Monday, January 18, 2010

Reading to write: Help in creating portable magic

As a writer, I read.

Or, maybe it should be: as a reader, I write. But, I think it’s the first.

Or maybe it’s that pesky chicken-and-the-egg thing.

Either way, since I hit double digits and discovered my mother’s collection of Agatha Christie books and her stash of classics including Twain and Hemingway (many of which I still own), I’ve been reading. I always have a book in progress.

I’ve rarely tested the premise that I cannot go with sleep without reading at least a few pages, my book held open by my hand and cradled in my arm. I am ready to go wherever that book is going, for at least a while. Reading, preferably fiction, is the surest way I know to control a “thinking problem,” that worrisome can-get-it-off-your-mind situation or problem that keeps us up at night.

As a reader, I often begin conversations with my other reader friends (we know who each other are) with, “what are you reading?” We exchange book titles and authors. We make quick reviews to each other; sometimes we lend or borrow books before the visit is over – if my latest are not from the Hoover Library, which they often are.

I cannot imagine myself any other way than as a reader.

But, it is only since I actively began my own first effort at fiction writing, that I totally understand the connection between reading and writing.

Before starting the first draft of Mojo Jones and the Black Cat Bone, my first fiction effort and currently 68,855 words in a fiction story set in the Alabama Black Belt, I read for the second and third time, On Writing by Stephen King. King is one of my favorite authors and the only one I know of who took the time to write about the craft of writing, about language and the serious, hard mining work of writing fiction.

“If you want to be writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut,” King begins in the first chapter of the second half of On Writing, where he gives the would-be writers among his Constant Readers (that’s what he calls us, his loyal readers) advice about how to write fiction if they are prepared to take it seriously.

For writers, he says, “the real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page,” King writes. “The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.”

That’s what I’m talking about.

Since I’ve been in active fiction-writing mode, I look at my book choices differently. I want to read Southern fiction, always a favorite but doubly so now that I am trying to create my own. I want to read books with supernatural and magical underpinnings because I have to convince my potential constant readers of the possibility of seeing things beyond this world. I want to read character-driven books because I hope mine is such a book that makes readers care about and recognize themselves and others in the characters.

So, I will now answer my own question: What are you reading?

Right now, my bookmark is in River of Hidden Dreams by Connie May Fowler, which I found on the Southern Voices shelf at the Hoover Library. Set in Florida and following the lives of three women, River of Hidden Dreams finds me adding notes to my by-the-bed notepad and re-reading sentences because they are so well-written and say so much.

Before that, I finished King’s latest, Under the Dome, a requested Christmas gift from my husband. A 1,072-page delight that I did not want to end, Under the Dome is another of King’s character-filled tomes well built on the premise of putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations (an unexplained and unpenetrable dome seals a town in Maine) and letting the characters drive the story and figure a way out.

In no particular order, here are other books recently completed as part of my keeping Stephen King’s commandment to read a lot, write a lot:

South of Broad, the newest by Pat Conroy, a dean of Southern, character-central authors.

The Devil’s Punchbowl, the newest by Greg Iles, the Natchez, Miss. author who writes fast-paced thrillers, again about ordinary folks who get in legal and moral dilemmas.

• The newest by Larry McMurtry, another favorite author. Like King, I read most everything McMurtry writes. This was Rhino Ranch, the fifth in the series about Duane Moore set in Thalia, Texas. The series began with The Last Picture Show.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, the bestseller set in a 1960s Jackson, Miss. which follows black maids and the white women they work for. Southern, with great characters, The Help’s dialogue and dialect appealed to the author-in-training in me.

• All the books I can find by William Cobb, a retired Montevallo professor who writes beautifully of the Alabama Black Belt, its history and mysteries.

• Any and all by Larry Brown, the late north Mississippi firefrighter-turned-author who wrote with uncensored grit about how folks really are.

I still read for pleasure, without a doubt, but reading with writing in mind, as King taught me in On Writing, adds to the immediacy, purpose and joy. Plus, I have an excuse now to curl up with a book. It’s research!

“Books are uniquely portable magic,” King writes, as he begins his simple set of directions to would-be fiction writers which starts with read a lot and write a lot. He also tells us to have a toolbox full of vocabulary and grammar, some talent and an abundance of want-to. But mostly, my mentor tells me to make writing a priority and to close the door and write. And, he says, never come lightly to the blank page.

King writes at least 2,000 words a day every day of the year. (He said he told a reporter that he writes every day but Christmas, but he was fibbing to have something to say.) He usually dates his books. Under the Dome, all 1,000-plus pages of it, was written between Nov. 22, 2007 and March 14, 2009 based on an idea he originally had back in 1976. Dang!

I may never reach that level of dedication. However, I’ve had multiple weeks when I met my writing goals every weekday. And, I believe I have not and will not come lightly to the blank page.

Life interrupts; so does the job search, the weekly blog posting, all things cyber and non-cyber and, well, more life.

But -- no worries -- I am thrilled and well-read as I sit here, at my writing place, about the close the door and continue to tell the truth inside made-up stories, and hopefully, create some portable magic.

Picture of the day:

My brother Charlie and I,
sometime in the early 1960s,
pose with our books and bookcase.

Song of the Day:
When I Paint My Masterpiece, Bob Dylan

"Train wheels runnin' through the back of my memory,

When I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese.
Someday, everything is gonna be smooth like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece."

1 comment:

  1. Excellent advice! We have a copy of "On Writing" too, which I surely need to re-read. Stephen King is about as crafty a story crafter as any fiction author I've ever read. If you like short stories, may I suggest "The Complete Stories" of Flannery O'Connor and "My Land Has a Voice" by Jesse Stuart. Now, back to readin' and writin' but NO 'ritmetic!