If you ask me how my writing is going, I will tell you the book is currently stuck in the third paragraph of chapter 4 but this morning I thought of a way to skip the boring (good novels are life without the boring parts, Elmore Leonard says), so at least I have my heading. I swear if I can get myself out of this chapter, I can do anything.
In my life, there have always been perfectly legitimate reasons why I’m not churning out the novels. Perfectly legitimate.
Currently: television. It used to be downstairs, where I almost never go. The upstairs living nook was cozy and whispered all evening long, “Write stories here! The quiet is perfect for that!” Now, the television has been mounted upstairs where it was always supposed to go, and I have become the person who thinks, “I can write in front of American Idol! My stories will be all the better for it, what with all that dreamer nonsense [I thoroughly believe] being reinforced in the background.” Have patience.
But television is totally the easy answer for why creators don’t create. I have a much more conflicting excuse than that.
He was a tall, slender writer of westerns I met a long time ago. He was signing his book for me and said, “What do you write, Serenity?” I said, “I don’t know yet.” And, he said:
“Well, what do you read?”
Oy vey, that guy slowed my writing considerably. When my first (totally awesome) novel is released, and your life is changed and you wonder why I didn’t write it sooner, that’s the guy to blame. The most truthful answer I could have given in that moment was, “Anne of Green Gables.” Since childhood, I’ve read always but not widely. I revisited the same favorites again and again, rarely venturing to the library or the bookstore for new finds. When he asked me, “What do you read?” I couldn’t even name a genre. “Girls who become something better by the end.” I think that’s what I told him, i.e., Anne, Emily, Emma, and Jo March.
Needless to say, I started reading.
I read urgently as if approaching a specific number of completed volumes would make me a meaningful writer automatically. Not so. I wasn’t learning anything about my taste at all, far too easily pleased by memoir and far too difficult to please in fiction (but why? I had no idea). I read a lot of young adult novels in those years because that’s what my online crowd seemed to be reading, and the idea appealed to me. I felt more likely to recognize my own worldview through the starry-eyed inexperience of teenagers than in world-ruined adults. I liked a lot of the YA stories I read and loved a few, but they weren’t the right fit, and the only reason I could come up with was that I didn’t want to be a teenager anymore. No matter how much I liked the story, if they had to stand at their lockers for part of it, they lost me.
Enter Modern Mrs. Darcy’s podcast, What Should I Read Next?* It’s revolutionized my reading life. Every guest is asked to name “3 books you love, 1 you hate, and what you’ve been reading lately,” and then the host, Anne Bogel, gives them 3 new recommendations. That’s a minimum of 7 books described (often with great emotional attachment) in every single episode. I’ve liked almost every book I’ve added to my list because of this podcast. It’s so easy to tell from the descriptions whether or not the book is for you.
Besides learning more about what I like, I’ve learned to quit what I don’t. I believe a reader owes the world a handful of completed hates before they get to start abandoning, but let’s just say: I’m there. I now believe “I might learn something” is not enough to slog all the way through a book I’m not enjoying.
The podcast has been around a couple years. I’ve only recently caught all the way up, so at this point my to-read list is much longer than my finished-and-loved list of books I added because of it. In fact, my to-read list is much longer than I like it to be considering I only read about 35-45 books per year. That’s not many compared to many readers I know, but I’m okay with it…
A girl has to write sometime.
Below is the proof of my procrastination, (which I call “conflicting” in the fourth paragraph because writers must read!). These are books I’ve liked or loved—all of which have been loved or recommended on What Should I Read Next. AND, some not-yet-read books I added to my TBR immediately upon hearing them described on the podcast.
Committed: A Love Story… A lesser-known Elizabeth Gilbert book about marriage—what various cultures believe about it, how it’s done, and (my favorite part) how beautiful it can be to stay. I found this book on my own but it’s been mentioned on the podcast and behold the speaker was indeed my kindred spirit.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society… Mary Ann Shaffer wrote almost all of this post-WWII novel (soon to be in theaters!), and her niece Annie Barrows finished it when Shaffer died too soon. It’s epistolary, which I have found enchanting almost without exception (see also: Love, Rosie by Cecelia Ahern—a fave, but not mentioned on the podcast that I know of). Guernsey is also difficult history gently told (and if that were a shelf in the bookstore, I’d never leave it).
My Name is Lucy Barton… In my personal reading log, I compared this book by Elizabeth Strout to books by Marilynn Robinson. It’s firmly on the side of literary fiction and has a really unique structure. However, it was rather short, which I crave these days (what with trying to cram as much reading as possible into this second-third of my life). I also found it easy to connect to Strout’s main character; that’s not always true for me when the writing stands on its own. There’s a part in the middle that takes place well outisde the story’s timeline but pulls everything together in a way that made me decide I will forever read anything by this unique and beautiful writer.
The Thirteenth Tale… By Diane Setterfield. This book helped me define the fact that there are perfect books (for me, I mean, it’s all subjective) and there are books that are imperfect but enchanting. I am as snobby as the next person with that fifth star on ratings sites. I reserve it if there’s too much cussing, if I hate any small part, if I liked it a lot but didn’t find it life-changing. I’ve learned, though, some of my best reading experiences are, in fact, imperfect, but they transport me and I love them for it. This one hooked me from the beginning. It drew me in with its blatant reader/writer themes (an eccentric author finally decides to tell the thirteenth tale she mysteriously withheld from a short story collection published some time ago) and held me with its Gothic atmosphere (very Wuthering Heights—I’m a rare soul who’s enjoyed that one more than once). It’s twisty, mysterious, and ghost-like. Be prepared to cringe through a couple plot points, or you probably don’t want to add this one to your list.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years… this book by Donald Miller is the story of trying to turn his first memoir (Blue Like Jazz) into a film and discovering his life needed far more story if it could ever be worthy of the screen. He uses the experience to convince the rest of us to pay attention to the stories our lives are telling, and you’ll probably never be the same.
The One-in-a-Million Boy… Listed by more than one guest on the podcast and recommended by the host, this one by Monica Wood is the story of unlikely friendships around a 104-year-old woman, an endearing, young scout, and the pursuit of fame in the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s uniquely done and lovely if sometimes a little hard on the heart.
Here are some I cannot vouch for at all, but when I heard about them on the podcast I added them to my to-be-read list at the speed of light.
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work… by Mason Currey
The Secret Keeper… they talk about author Kate Morton a lot on the podcast, and her books sound like they might hit the sweet spot of “enchanting if imperfect”.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff… Epistolary! Reader/writer/bookshop theme! New York City & London!
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr… WWII is the background for these, and they get many shout-outs on the podcast. I’m also desperate to read Four Seasons in Rome, a memoir by Doerr that has been recommended more than once (though Anne, the host, says please ignore the uninviting subtitle.)
I don’t know how I’ll ever join the ranks of books like these when there are so many books like these to read. It’s a problem. But I’m currently okay with it.
*Full credit for my discovery of Anne Bogel’s podcast goes to Caroline Starr Rose, a friend of serenitybohon.com who guest-starred in episode 14.