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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Sooner Or Later It All Gets Real

Yesterday, I asked people what they did to escape. I think red wine was a front runner. But this remark from Shanna is the subject of today’s post, “It used to be books but I’ve hit a rough patch with reading escapism since I started writing. Which, by the way, makes me really sad.”

Something happens. You go from being that kid or teenager who finds within certain books keys to the world. Certain books let you in and your life is no longer lonely. Then we start to write, most of us as kids or teenagers (not Bonnie!), and this strange communion begins to take hold. I think for a long time we learn from everything we read. There is information in every sentence whether it’s a new word, strange syntax, use of tense. A way of getting inside a character’s head. Of ending a chapter. Using a space break. Every book is a university at which we study: plot, character, pacing, metaphor. And then, if this writing thing really takes hold, we find ourselves competing. We read something and think: I could do that, or could I do that, or I can’t believe that motherfucker just did that. And we think this whether or not it’s sheer hubris on our part. I remember one time when my sister ran out and bought a book the minute she heard about it. I asked what compelled her. “It’s the book I always wanted to write,” she confessed.

Shanna, what say you? Why is the glorious escapism no longer there? And is it true for all books or just contemporary? I really want to know what it’s like to read as a writer. Are you still able to escape, are you a sponge studying the craft, are you competing? What’s going on?

41 Responses

  1. i think that once you commit to playing both sides of the book, the reader and the writer, the magic curtain gets lifted. as a writer, you get what it takes to write then revise and revise and delete and move stuff around and revise some more then scrap your entire first ten pages. when you read something flawless you have a deeper appreciation for what it took to remove the flaws. even though reading it may be effortless, you know the effort it took. a bit of the magic no longer exists because now you know it’s not magic–it’s knowing how to write. and then there’s the writing that’s flawed and you know why it’s flawed and you’re left holding a book that’s a bit like trying to read a week-old newspaper that has nothing new to say. at least, that’s my take. no more magic. no more escapism. (unless it’s a really fucking fantastic read).

  2. That’s the million dollar question. I’m not sure I really know the answer, but here are a few possibilities:

    Maybe I’m a big, fat, fucking dilettante and the whole writing thing is just the last in a long line of uber-flighty creative career paths (I’m a chef! I’m a jeweler! I’m a stylist!). OR:

    Maybe I’m listening to too many people who widen their eyes and make tiny mouth noises when they hear I dropped out of school in the 10th grade and that reading Marilynne Robinson makes me want to put spikes in my eyes. “Ohh,” one said, knowingly, when I confessed I’d struggled with Proust. “You have no attention span.” Really, motherfucker? ‘Cause I bet I have enough of an attention span to follow you all the way home and bash your head in with a cinder block. OR:

    Maybe cinderblockhead is right. Because I grew up reading Judy Blume and then Sidney Sheldon, with my mom’s I Ching and Dianetics and Ayn Rand when I couldn’t get to the library. Maybe I’m veering too far from my roots when I try to struggle through the literary snoozefests that well-meaning academics keep directing me towards. Maybe I just need to get back to my trashy commercial beginnings. Today I went to Target and bought a handful of paperbacks that just caught my eye (ooo, shiny). I did NOT buy Colum Mc Cann, or anything from the end cap labeled “Classics.” I’ve been reading Dark Places by Gillian Flynn since I got home this afternoon. I’m on page 141. So maybe all hope isn’t lost.

    Um, I’m probably gonna have more to say about this. But I have to get back to my book now.

    P.S. I’m not saying that Gillian Flynn is a trashy writer. I’m saying I bought what looked good to me, not what I thought I SHOULD read.

  3. Before I started writing, I read novels by the thousand and they all “worked” – all with suspension of disbelief, carrying me in a swell of plot and resolution. I could read anything.
    Then I started writing my own novels, and the spell was broken. I’m no longer automatically hypnotized by everything between covers. I can see the inner workings and plot kinks now, and I can’t lose myself in the sweep of the story unless it’s seemless and dynamic enough.

  4. I’m pretty much lost in bookstores these days. And not in a good way. I go to find books about InDesign or Quicken. Books for fun? I’ll pick something up off the recommendations and browse…usually, if I haven’t read it already (if it’s not brand new), I won’t.

    The last book I really just plain enjoyed was Stefanie Wilder Taylor’s “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” and I think that’s because, like me, she’s a) a writer (i.e. dysfunctional person in Los Angeles who has worked hundreds of random jobs b) a former stand-up comic and c) comes from a hopelessly dysfunction family. I felt I had a kindred spirit. I didn’t analyze her book or judge it. I just laughed and appreciated her opening up her soul. It really inspired me. Maybe I just want to read about myself. I once felt the same way about David Sedaris and soon realized that every other person I knew had the same feeling.

    So, I know it can happen. It just doesn’t happen very often. Finding an absorbing book is like a relationship. When I meet one, it’s been a long time coming. (no pun intended!)

  5. I’m with Ellen on this. Writing begins to ruin (some) reading because I’m no longer totally naive to technique. Unless I’m in the hands of a wildly competent author (say Coetzee in Disgrace), I just find myself reading and thinking, “This is well paced,” “That was nicely executed,” “Great image,” “Too many metaphors,” etc.

    Good writers, I think, absorb so much of their technique by osmosis. As a child, I didn’t read in order to learn to write. I read because I loved to get lost in stories. As I got lost in those stories, I was subconsciously internalizing their variable rhythms and techniques. But: I didn’t immediately become a competent and deliberate young writer. There is a long and awful phase in a young writer’s life, I think, when (as Ira Glass puts it — see Ira Glass on story telling, YouTube) we have great taste (the writing we love) and crappy technique (the writing we’re capable of producing). The disparity is an agony. Saul Bellow wrote: “I once mentioned to you, I think, that one of the things that made life difficult for me was that I wanted to write before I had sufficient maturity to write as ‘high’ as I wished and so I had a very arduous and painful apprenticeship.”

    This is getting too long. I guess what I’m trying to say is — when we become mature writers, we’re deliberate in almost everything — diction, syntax, tone, etc. — and that care makes us (or makes me) critical of everything I read. I’m like the architect looking at designs for a new skyscraper. I no longer see only the elegance of the thing, the glass and the light, the mirrors. Now I see the structure — often the improbability.

    (Plus I’m always like WTF THAT WAS MY IDEA, I think?)

  6. Reading was never an escape for me; it was always my education, my way out. And proof of my right to exist. Missouri Ozarks white trash, the oldest of nine and the only one to graduate from high school, let alone art school, for years I read to find out what I needed to know to reinvent and protect myself.
    That’s the way I read for years. Joyless, and pretentious, fearful and acquiring.
    It was only when I started to write and then to read not with an eye on what you thought of me, but to know and accept what was going on in my own mind that I began to love reading.

    • 1. “Joyless, and pretentious, fearful and acquiring.”
      What a sentence! (I think we’re all a little over-intense when we’re very young, starting out, trying to achieve and at the same time find our way. Something I’ve been surprised to discover in my life is that many things I enjoyed when I was very young became more enjoyable later on — maybe because somehow a person learns to enjoy more thoroughly and the things which made us tense and worried when we were younger even out in perspective.)

      2. “Reinvent and protect” — important concept. Self-protection is a necessity I wish I had learned more about earlier in my life — had to learn it later — ! And the idea of “reinventing” oneself and one’s life is so American, and so “writer-LY”…I don’t know….Donald Spoto, in his biography of Jacqueline Kennedy, wrote that Jack Kennedy and Jackie were both people who had “made themselves up as they went along” — something like that.

      3. I realize the term “white trash” has moved into more common usage in many parts of the country — here in the upper midwest, the phrase still jangles harshly and painfully on my ears.
      God doesn’t make any “trash,” my friend!
      best wishes in your writing / storytelling career…

      • Hmm…there are those of us who know we come from white trash, and want to explain it on our terms. Though I know that “Bastard Out of Carolina” is classified as a novel, it’s also semi-autobiographical. It was one of the best books I’ve read, had that “ring of truth.”

        Yet in the movie version, it had one of the absolute perverse endings that totally ruined the whole theme of the novel. I just hate it when that happens. Too much “over-reaching” for a semi-happy ending.

        Hang in there CJ, write YOUR truth — whether memoir, semi-biography or novel.

  7. The book I’m working on is a collection of shorts and so I’ve been drawn to the same in my reading the past year. I went through Hemingway’s last winter and ended up feeling deeply angry, that he got away with what he did, the laziness, the complacency, the arrogance. Then onto T.C. Boyle’s, and had that, as you put it, “I wish I could do this” joy, and in fact, his flair, and clear giddiness at what he produces and his sheer talent with words, big and small, did spur me on in my work.

  8. I’ve been both a writer and an editor, and it’s the editor that keeps me from enjoying reading. I’ve always got an imaginary pencil in hand, ready to make the delete mark. I have trouble reading trash–and I don’t mean trash subjects, if there are such things, but trash writing: self-indulgent, cliched, packed with little words that mean nothing but give a false impression of casualness.
    The writers I love are the ones who write non-fiction well, who can make any subject fascinating by their unnoticeable technique.

  9. Sorry…What? I was distracted by the headlines in all the newspapers today….Larry King is retiring and I’m wondering how many agents are after him to write another autobiogrpahy or something and how many millions of dollars he’s going to get paid in advance.
    If it’s not already a done deal.

    I write, but reserve time for reading, especially after 4 pm. I go to B&N (only bookstore around) every Tuesday to check on the new books. I would stop writing before I would stop reading. I at least have that much humility. When I know that in July James Lee Burke is coming out with another Dave Robicheaux book I shake, I shake I tell you. And then and then I wait I wait for Edward P. Jones. I wait, I write, I am, I am not. On to the second chapter, it is July isn’t it?!!!

  10. I’m much more critical of authors than I used to be, but I don’t think that is because I am an author myself. When I was younger, I had an assumption that the author knew more than I did, so what the author said was probably right. Now I have more of a tendency to question whether the author really knows what he is talking about. Would a person actually respond that way? Is that the only solution to the problem? Why doesn’t he just pick up the gun and shoot him instead of using his fists? I can make the choice to ignore some of these things and still immerse myself in the story, but what I like to find is that the author has done his job well and there aren’t any of these silly things in the story.

  11. Ditto on the magic has scooted. Unless it’s Amy Bloom or Aimee Bender or any writer named Amy apparently, I find myself so bored.

    Same thing happened to me when I started acting. I can’t go to a movie now without thinking…wow…what a shot or this actress had to have given the director a blow job.

    By the way, Shanna…I loved Dark Places. The pacing is excellent and while I’m not a usual lover of multiple POV’s or time shifts, I thought Gillian pulled it off. Great use of language, too.

    • Gillian Flynn fucking rocks, although, on the subject of multiple POV, I did find myself a little–but only a little–distracted during some of the chapters, even though the story was riveting.

  12. As I started writing fiction and kept up with it my reading changed quite a bit. I became aware of the work I was reading, and aware of the work of it. But it’s not distracting. It’s as if the book I am reading is bigger. It’s like the house of reading has more floors in it and more rooms and their doors are more often open. It has made reading different for me but no less crucial or necessary.

    I want to say I have become more aware but not more critical.

    I do notice that I read a much wider range of stuff than I used to.

  13. I still love to read and can lose myself in a book. It’s true, though, that as I’m losing myself in the book, I’m still noting what works really well. I don’t mind that–the awe or admiration is just a different form of escapism. Sometimes, the delight turns and I use it later to show myself that I could never do as well.
    For me, reading-as-a-writer is a lot like being a mother in that while there is still a great deal of joy, there is also disappointment and worry. Being a parent has shown me that the gap between my fantasies and reality can sometimes be a little bigger than I planned on. That wish to have a baby in my twenties morphs now into anxiety about the very real teenagers I have and the choices they might make. In the same way, as I read a book I love, I’m aware of the myriad choices a writer can make–and how important they are. I still love reading but I’m less innocent.

  14. Update: So, I read last night until my eyes were on fire and I couldn’t keep them open. I haven’t done that in at least two years, probably longer. (Um, except with *your* book, of course, Betsy.)

    So, thank you, Betsy, because I just confirmed my sneaking suspicion that I’ve traveled beyond my happiness and into pretension (great word for it, CJ) with my reading list. I’ve gotten too caught up in what the PhDs around the dinner table at MacDowell were reading. Sigh. 46 years old and I’m still hobbled by a desperate desire to fit in. Progress, not perfection.

    There’s an epiphany for me in here, regarding the reading I’ve been doing for literary growth and reading for the pure joy of it. I’m not inured to the escapism of reading, I’m just done with literary growth reading, at least for now. DONE. It’s not worth it to lose the joy that saved my life. If it stunts my growth as a writer, so be it. But I kinda doubt that’s going to happen. Right now I’m just going to dance with who brung me. (I’m sure this will go over well at Tin House in a couple of weeks. )

    Although I have to say there’s definitely an organic growth that’s happened anyway. God bless Sidney Sheldon, but Gillian Flynn’s no Sidney Sheldon. So there’s that.

  15. When I was a kid, still the center of the universe and reading everything in sight, I had the luxury of time. The things I had to question/worry/obsess/marvel about were impossibly expansive. The answers weren’t nearly as important as the questions and were easily approached in story. I may not be able to find that escape in every book I read these days, but if it’s brilliant enough, the writer-me disappears as if she never was and I get just as lost in the story as I did at seven or ten or fifteen. Later the writer insists on a second read to see what she missed. Two recent reads where I forgot I ever wrote are Edgar Sawtelle and The Things They Carry. The best feeling ever is finding that in a story of my own–forgetting who wrote it and getting lost.

    I remember a talk with my mother when she was dying (some talks are a long time coming). I asked why she always had so much disdain about my choice of books (contemporary vs her classics). She said she read to be taken outside herself and her world. Still needing to take the opposing view, I told her I read to go deeper into myself. We agreed to disagree about books. But really, the escape can be found inside or out, I think now, writer-self engaged or forgotten. It’s still simply about the story.

    There are some great comments here–such an interesting topic!

  16. I think we are using the wrong vocabulary. It’s not a matter of maturity or lost innocence or professional burn out: it’s a matter of connoisseurship. Connoisseurship in anything kills the naive pleasure one used to take in [painting, jewelry, silverware, watches, etc.] but it enhances another kind of joy that isn’t available to a casual observer. I don’t know why that should make anyone sad.

    Don’t get me started on finding decorative art parallels to the literary world. But the good news is that experts know that there is no such thing as a “semi-precious” jewel.

    • I’m not using the wrong vocabulary, it’s just not from your lexicon. Try swapping “drinking” for “reading” and “champagne” for “books” and see if that helps.

    • Actually I think it IS about lost innocence. About an unwillingness to let allow yourself to be completely open, one that all too often comes with age.

      • Innocence is just another word for ignorance. We’re young, we don’t know anything, we’re blown away by Harry Potter and Pokemon tie-in novels and Joseph Conrad and Stephenie Meyer. Kids love crap, and adolescents love crap they believe marks them as special, Siddhartha in one hand, To Kill a Mockingbird in the other. Some of us outgrow this, others retain our childlike innocence and remain completely open and adore Bridges of Madison County and winsome, pleading stories about abused children.

        Writing makes you a more educated and demanding and close-minded reader. That’s all good. I open Moby Dick, and the first pages are crafted so clumsily that I close it again. Maybe if I’d read it before I knew better, I’d consider it a work of genius. Maybe I’d lose myself in the glorious escape. But I know who I am now, and I’d rather re-read Wodehouse for the hundredth time–he’s the better craftsman. Richard Stark was a better writer than Michael Chabon. Maybe the price of learning that was developing a rigid and narrow-minded intolerance for books that don’t cater to my personal taste, but that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Fuck books that don’t cater to my personal taste. What other taste is available to me? I read to please myself.

        Of course, I used to read the most appalling tripe with pleasure, but I used to jerk off to underwear models, too. Grieving for the days when a Maidenform ad got my rocks off is bullshit. Nostalgia is bullshit. Everything sucked back then, too, the only difference was, we didn’t know better. I enjoy fewer novels every year, but so what? I will only sleep with one woman for the rest of my life–she gets hit by an anvil tomorrow, I’m outta luck–but that’s not a regret, it’s a point of pride. I know who I am now, and I know what I like. When I was young, and could’ve liked anyone, could’ve been anyone, that sad limping callow clueless weeping dickwit wasn’t -me-. This isn’t just a narrowing of taste, it’s a concentration. It’s a reduction, not only reducing the number of things that give me pleasure, but a reduction like a sauce. I simmer away. Maybe that sucks sometimes, but what else is there? Do I wish I could regain my ability to take pleasure in half-assed novels? Do I wish I could regain my ability to believe that my stuffed animals were alive and the tooth fairy left a dime under my pillow? No, because those things are not only ignorant and wrong, they’re young, and the only thing worse than getting old is staying young.

      • That is the best stuff I’ve read all day, August.

      • My sister’s a Freudian analyst and acts so “mature,” but I’ll stay Jung anyday.

      • August, I enjoyed reading your comment. Yes, I still love to read. I love getting lost in beautiful prose. However, I’ve gotten a little pickier in my old age. When I do find a book that captures my emotions and intellect and aesthetic sensibility, it’s a fine, fine journey..

      • august, maybe you’d feel better if you took up again with the maidenform models.

        the only thing worse than getting old or staying young is staying the same.

  17. I write young adult novels. This is going to sound weird and ignorant and pompous-assy, but I don’t read young adult books. My first book was published as an adult novel narrated by a young girl. When it was nominated for an award , the committee moved it to the young adult category and it won. I thought my second book was an adult novel. Nope. Harcourt said young adult. I wrote my just-published novel as “adult”, again narrated by a young girl. This time FSG categorized it as middle grade and it has gotten really good reviews, including a couple of starred ones. In a couple of those reviews, it mentions that the book would be great for adult book clubs. But it’s going to be featured in the Aug/Sept issue of Girls’ Life (a young teen magazine).

    I love Jane Hamilton and Richard Russo and so many other “adult” writers.

    I just don’t know what the heck kind of writer I am and I guess the reviewers don’t either.

  18. Shanna…it’s you who rock, baby.

    (Yeah… on DP. She shoulda shortened some of the narrative passages.)

    As for what Vivian said: I think getting better at spotting the good stuff makes us sad because there’s a lot less of it. And saying goodbye, even to shitty friends that I outgrew years ago, makes me cry for once what was. C’mon, Vivian, every once in a while, you must mourn the loss of your appreciation of velvet paintings or little girls with huge eyes. And your sense of connectedness with others who feel the same way.

  19. i read wherever my curiosity takes me. short stories but i do read novels, too. i’ve never really subscribed to reading what’s on the bestseller list although i sometimes do. i just read what others recommend and my reading pattern is kind of like a visual thesaurus–one piece leads to another.

    e.g. Old Filth by Jane Gardam. that novel lead me on a backwards run on her novels and short stories and i cannot believe i’d never heard of her. if i could write like that woman just for an hour i’d die happy.

    i’m not ashamed to read mystery novels, love them, and anything else. i re-read pieces, too.

  20. I am not the critical reader I should be, but when In the hands of an accomplished wordcrafter, I often stop and reread a sentence several times just enjoying the beauty of it. Then comes the inevitable, “Why can’t I do that?”

  21. The problem with reading for pleasure began showing up in my Lit BA, but lately it’s getting worse for me. It’s leaking into televsion shows, movies, any narrative. I start breaking down the pacing, the characters. I look for what I’d change in a scene. I can usually predict any plot twist a mile off. I’m hell on other people who ask me what I think as we leave the theatre. Recently it began affecting my inner child’s food: comic books and cartoons.

    I’m about one more workshop away from finding escape only in soup ingrediants and software manuals.

  22. I actually find myself enjoying more and more novels and non-fiction every year, reading both wildly outside my genre (as SpringChicken recommended Shanna do yesterday) and within—but in a selective, concentrated, and interdisciplinary way. In fact, I tend to cut paths not unlike those prepared by some latter-day Pnin: If I discover a new writer (new to me, that is) and like one of his books, I’ll go on to read another two or three (preferably in the order he wrote them), playing student to my own professor.

    I’ve done this with the living and the dead (Banville, Beckett, Bernhard, Burgess, Burroughs, Coetzee, Dawkins, Duras, Duvert, Guibert, Marquez, Purdy, Stadler, Tournier–at a glance), as well as with certain literary periods or movements (a recent rive gauche excursion comes to mind: Half a dozen novellas by Duras and Robbe-Grillet combined with a dozen or so films by Agnès Varda). I’ll throw in the odd science book (Dawkins, Hawking), reread some poetry (Anne Carson, Susan Mitchell, and Rilke, mostly), nibble at a collection of shorts (Poe, Kafka, Hawthorne) or pick up the odd genre gem (Gibson’s BURNING CHROME, Lindqvist’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN). And then there’s Freud, Foucault, Barthes, Bakhtin, my forays into narratology…

    What is the point of all this? I’m not really sure (it’s late, I’m tired). In some ways, reading is still a beautiful distraction, and yet books remain first and foremost an education in form(s). I rarely run across a book that marks or moves me in a way I cannot shake. I suppose this has something to do with being a critical reader, with reading with a pencil (real or imaginary). My high school English teacher used to say, “An unmarked book is an unread book.” But the *work* of reading can be a pleasure in itself, a means of actively engaging with the world, of taking apart some small piece of the engine that drives us, so that we might come to better understand these desiring-machines and reverse-engineer ourselves into wholes, into writers of books.

    (I apologize for the length. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building. G’ night.)

  23. I don’t remember reading before I was writing but I know I read the way I always read, which is discriminately. When I was younger, certain books would become phenomenons and the library wait list would be weeks long (in an elementary school!) – a few times, I remember being really irritated to find the book wasn’t as great as I thought it’d be. But I also don’t remember whether it was because of the way it read or because of the content or ___. And to be fair, I read every Christopher Pike book before I got to junior high so clearly by discriminately I simply mean I liked what I liked.

    When I love a novel, I *lurve* it and that’s never changed. I also don’t make myself read past the point where I roll my eyes so reading remains a joy and not a task.

  24. I’m reading more because I’m writing more. I do read some things and think I could do better which embarrasses me because somewhere along the way, I got the idea that competition and self-confidence are bad qualities. I read other things and wish I’d done that. But that doesn’t bother me because I guess I’m okay with envy.

    To be honest with you, I’m just glad for the chance to read for fun again. Okay – I used the word fun. I guess I can still escape through books.

  25. I find I have a lower tolerance for quality because I can pick the errors. But I still love a great book and imersing myself into wonderful characters and settings. If one of my favourite authors releases something, I’m there as soon as possible and clearing my calendar to read it because I know it’ll be awesome.

  26. I can still escape reality with a good book. The key here is “Good”. As I do book reviews on my blog I read most genres outside of my own interest: dark fantasy. The last book I read I wasn’t certain what the outcome would be, but I was pleasantly surprised as it engrossed me from beginning to end. In essence, whatever personal was bothering me was gone like magic once I got into the first chapter.

    Some books have errors in them but often I can overlook these if the plot and characters are well developed. Most books have some redeeming quality to them, although I have come across a few that I stopped reading by the middle. If I have to force myself to read the story then I’m not escaping. I will then go onto another book.

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