Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Books can be a bit like clothes. You get used to what styles suit, what feels right and even, perhaps, what fits your self-image. That, apart from the occasional seasonal tweak or up-grade (what’s on the Booker shortlist – or not; what’s on the Waterstones 3 for 2 table; who’s made it into the Granta Best Young Novelists to Watch list), is that. Particularly as you get older, the idea of making changes for change’s sake seems somehow absurd. There’s no-one across the Sixth Form common room to be impressed by your copy of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man poking out from the top of your army surplus knapsack, no one-night stands who might prowl through your bookcases and comment on your poetry selection and no-one who might be thrown by finding a Nancy Friday book in your bedroom. A glance through my reading notebook, kept more or less consistently for over ten years, makes it clear that I’m as guilty of this as many people. Much as I might like to think I have broad tastes, what isn’t there is still noticeable by its absence. Margaret Atwood aside, there’s no sci-fi; other than His Dark Materials, there’s no fantasy; dystopia makes only a brief appearance (Margaret Atwood, again, and two post-apocalyptic novels – Julie Myerson’s Then and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven – lent to me by writing group friends) and there are no thrillers at all. “Classics” appear only infrequently and, much as I might like to pretend it’s because I’ve read so many of them already (I don’t note re-reads), I know there are legions still waiting ahead. Oh, and there’s just one play (Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi) and that’s there only because I saw a friend perform in it at London’s Arcola Theatre. As an example, here is my current reading pile – by which I mean the books I’m actually reading at the moment; it’s never just one. books From top to bottom, there’s one poetry book (Stags’ Leap by Sharon Olds), one writing craft book (Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott), one (historical) literary novel (A Girl in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie), one contemporary novel by a writer now better known for her YA (The Art of Seeing by Cammie McGovern) and one history book I’m only a dozen pages into (To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl and Carol McD Wallace). Pretty standard stuff for me, really. But always with the potential for excitement too. Staying within your comfort zone does not mean not enlarging your horizons. Set largely in pre-partition India,  A Girl in Every Stone plunges its two central characters into a maelstrom of history that stretches from ancient Persia to pre-first world war Turkey and on, via Ypres and Brighton Pavilion, where Indian Army soldiers are restored to some sort of health, to Peshawar. It’s quite a canvas and its author is not afraid to tackle those issues of politics, faith and national identity that are, so sadly, still resonating today. For an armchair traveller such as myself, this is one author I’ll be searching out more from; and that’s so even if I am, at two-thirds of the way through this book, growing in certainty that the stunning prose and the epic sweep of the book are in danger of washing away the characters that the reader is, presumably, supposed to care about. If A Girl in Every Stone has enlarged my horizons so, in a smaller, quieter way, has The Art of Seeing. Ostensibly a story about sisters – the younger a talented would-be photographer and the elder famous, from her late teens, as a movie actress – and what happens when their worlds reverse, it’s more nuanced than that, touching on envy, the strange nature of celebrity and how easy it is not really to know those who are supposed to be closest to us. Given that the author is herself just such a younger sister of a famous actress it might be easy to suppose this is a defining theme of her work but it really isn’t – and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Stag’s Leap is a collection I’m dipping in and out from. It’s proving hard – psychologically-speaking – to read. What happens when  marriage, and all the love that was contained within it, fades and dies? What happens when one party has already checked out? How does the other party (in this instance, the poet) lift up her head, set her shoulders and move on with her life when so much of it is bound up with the physical presence of the man who is leaving her? Even when she’s still so possessive of his physical self – she spends many lines describing, for example, his “cindery lichen skin” – she is also generous to the point of bravery, appearing almost to ‘suffer’ from the relationship equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome:

“When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from, I am half on the side of the leaver”

It’s this generosity that makes these poems fly. And that is what I most want from any book.    

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The writing apprenticeship: learning the craft

When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story…When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.

Stephen King, On Writing

I’m reading a couple of writing craft books at the moment after the members of my writing group decided to exchange some of our favourites. I’ve read Stephen King’s book before but probably not since it first came out, which was long before I started taking writing seriously. And when I did start taking writing seriously, I ditched the craft books as soon as I’d read Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer. When she pointed out just “how many rooms there are in the house of art”, it not only struck a chord that made me shiver with happy recognition (someone else feels like that!) but, more than that, I fell in love with the idea that it was to literature itself I should turn to learn my craft. It just made so much sense. Why should I read lists of rules and dos and don’ts when I could pick up a novel and enjoy it not just for its story or its artistry but for the technical assistance it could provide? It seemed to me a bit like when I was at school and struggling with the (to me) abstract applications of algebra. I was astounded and not a little thrilled when I discovered, in A-level Biology, that I was capable of using and understanding the algebraic concept behind the chi-square test to look at the distribution of marine life on a seashore at low tide. Relating it to something I was actually doing and, crucially, was interested in was key.

And so, for many years, I read not only for pleasure but also to learn. Stream of consciousness? Why, Virginia Woolf, of course. Use of close first person narrator? The Catcher in the Rye. What about close third person? Did you need an excuse to read Harry Potter? OK, Multiple narrators? Try The Poisonwood Bible. How to write a scene with a large number of characters all trying to speak at once? What about the ballroom scene in Anna Karenina? Etc. All very enjoyable, of course, and lovely to have an excuse, if I needed one, to revisit some old favourites. However as time went on and I wrote more and more, I came to have a closer understanding of my own technical weaknesses (mostly, I believed, pace-related, if you’re interested) and began to think a little theoretical help might not be such a bad idea. Yes, there was still a part of me that harumphed about how the writers of one or two hundred years ago managed very nicely, thank you very much, without a craft book ever crossing their table but there was a more insistent part whispering how they didn’t have washing machines or computers or penicillin either and probably wouldn’t have said no to them. Why not take your help where you can get it?

That brings me back to the Stephen King quote at the start of this piece. I don’t remember it from my first reading of the book but it struck me like the lightning bolt I hope never to experience in reality. Of course, I thought. Of course! I’ve been a story teller all my life, often on paper but always in my head. And I think it’s the in-my-head part that’s where I’m sometimes coming unstuck now. A story that stays in your own head or migrates no further than a piece of paper that’s for your own reading needs to please only you, the writer. All the extraneous bits: the interlopers who don’t advance the plot, the descriptive passages that slow the pace but are just oh-too-lovely to lose, the filler adverbs, the dialogue that tells the reader stuff they already know or don’t need to know, none of that matters. However start showing your work to others, whether that’s on a course, in a writers’ group or, big gulp, to an agent, and it matters like nothing else matters. Then – then! – you realise that there is lots still to learn because this is a life-long apprenticeship and that if you’ve seen one (what now seems like it ought to have been a self-evident) truth in one craft book, goodness knows what there is to find in others.