Monthly Archives: August 2009

Reading to be Write

Reading is to writing like water is to a fish. A couple years ago I realized that, somewhere around my middle thirties, all my reading had metamorphosed from fiction and poetry to research and essays. I was reading thick tomes on Ancient Egypt and the Wild West with a collector’s avidity and little focus on the writing. The irony is that my abandonment of reading fiction coincided with my eager beavering at writing fiction. I was reading to learn about the places and periods that inspired me to write.

It took me a while to realize that I was no longer in touch with the storytellers that had created a love of literature in me in the first place. A couple years back I pledged to make the time to read novels and short stories again. I decided that as a writer I need to breathe in and absorb the work of other artists; not to mimic them but to learn from and be inspired by them.

As a kid I totally absorbed the classics and many of the great writers of the last couple of centuries from Dostoevsky, to Dickens, to Hardy. I read Lord of the Rings about ten times (yes I was that geeky child) before the age of sixteen. As an adult I have had far more difficulty getting into novels. I’m still looking for good writing but I also need good stories and a lot of modern novelists of the literary variety leave me cold – yes, I’m that kind of luddite. I still believe in story and plot. It’s all style and in the head when I want something to actually happen. So from the classics of my youth I have been reading more along the lines of Stephen King and Elmore Leonard.

Much as I admire King’s storytelling ability and craftsmanship (and have tried to absorb the lessons in writing that he can deftly apply) he can be lacking in the sheer beauty of words. Elmore Leonard is the king of ‘spare’ dry bones fiction and I’m finding that isn’t what I want either. It’s highly praised by editors and other writers at this moment in time, but I consider it just one style and just one possibility and not necessarily the pinnacle of literary mastery. I recently read No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and it was excellent – the writing both hard edged and lyrical at the same time. McCarthy is an author that inspires me to be a better writer, and to pick up more of his books.

The key to reading fiction in order to learn to write better yourself is to read more thoughtfully. It doesn’t mean you have to lose the rhythm of the story. It’s more akin to enjoying fine wine. You just don’t pour it into a jelly jar and gulp it down; you breathe in the aroma, sifting through the myriad scents, sip, roll it over your tongue, and then drink that baby all up. Feel free to mark passages that strike you. Query word choices that pull you up short and take you out of the story. Go back and read excellent bits again.

You should even feel free to mimic as a writing exercise, just remembering that all this reading and even mimicry is just a passage to finding your own style and rhythm.

So which writers inspire you? I would love to hear back from you all – so that I can find other gems and continue on my literary journey of discovery.

I’m Nearly Famous

I’m very pleased to be able to post that I was interviewed for another blog. Read about Pan Historia in the The National Networker blog. The folks that run that site are really friendly and I’m chuffed as all get out that they choose Pan Historia as a topic.

Slugs and Snails

The other day I was out in the garden, cleaning up the dead leaves, making nature look sexy instead of messy, when I came across some garden slugs. Ugh. Slugs.

slugI hate slugs; even their name is repellent. They’re slimy little squishy eating machines: gross miniature monsters eating holes in the beautiful leaves of my imagined perfect garden. Though I hate to touch them I had no qualms about crushing them under the heel of my boot to rid the garden of their pestilence. A few minutes later I came across the common garden snail (escargot to you) and my reaction was quite different. It’s still a garden pest and eating machine but instead of active repugnance I pick it carefully up by its stripped tortoiseshell-like spiral home where it brings a smile to my face as it starts to uncurl its little noble head from its body to peer at me inquisitively from its extraordinary eyestalks.

snailI couldn’t crush it: I carefully carried it out of the garden. I never have been able to harm a snail. They’re slippery, not slimy. They have beautiful shells. They have an elegance when fully extended, a sort of equine grace to their heads and the arch of their body as they navigate their world with a slow steady curiosity. I’m sure many of these are imagined qualities in my head, but my love affair with snails has been going since I was a kid when I would collect them to keep as pets, and carefully release them before I had them too long.

The same kid that showed such gentle devotion to his snails once stuck a match stick in the air hole of a slug, lit it, and watched it burn down until it melted the slug in a searing sizzle of outraged twisting writhing slugginess. I’m not proud of that moment and it didn’t give me any fiendish pleasure but rather taught me not to torture animals – even ones I despise.

nudibranchThe irony of all of this is that slugs, to most people, are snails without shells. In the mind of most people they are quite similar, if not nearly exactly the same, and the slime of the slug is the slime of the snail. Each has the same disastrous effect in the garden as they munch their way across your favorite shrub, veggies, and flowers. Even biology bears out the opinions of most people: they are both gastropods that got out of the sea and crawled on the land. Slugs developed mucus to protect their soft bodies designed for aquatic living and snails have a shell, like many of their relatives. Sea slugs are some of the most beautiful creatures on earth, nudibranchs, and even some land slug species are quite extraordinary.

The fact is I’m prejudiced. Like most prejudiced people my reasons seem perfectly reasonable: slime, squishy, plant-eating. And just like most prejudices I can’t see what I don’t want to see like the fact that the snail is the same creature but with a shell. My prejudice is so ingrained it’s visceral, but with open eyes can I cease my ridiculousness? I don’t mean that I should cease to remove slugs from my garden or that I should love snails any less, but that I should simply stop hating the simple slug, humble relative of creatures like nudibranchs and snails, and give it the respect it’s due. It’s the respect that all living creatures deserve just for being what they were born to be. It’s not layering my hatreds and fears on their backs until I can’t see them anymore, but stripping away the layers to see that they are just trying to make a living the best way that they can.

What prejudices do you hold so close you can’t even see them anymore?