Sunday, June 30, 2013

I know, I know. Relax, Heather.

When I was in Palm Springs for residency, one of the evening programs I attended was called something like An Editor's Roundtable. Informally, I think they were calling it Drinks with Editors, which was nice because while we were passing a bottle of wine around in the audience (totally allowed in the evening programs, no worries), the panelists were pouring each other dark glasses of a stout brew at the head table, too.

Each talked briefly about his or her specific area of expertise, what it is like for him or her to work with authors, and what kinds of things we--as new writers--should be keeping in mind. Even though the atmosphere was relaxed, there was a lot of practical information for us to take away.

One of the last things that the editors mentioned was that a lot of new writers aren't reading enough (and that some aren't reading at all). That one of the benefits of being in an MFA program like ours is that it forces you to read an insane amount of good writing, and that has a positive effect on your own work. (Agree.)

But from there it got more specific:
Read more than you're reading now.
How much?
Read fifty books a year.
Yes, fifty. Read that many. Read that many or you're not being serious about your craft. If I ask you who the most important new novelists are that published last year and you can't name any, you're not reading enough.


Okay. Well, guilt time. Please also know that if someone drops a have-to around a goody-two-shoes like me, I'm going to worry about it until I just get it done. (Related: see my unresolved angst about not having read any Balzac since I went to the LA Times Festival of Books and discovered that I don't know anything about anything since I am, like the one tragically Balzac-illiterate human left on the writer planet.)

The last two years in my MFA program have been tremendous in terms of what I've been exposed to, writing-wise. And I am reading like a madwoman. I crave books. Good ones! I can't not be reading something, usually more than one something. In 2011 I read 32 books and in 2012 I read 36. I've always been a reader, but still the last two years represent a big jump in the constant stream of words for me. But--yeah. Fifty. That's a lot. To give you some perspective, I'm at 24 books so far for 2013. (Which makes me think this is not a ridiculous notion...?)

But here's the thing. Something else keeps happening to me the more I read: The more I read, the more I realize I haven't read.

And I'm sure it doesn't sound like this is true, but I'm not complaining about that. It's glorious. I feel like reading keeps taking me into rooms I didn't know about, and each room I walk into has eight more doors that lead to other rooms with more doors. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, yeah. And to continue this metaphor a bit, I keep meeting all of these great, brilliant people with wonderful rooms in their own places, and they're more than happy to show me where they live and where they grew up. (And I really like peeking into other people's houses because I'm nosy.)

Long story short(ish): I have a lot of catching up to do. I can't only read the hot new writers, because in order to read the hot new writers and understand them, I need to read the oldies and the middle-ies and the in-betweenies. Context. Also, I like being in on all the super smart Balzac jokes. Or, I imagine I would be.

Again. Not complaining. I have lists upon lists upon lists. But there are so many greats... and I'm not even talking "Classics" like, with a big C. Right now I'm really interested in the works that the people who are teaching me were inspired by and brought up on. There's a lot that happened between Jane Eyre and, like, Britney Spears. I need to reconcile that. So sometimes that means I'm down a rabbit hole of literary trends that happened in the 1990s because I feel like I need to "get" a "thing" that people "do" and so I'm not always reading things that are "of the moment" and so according to this very specific (YES, YES, OFFHAND, BEER-PROXIMATE) comment somebody* made about what means I am "serious," I am not reading enough.

*Not just a somebody. I know. A well-respected editor. With experience. Who I take seriously. Do you see why this keeps me up at night?

When pressed that night by other students to name some seminal works as examples of what they meant, not one of these editors named a new writer. So I think my takeaway from that is that good writing is good writing. Period. I'm reading a boatload. That can't ever hurt anything. It's like eating vegetables, no? And plus, I love it.

So, this post was totally going to actually be book reviews of the seven books I read in June and it is now totally (obviously) not. That will have to be tomorrow. Because this happened.

So. Resolved:

I will read 50 books this year. Not 52, because I have grapheme-color synesthesia and 50 is a nice red and clear number which feels pretty and 52 is red and yellow which is just bringing too much McDonald's drinking straw (or, for that matter, Ronald McDonald-related) color into my reading plan for the year. And also? Also? I don't need it to the same number of weeks because I feel like I should get two weeks of paid vacation from myself. The point of this whole silly post is that I'm going to do it anyway. Because I should. And I can. And it is good for me. Like spinach.

I do not have to read only new authors or new work because eff that. That part of the advice I happily let go and do not burden myself with. One. Bit.

I am still fully committed to the idea that I can stop reading anything that I start reading and then hate. So many smart people have confirmed this for me that I now feel like I should have it on a T shirt and wear it to teach the youth of America. Life is too short to finish reading things that you don't like. When you die, they do not give out awards for all of the boring books you made yourself finish. This has been one of the most freeing discoveries of my life. Read what you like, America.


Here is the list that I made for myself to write about (all the books I read in June) before this post turned into what it is. And now that writing will have to happen tomorrow. So get excited.

June books:

1. The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar
2. Middle Men by Jim Gavin
3. The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
4. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami
5. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
6. You Must Be This Happy To Enter by Elizabeth Crane
7. Cooked by Michael Pollan

^Just looked at that and realized I've met 5 of thosee 7 authors. (Not Kafka, obvs. And not Michael Pollan yet, sadly.) But 5 out of 7 ain't bad, and makes me pretty excited about my 2013 life.

This just got kind of weird. So, thanks for hanging in there. See you again tomorrow.


  1. Can you send me the cliff notes of what you've read? I just finished We Only Know So Much (Elizabeth Crane) and absolutely lurved it. Working on The Savage Girl (Alex Shakar). I find it hard to write at the same time I'm reading. Like patting your head, rubbing your tummy, hard. Maybe I only write while the sun's up and read when the sun's down? Do you have any OCD rules like that you could pass on to me? I'm sure you've got some OCD rules...

    1. Ha. I have the same problem. Different parts of the brain. I don't know--I do more of one (read/write) and the other suffers. The only thing I'm really good at is listening to audio books. I do that when I'm running and driving, so--NOT when I can be writing.

      You got me, though. If I figure it out I'll let you know.

  2. I'm a little disappointed that you can't run or drive and write at the same time. What have they been teaching you at that MFA program?