It’s Hard To Write When You’re Reading – On A Summer Reading List

As my old poetry professor Dorianne Luax said, “It’s difficult to read when you’re writing.” And the novelist Seth Kantner told me that he always gets the writer’s voice in his head and has trouble creating anything that’s truly his own – the worst being anything by Annie Proulx because she’s too good.

So as I was writing my new novel this summer, a novel that is nowhere near ready or good in its current draft form, I’ve tried to read varied, talented writers, writers that might inspire me with their voices, imagery, plot, or narrative arcs.

I’ve mostly written this summer, but these are the books that I’ve read and a few reactions:

– After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

– The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

– Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

– The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

– The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

– Ablutions: Notes on a Novel by Patrick deWitt

– Collected Stories – Flannery O’Connor

– Sartoris by William Faulkner

– The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

– Northline by Willy Vlautin

Notes and short rants on these books in no particular order –

First, Willy Vlautin is the real deal. When reviewers say he’s like the secret love child of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, they’re not exaggerating. He’s that good. Gritty, honest, and true. Every character feels real. And his books are full of sad hope.

After You’d Gone is so complex structurally that I wonder how O’Farrell put it together. The story is rich and textured, the characters believable in all their human failings. I loved this book.

On Sartoris: I have to stop reading minor works by major writers. Faulkner in As I Lay Dying is incredible. Faulkner in his minor “potboilers” is atrocious. Sartoris has so many adverbs, it’s like a creative writing class joke assignment.

I’ll admit that I read The Virgin Suicides with (as the editor/agent Betsy Lerner calls) the author’s competitive reading spirit. The Virgin Suicides earned two starred reviews as a debut novel. I wanted to earn two starred reviews for my debut novel. But the comparisons stopped there. Eugenides’ novel was brilliant and scary satire and my novel Graphic the Valley is neither.

While I read The Bell Jar, I remembered reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac. These books should not be read out of their time period because more is expected of contemporary writers than novelists of the middle 20th century. Kerouac’s writing on jazz makes me want to throw up as does Plath’s over-dramatization and championing of a real-life struggle with depression. While Plath’s imagery is still beautiful, she repeats images in a way that would get a modern novelist rejected by a discerning editor. This novel does not stand up to her incredible poetry, or to time.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is three short novels put together, and the second is the best. I wondered if Porter influenced Hemingway’s career. They had to have read each other, and I like to imagine Ernest on a hunting trip, sitting by the fire, leaning back and reading Porter, thinking, “Damn, she’s pretty good.”

I can’t wait for Patrick deWitt’s next novel. If it’s anything like The Sisters Brothers, I’ll read it in a day. Ablutions was dark and short but when the narrator swallows his own rotten tooth, I laughed out loud. deWitt has the rare ability to make his reader laugh at anything.

The Art of Fielding is one of those long first novels that you never want to end. Harbach makes the reader care about each character, each person’s desire, and the addictions that we justify.

Finally, have you ever heard of Flannery O’Connor? Yeah, you have? David Sedaris once wrote that he would love to iron her clothes while she sat and told him stories. I feel the same way.

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New Huff Po Piece On My Summer Reading Program

Just published a piece with the Huffington Post today on my summer reading program.  My wife Jennie and I chose to read minor works by major writers, which really turned out to be the worst works by major writers.  It was an interesting learning experience for me as an emerging novelist.

Huff Po: Click.

A Writer, On His Process (Chuck Wendig)

For me, it’s always good to see where a writer writes or what his or her process is.  I like to think of Andre Dubus III’s walled-in, blank writing room where he writes in total silence.

Or how Stephen King can’t write at an expensive desk in a huge, solitary room, how King wrote Carrie in a noisy hallway while getting bumped by family members passing through.  King later tried to recreate that environment in his expensive Maine house by having a desk in his kids’ rec room, asking them to invite in friends, talk, and watch TV while he worked nearby.

Hemingway wrote three drafts of each short story, always three.  One in Pencil, a typed second draft, and a typed third draft.  That’s not my process, but it still fascinates me.

I love to read how writers write.

And here’s one I came across recently – If you missed it, this is the same writer who wrote about the “25 Lies Writers Tell (And Start To Believe).”

This new one is also from Terribleminds.com:

“Just What The Fuck Do You Do, Anyway?”

On Not Being Good Enough – The Beginning Writer’s Life

This summer, I’m reading minor works by major authors.  So far, I’ve read:

1. Dust Tracks On the Road by Zora Neal Hurston (which was bad, really bad, awful, and exposed her as someone who shouldn’t try to be funny)

2. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway (not a good collection although a few stories are worth reading)

3. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor (incredible writing – she always writes well – although the story makes Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark seem sort of light and uplifting)

4. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (if this is Jane Austen’s worst, I feel sorry for the rest of the world’s writers – I loved this book and it’s brilliant dialogue)

And now, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, an intersting reading experience.  I know what Morrison is doing in this book.  I know her well enough that I can see what she was attempting.  I see why she wrote what I’ll call section one (for those of you who’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean) and why section one had to fail, had to confuse, had to die out and get boring for section two to work.  Morrison was going for great, not just good.  And after all her success – most importantly, this was after Song of Solomon – Morrison wanted something new and astounding.  She wanted to dazzle the writing community with her deepest work.  And she does get to another level with her use of perspective in this novel.  But…

Most readers won’t get there.  They’ll start to get bored with the tedious and trivial fighting between what are truly two boring married characters.  Morrison tries to write out of her comfort zone and it doesn’t work.  But I still admire her attempt.  And, honestly, I can’t write better even within what I understand.  Not yet.  What I want to do and what I’m capable of doing are not equal.  I want these great stories and these first novels that are eloquent and subtle and tragic, but I’m not there.  I need to do more work.  I need to write every day for ten mores years.  And then, after all that, if I do produce a great work, I still might fail after, might fail with my next work.  Like others have before.  Like the writers I’m reading this summer.  But failure is as important as success.

On Writing Advice, Hemingway Killed Himself and F-U-N

This is one of the best writing advice pieces I’ve ever read.  David James Duncan tries to convince the would-be writer not to write.  Makes sense.  Then he tells process.  How to begin:

“My Advice On Writing” – David James Duncan

On Becoming a Better Writer…(Failing Writer #26)

This is a simple reading proposal –

Undergraduate and MFA writing classes teach this adage:  Read the greats to understand greatness.  Read only the best to become the best.

And that makes sense.  So, of course, I did.  And I do.

But I tweaked the idea.

Over the past few years, starting with ten books a summer (and 10 to 20 books throughout the rest of the year), I’ve followed a reading plan that has significantly improved my own fiction writing.  And it goes like this:

Starting with the collective bodies of work of the writers I admired most – and had heard the most about – I began at the beginning.  The writers’ beginnings – their first books.  For example:

Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper.

Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time (his American debut).

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

William Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay.

John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold.

Then I read the writers in chronological order.

And I’m sure many others have done the same.  But my particular tweak on the idea of chronological reading is this:  I reserved the most revered works, the most critically acclaimed, for last:

McCarthy’s Suttree.

Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved.

And when I finally made it to those great works, I had a full understanding of the writers’ capabilities, strengths, weaknesses (in Steinbeck’s case, so many weaknesses that he is now nearly unreadable to me).

But by the time I got to Faulkner and Morrison’s greatest works (interesting because Morrison wrote her graduate thesis on Faulkner), I had become such an ardent fan that, paradoxically, I had almost no desire to read the final work.

I hesitated.  Waited.  In Morrison’s case, six months between Song of Solomon and Beloved.

I both wanted and didn’t want to experience the “greatest work” for the first time.  Those final books had become almost virginal.

I guess this could be considered another obsessive compulsive idea.  And to be honest, I am frustrated with myself when I realize that I’ve started reading a new writer on her second or third book.  I want to stop immediately and go back.

Read the first.  Then the second.  Then the third.

Skip the Pulitzer Prize winner.

And it’s odd with new writers such as Jhumpa Lahiri, who’s first book is clearly her greatest so far.  In that case, do I skip it?  Skip the first?  Go to The Namesake, then back?  Does that still count?

I stress about these things.

But then I remember that I’m trying to improve myself, to learn, to evoke.

Twitter Murders The Novel.

Here’s me selling out a guy named Courtney.  An outlaw friend.

Courtney’s a Twitter fiend.  Pure junky.  He shoots tweets all day long, all evening long, all night long.  He sips a couple tweets just before bed so that he can fall asleep. He takes a few tweets in the kitchen when he thinks no one’s looking.  He lies about how many times he’s tweeted.  He says he doesn’t have a tweeting problem.  He says it’s under control.  He says he can quit at any time.

He probably even tweets while he showers.

But yesterday I read an essay Courtney wrote for a fatherhood blog zine, an essay called “Good Enough Is Good.  Enough.” (Click on it and read)

And this essay is good.  Honest and real.  Developed and engaging.

But unfortunately that’s not Courtney’s normal medium.  One of his Twitter followers even commented on the fatherhood site that she loved hearing him write more than 140 characters.

And that’s the problem.  The Twitter limit. The 140.

Twitter is great for sound bites and one liners.  It’s great for a pic or a link. It’s even great when we need to hear Shaq tell the world his new nickname:

“In Boston…I’m the Big Shamrock”

Thank you, Shaquille O’Neal.  We are all now dumber.

Twitter’s just not worth the time people put into it.  Not worth hours of following. Not worth hours of tweeting.  I know people who literally spend four to six hours a day.  Yep, that’s right.  Four to six hours every single day reading and writing something that should come out of a small bird.

140 characters or fewer.

No depth.  No development.  No revealing dialogue.

Tweeters can’t lose the plot because there was no plot to begin with.

So, as an experiment, I thought I’d drop the first 140 characters of a few great novels and see if there’s a “there” there.  Yep, I just used the word “there” three times because I can, because I’m not limited by character count.

140.

Here’s the opening to Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion:

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range…come look: the hysterical crashing tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga Ri

Hmm…an okay hook.  The Wikonda Auga Ri sounds violent.  But I think it means “River,” not a Ri, and in that case I’m not into water books.

But how about Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, another supposed classic:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of th

I’m guessing “trees” is the next word.  Easy to guess.  Predictable.  So this must not be a very good novel.  A little cliche in fact.  The wind blew in the tops of the trees…blah, blah, blah…

And, finally, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (and you’re not going to believe this one).  Here it is, Morrison Tweeted:

Here is the house.  It is green and white.  It has a red door.  It is very pretty.  Here is the family.  Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane li

Dick and Jane?  Are you kidding me?  Is that for real?  And Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature?  How?  How could she win with a tweet like this?  I mean, honestly, this is one of the worst novels I’ve ever Tweeted.