of the fabric of my life. As would I.

There are other pieces of both stories that I will likely flesh out over time. Cruel things said and battles over choices made and unmade. Simply put, the story that poured out of me that night did not require that sinew on the bone, it just required that I honor a friend and her memory in a way that I hadn’t done before. Cruelty and unkindness could come later – a coda to this first piece about friendships and hardships.

I think that is the difference between the writing I’ve been doing here and the writing I do in my work. This writing is a journey and like a journey it has little twists and turns and unexpected detours. It’s like going to bed with the next day planned down to the last minute. And the next morning comes and it’s about the coffee, the paper, a good book – and you know, spending a day in my pajamas is AOK.

So, where do writing and reading intersect? Perhaps in that nascent desire to write a novel – but not just to write the novel but to have people WANT to read the novel. Not necessarily because I desire fame or fortune, although those would certainly be a nice outcome! More because I’d want to be able to transport others in the ways in which I’ve been transported. Spending hours with Calvino, Tolkien, Baum, Shakespeare, Dickens, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Austen, Wharton, Alcott, King (Stephen). It’s an eclectic list this author list and by no means is it complete – just a flavor of the people who have transported me to a different place, a different time, a different way of thinking and being.

All that reading leads to a bit of a road block in terms of this novel writing idea. Each time the synapses start to fire and I begin to think I’ve got it in terms of a novel idea, I pick up a book or read a review and think to myself “someone has been there and done that. I can’t possibly do it better.” That’s not just a writer’s block – that is like arriving at the mouth of a tunnel only to find that it is buried under 10 feet of rock slide and you’ll be climbing the mountain instead of driving through it. A not insurmountable challenge but a challenge none-the-less.

As I write this, I am sitting in the first class cabin of a Delta flight from St. Louis to New York. The upgrade started with a simple request to see if there were any upgrades for purchase and ended here in the first row of the plane, upgraded for free at the last minute on a day that most flights were delayed. I wonder if there is a story – and not a hijacking or terrorist story – in the lives of my fellow flyers. The pilot across the way is deadheading home – he looks exhausted and is sleeping peacefully with his headset on. Is he going home to a bowl of soup and ESPN? To a partner? To a family? Or is NYC just an overnight stop and he’s scheduled to fly out first thing tomorrow morning.

The man behind him gazes wistfully out the window. Did he lose someone today or is he just mulling over a meeting that perhaps did not go as well. My colleagues from the conference we just attended are back there somewhere – flying home to first babies and teenage children who are home alone (the teenagers not the babies).

All these passengers have a story to be told – and not the crazy stories of the passengers from Lost but rather the stories of ordinary people leading extraordinary lives. People making everyday choices as they make their way through the day. As we begin our descent through the clouds and my ears start to itch and pop, I can only wonder. Would I want to read that novel? Would you?


  1. Your post puts me in mind of a novel by Geoff Ryman. I can't remember the title, but I think it's a number - however the concept should make it easy enough to find. All the characters are passengers on a Tube train, and each chapter delves into their individual stories. Of course, although none of them are taking any notice of each other, some are connected in curious ways.
    Don't let this put you off writing yours, though!
    And yes, writing for a day job is nothing like writing just for the satisfaction of playing with words and seeing where they take you.

  2. @dirtywhitecandy: i will have to get that book -- sounds interesting. and continue to ruminate upon whether i have a novel in me. in the meantime, the blogging is satisfying my writing desire.