A Year of Reading Like a Writer: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Kristen Holt Browning

When Julie first asked me to blog for the Get Lit website, I had no idea what to write about. Every week, Julie or Flora give their insightful exchanges with authors both local and far-flung, or Ruta provides great behind-the-scenes peeks into the book publishing world. What could I offer? Well, I read (a lot). And I write (a little). And so, from that banal observation, Reading Like a Writer was born.

This year, I committed to reading beyond pleasure—that is, while I still read for story and character and language, I also read to answer these questions: why did the author choose to write this poem/chapter in this way? What does it mean that the author chose to use this word, this image? Does it work? Why not, if it doesn’t?

Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t turn reading into homework. I never felt like I was forcing a novel or book of poems under a literary telescope, or dissecting text merely for the sake of exposing its linguistic or structural innards. Rather, it felt like a deeper, fuller mode of reading: when a narrative kept me engaged, I thought about why. When a poem made my heart beat a little faster, I considered how the poet’s choices created that effect in me.

I also committed to keeping a book log (Logging Books, Logging Memories). As I glance through it, there are two or three novels there that have already disappeared from my mind. But others remain: for example, I am still thinking about, and deeply affected by, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Empathy for the Reader).

In addition to keeping a book log, I’m also still reading a poem a day (Poetry Every Day). A daily practice of reading at least a couple poems has inspired my own writing in notable ways: for one thing, I often use compelling lines or phrases from a poem I read in the evening as the basis for some free-writing the following morning.

So, if you’re looking to adopt some new literary practices for your New Year’s resolution, might I suggest: write down what you read, and read a poem every day.

Finally, a word about the future direction of this series:  I’m obviously not the only reading writer here in Beacon. Going forward into the next year of Get Lit, I’d love to add more voices to this column. What are you reading? What have you read recently that inspired or influenced your own writing? Comment on our Facebook page or tell me at any of our upcoming Get Lit events this year, and I’ll share your recommendations and thoughts in upcoming columns and posts!

Language and Landscape

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I try to hike at least a portion of the Pocket Road trail here in Beacon at least once a week. On my last couple of walks up the trail, I’ve been leaving my headphones and podcasts at home, and instead paying extra careful attention to the rapidly evolving foliage, and the swollen creek rushing down the mountain—because I’ve been reading Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane.

Published a couple of years ago, Landmarks traces Macfarlane’s explorations of the relationship between land, language, and history across the British Isles. I’m reading it slowly, savoring all of the linguistic nuggets he unearths, and it’s on my mind during my hikes in my own familiar terrain.

I’m only a couple of chapters in, but Macfarlane has already introduced and discussed several fascinating examples of nature-influenced language. For example, in the historical northern Scots dialect, “blinter” refers to the dazzle of winter stars on a clear night. Imagine—someone, at some distant point in Scottish history, looked up at the stars night after winter night, and knew he (or she) needed a word to describe this seasonal, regular part of his (or her) landscape and life.

Macfarlane’s overall point, as he notes, is that “language deficit leads to attention deficit.” He couches this point primarily in our linguistic relationship to the natural world, which places him in a long line of British writers and poets (Wordsworth writing about the Lake District, for example).

Americans have their own history of locating themselves and their language in the land (Thoreau’s Walden comes to mind). Last fall, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, before I visited Arches National Park in southern Utah, because Abbey worked in and around Arches and Moab as a park ranger in the late 1950s. Like Macfarlane, Abbey believes passionately that our relationship to the natural world is sacred, and in danger of being lost—and worth writing about and recording, because

“This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

While Macfarlane locates people’s history in the geography of the British Isles, Abbey finds his own natural home in the desert:

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

I’ve never written directly or deeply about the landscape of the Hudson Valley—my own native, most-loved region. Macfarlane and Abbey make me wonder if it might be time to learn more about how people have traditionally spoken of and interacted with this land, and write about this sweet valley that has nourished three generations of my family. 

Time for me to hit the trail again, I think, and find some inspiration on the mountain.

Empathy for the Reader

by Kristen Holt Browning

I’ve never been a fan of the “books are good for you” school of thought. Books are not broccoli, and poems won’t make you virtuous.

Plenty of social scientists disagree with me. Recent studies found that readers of literary fiction do better at recognizing, understanding, and inferring others’ feelings and emotions, while children who read a lot display higher levels of emotional intelligence, and increased empathy (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6156/377; https://readingpartners.org/blog/reading-improves-kids-emotional-intelligence-increases-empathy/).

This is all good news, but literature shouldn’t be the vegetable of the arts. Must everything improve us? Can’t a novel, or a short story, or a poem simply be enjoyed, absorbed, and lingered over? Isn’t it enough to notice and admire the suspenseful plot, the gorgeous language, the finely depicted protagonist?

Then I read Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, and it convinced me that there might be something to this books-make-you-a-better-person thing.

Half of the chapters take place in Chicago in 1985, and feature Yale, Nico, Richard, and the rest of their group of friends, all young gay men, as well as Fiona, Nico’s sister. Nearly all of these men are struggling with or affected by HIV/AIDS in some way. It was a sad shock to read The Great Believers and be reminded of how common, and commonly devastating, death was for this cohort just a few decades ago.

downloadFiona plays the central role in the alternating chapters. She is searching for her estranged daughter, Claire, in Paris in 2015. As we flash back and forth between young Fiona in the 80s—standing by her dying brother even as their family disowns him, nursing her friends throughout their illnesses—and contemporary Fiona, we gradually understand  the trauma of being the one left alive, and left behind. How do you live in a world populated by ghosts?

Makkai’s language isn’t particularly elevated or notable. It’s a fairly long book, and at first I didn’t want to read it: another overstuffed, earnest, well-meaning novel.

But as I read over the course of several days, I felt myself expanding, in my pity and despair and tenderness for these people. I  started to open to the terrible possibility of living during a plague, of dying pointlessly—or, of trying to make a life in the aftermath of devastation. I slid into the lives of these suffering, loving, laughing, crying people. In other words, I empathized with them.

So, while I distrust empathy as a reason to read, I value it as a side effect of reading. If a book can entertain us and bring us into the world of another, that’s only all to the good. At a time like this, marked by so much rage and distrust, anything that grows empathy is necessary, and welcome. We could all use a little more broccoli on our plates.

Let’s Get Political

by Kristen Holt Browning

Politics and writing: do they mix? Up until recently, I would have said “no.” I thought works of fiction and poetry that overtly articulated political opinions or worldviews were artless and heavy handed. 

But it’s 2018, and regardless of whether you’re liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, politics is everywhere. A very smart teacher recently told me, “All poets are contemporary. You write in the present you live in.” Her point was that your work has to speak, both formally and linguistically, to your era. If it doesn’t, it isn’t honest, or relevant. And if we live in an era saturated by politics, how can our writing not absorb and reflect that reality?

On the face of it, the new novel Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s presented as the memoir of Jack Sheppard, famed eighteenth-century thief and jailbreaker, who served as the inspiration for The Threepenny Opera’s Mack the Knife (or, maybe you know him from the Bobby Darin song).

Jack is raised as a girl, although, upon reaching adolescence, he (his preferred pronoun) takes to wearing male clothing and taping down his breasts. Bess, his lover, is a prostitute of South Asian descent. This is a multicultural, polyglot world, where people decry, undercut, and push against the social, economic, racial, and gender constraints and categories put upon them—something that is happening as urgently as ever in the twenty-first century. Confessions of the Fox is a propulsive story that encompasses grand themes of identity and individual self-determination, and that also happens to couch its plea for a rethinking of our ideas about gender and diversity in gorgeously inventive language.

Good poetry pushes language as far as it can bend without breaking it completely. It’s the opposite of bland and simplistic political sloganeering. In Morgan Parker’s collection There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé, pop culture intertwines with urgent political rage to present a wide-ranging overview of black womanhood in contemporary America, as in the opening of “Poem on Beyoncé’s Birthday”:

Drinking cough syrup from a glass shaped

Like your body I wish was mine but as dark

As something in my mind telling me

I’m not woman enough for these days

Parker offers a wide historical range of black female experience, as when she writes a poem on the Hottentot Venus that manages to take in slavery, capitalism, and white domination of black bodies:

No one worries about me

because I am getting paid.

I am here to show you

who you are, to cradle

your large skulls

and remind you

you are perfect. Mother America,

unleash your sons.

Everything beautiful, you own.

Rosenberg and Parker are both expanding the inclusive limits of writing. Their work is political in its topics and obsessions, in the stories it chooses to honor and represent. This, I think, is how politics is best embedded in writing: by incorporating the entirely of one’s world, insisting on the necessity of one’s desires and concerns, and thereby expanding the worlds of others.

Logging Books, Logging Memories

by Kristen Holt Browning

I love historical fiction, and I love to learn about the ancient, classical world. So when I recently heard of David Malouf’s novella An Imaginary Life, which depicts the poet Ovid’s exile to Tomis (in present-day Romania), I rushed, as I so often do, to the online catalog of the local library, and was thrilled to see it in stock (yes, I get that excited over in-stock books at the library).

Settled at home with the slightly worn library copy (the book was first published in 1978), I eagerly dug into Ovid’s struggles to adapt to banishment, living among people with whom he shares nothing: not culture, not habits or interests, not even a common language.

But a few chapters in, a too-familiar feeling set in: an odd mixture of recognition, embarrassment, and a touch of despair. I’ve read this book before! How on earth did I forget? I liked it a lot the first time I read it, and I’m enjoying it now. How could I completely forget that I read this book??

Aside from my job, I read about a book a week for pleasure. So, that’s fifty books a year. That means that, in my adult life, I’ve probably read about 1200 books. Seeing that hefty number, it seems much more reasonable that at least a few of them—even ones I enjoyed—would slip my mind.

Soon after this slip-up, I had coffee with an old, dear friend who reads even more books than me. She mentioned that she keeps a book journal: a log of all the books she’s read. That, I realized, is just what I need. So, I picked up a Muji notebook (my favorite), and for the last three months, I’ve been dutifully writing down every book I read. I just write the month and year at the top of the page, then log each book as I finish it. 

But how does this benefit me as a writer? Although it’s early days for my book-logging enterprise, my hope is that this will prove to be a handy repository of useful examples and models for my own writing. A case in point: I’ve recently been writing short pieces (are they essays? prose poems? honestly, I’m not sure yet) on various ancient women—classical, historical, and mythological. Malouf’s novella centers on a real person from the ancient world, and offers a gorgeous example of how a historical fact of a single life (here, Ovid’s exile) can be broadened  into a full narrative. So perhaps I, too, can take settled fact and play with it, hold it up to the light, and make it into something entirely new.

As I glance at my book log, I notice another recent read that offers an inspiring example of this kind of work: Jim Crace’s novel Quarantine. Crace begins with Jesus’ forty days in the desert (another kind of exile), but his story centers on the small group of fellow seekers who have taken up temporary residence in the desert as well—especially Miri, a young pregnant woman tethered to a lout of a husband. Quarantine takes the bones of a well-known story, and builds from them something original and alive.

I started keeping a diary when I was twelve years old (by the time I was in high school, I preferred the far more mature term “journal”). I occasionally flip through entries I wrote as a teenager or a twenty-something, marveling at how familiar and utterly strange this person is. I wonder if I’ll do the same thing with my book log. Someday, perhaps, I’ll have a pile of these, just lists and lists of titles and dates, and I’ll dip into them occasionally to see what I was reading during various writing projects—or during those fallow times when no writing came. Will I be inspired? Will I remember loved books fondly?

 At the very least, I’ll be able to avoid accidentally reading the same book twice.