Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Funny How Writing Works


Funny how writing works. Not so funny how, when for reasons legitimate and absurd—despite the excellent advice you give to others—you don’t write for a while and it seems impossible to begin again. Which is pretty much where I find myself at the end of this rather difficult year. I could play the breast cancer card; being sick for a while certainly does rock your world. But, okay, that pretty much over by April—and, while I was tired and there was a lot of catching up to do, I felt fine by early summer. I feel fine, now.

So, Jeez. Write.

But what? There were so many things I meant to write about in 2013. Maybe I tried and couldn’t make them seem interesting, even to me. Maybe, more likely, they didn’t seem possible. Hello. Which is a big part of why you (we) need to write something every day. One idea leads to another idea. Words lead to more words.

Anyway. Last night I promised myself I would not end the year in a slump. I would get up in the morning and write something. But when I sat down at my desk, everything still seemed either bland or impossible. I thought, okay, how hard could it be to write about my favorite books of 2013? That perked me up a bit. It felt possible, though unlikely to involve much, if any, process. Still. It would be a start.

Probably to avoid that start, I Googled “Quotes about Books.” A gazillion popped up; you’d probably be familiar with most of them I read. You might know this quote from St. Augustine’s Confession, too. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I remember reading it somewhere myself. But today, for some reason, it created a small combustion in my mind. Books and travel; travel and books.

When I was a girl, books were the only way out of a world where I so did not want to be. There were train tracks just beyond the backyard of a house we lived in for a while, and sometimes I’d stand and watch the passenger trains go by. Their lit windows at dusk, the people inside, reading, chatting, dozing filled me with longing. Where are they going, I’d wonder. Did the people looking out the window notice me? If they thought of me, that girl watching the train go by, when they reached their destinations, wouldn’t it be a little like being there myself?

Before I could read by myself, Eloise made me want to live in the Plaza Hotel in New York. In grade school, I gravitated toward books about perfect families, perfect friendships. The “Little House” series, which made the harsh life of pioneers seem glamorous; “Betsy, Tacy and Tib's,” deep bonds to one another made Minneapolis seem exotic to me. If I went there, would I have friendships like that, too?

I loved books like The Boxcar Children, in which spunky, resourceful children solved their own problems and made independent lives. I adored shabby gentility of Little Women, four sisters—so different, yet so fiercely loyal to one another. Little Women's Jo made me want to be a writer—though, I see now, was awfully pious and set a ridiculously high standard for selflessness. Nonetheless, I still have it on a shelf near my desk—a beautiful, illustrated book that my Uncle Joe gave me for Christmas when I was ten. The pages are worn from reading and rereading. It falls open to the scene where Beth dies and Jo grieves for her. 

The books my English grandparents sent took me to London—a world my mom talked about with a yearning that made me sad. Big Ben. Red double-decker buses. Rows of neat brick houses, the windows and the brass fittings on their doors polished until they gleamed. A place where people wore “jumpers,” not “sweaters.” Where they went on “holiday” instead of “vacation.” Where “favor” was “favour” and “theater,” “theatre.” These things thrilled me. In time, I discovered Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. What were moors, I wondered. What, exactly, did a primrose look like? 

The more I read, the more I wanted to travel into the real worlds of the books I loved. I vividly remember my first view of England—from the air. “We’ve gained land,” the pilot announced. “If you look down…”

A thrill shot through me; at the same time, I felt like I might cry. I thought, what if it’s nothing like I imagined? What if it’s just like everyplace else? It took me a moment to gather the courage to raise the shade. But, oh! When I did! There it was: a patchwork of green fields, villages here and there, even the occasional thatched cottage. It felt like going home—which, at the time, I assumed was because my mom and been born and lived there before she met my dad. But now, writing, it occurs to me that arriving in the places I’ve read about in books always makes me feel as if I've come home—that each book is a home in its own right, not just an escape from a home that makes you unhappy.

Note to self: Isn’t it so cool how, suddenly, you write something utterly new? How you feel a kind of map inside you, guiding you and how, even though you can’t see it, you trust it to take you where you need to go?

“Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward,” Kierkegaard said. Writing is like that, too. You can’t understand what you’re writing until you’ve written it and look back to see what you said.

But what about St. Augustine: "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." It sparked something; it got me going. It made me think of traveling through books and traveling into books. But looking at the quote again, it's clearly about point of view. Books take you to other places, but they also take you into other people’s lives and minds. In the end, this is probably the most important thing that books do. It seems strange to me that the quote set me on a whole other path.

Maybe a topic for another day. Maybe I’ll start writing about that and end up in a whole other place. The idea excites me. Writing, going where writing takes me, excites me. 

But I only remember this when I write.

So, duh. Again.

In any case, if you were counting on that list of books I loved in 2013 that I didn’t end up writing about either, here you go.

·      Blood of the Lamb/Sam Cabot (Full disclosure: Sam Cabot is really my pals SJ Rozan and Carlos Dews. Nonetheless a fabulous book with a “Whoa!” ending.
·      Dear Life/Alice Munro
·      Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk/Ben Fountain
·      Benediction/Kent Haruff
·      The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye/Rachel Joyce
·      Life after Life/Kate Atkinson
·      The Burgess Boys/Elizabeth Strout
·       All of the Harry Potter Books/JK Rowling (Thanks, Heidi!)
·      The Humanity Project/Jean Thompson
·      The Dinner/Herman Koch
·      Stoner/John Williams
·      The Black House & The Lewis Man/Peter May
·      Fools/Joan Silber
·      The Interestings/Meg Wolitzer
·      Just One Evil Act/Elizabeth George
·      We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves/Karen Joy Fowler
·      Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets/Evan Rosko
·      Vienna/Eva Menasse
·      Fort Starlight/Claudia Zuluaga
·      The Goldfinch/Donna Tartt
·      The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls/Anton Disclafani
·      Wonder/JR Placio
·      When We Were Bad/Charlotte Mendelson
·      Consequence/Penelope Lively

Happy reading in 2014!




1 comment:

Kathy H-C said...

Thanks, Barb! This is just the kick in the pants I need to start the new year off working on that novel, rather than obsessing over how to plot it :)