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A friend recently wrote on Facebook that the backlash over No Man’s Sky seems to indicate the growing* belief that art somehow owes it audience. While I’ve largely abandoned keeping up with game news so I can’t say whether that’s true of the game or its players, reading that definitely struck a chord. They’re on to something.

I thought over what seemed to fit the pattern. Fans of Steven Universe drove one of the storyboarders off Twitter—because their preferred relationship pairing looked unlikely, they resorted to harassment. Nebula-winning author Alyssa Wong wrote a series of insightful tweets (start here) about being harrassed at conventions, segueing into the relationship between fans and creators; to wit, creators owe their fans nothing they’re not under contract for. People have been getting on George R.R. Martin’s case to write faster for years, leading to Neil Gaiman’s memorable riposte.

Getting upset at the fortunes of fictional characters isn’t new, nor is pressuring artists to satisfy audience whim. (Didn’t the crowd to some degree tug at the shape of Shakespeare performances? And so great was the outcry after Sherlock Holmes’s death that Doyle was compelled to bring him back.) What is new is how quickly and directly we can express our dismay—if not outright rage—to the artists involved. We can reach them directly via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter. We might get to chat briefly with them at conferences or a book signing. The life of a modern artist must look vastly different from how it was even twenty years ago.

And yet for all the good such connectivity has brought, it has its darker aspect. Those invisible lines carry hate just as easily as praise. The sheer glut of available information makes it almost necessary to make snap decisions on events that are often more complicated than sound bytes or blog posts can convey. Anonymity inspires plenty to be less afraid and far more cruel than they might otherwise be.

I wonder, too, if the entitlement that’s becoming more visible isn’t also rooted in how quickly we can satisfy our desires—not in every sense, but consider: You can instantly call up TV shows and films (legally and not-so-legally). You want to hear a song, it’s a few clicks away. Books can show up to your device in seconds and packages that might have taken far longer get sped to you in days. That’s to say nothing of other conveniences that have just been there in modern life.

I’m sure there’s no single reason why this phenomenon seems to be on the rise. I’ve got a theory. Maybe one reason why people are speaking up about their frustrations over art is because they can, sure, but I suspect there’s a recognition that art is malleable, and so any choice made can be altered. Revoked. Art is a made thing. So if the world seems like it’s largely out of our control, we sink our energy into something feasible, such as changing the trajectory of an artwork. And that—trying to shape art that already exists—is easier than creating art yourself to fill the void you see.

Then again, I’m an optimist and I like to think that everyone has a creative impulse somewhere inside them, emerging however it can.

To be clear, I'm not trying to defend fan entitlement. If what little I've seen is any indication, it does far more harm than good (if any). I'm just speculating on where the impulse comes from. And I admit, I may be way, way off-base in my guessing.

* A Google search on “fan entitlement” turns up about 22,000 results, a good number of them within the last few months.

I’ve owned a Kindle for a little over a year and I’m still undecided how I feel about it. A friend bought one before I did to save space and money—the academic books we tend to use in the PhD are so expensive, he’d quickly make up the cost of an e-reader by switching to e-books. So I went ahead with a similar mindset—plus the hope that I could have all those journal articles in one convenient location. But the Kindle I have, it’s not that great for reading PDFs. (Maybe no e-reader is. Yet.) I figured I may as well hold onto it, try to get what use out of it I could.

I remember when e-readers first came out I saw far more people reading on the bus and subway than I ever had before. I wondered if I’d be similarly engrossed if I ever got an e-reader. At this point, I can say I’ve pretty well resisted the lure of the screen. I’ll go for weeks without using the Kindle. Not that it’s a bad device. It just has some quirks I dislike—and some I really dig. So here are some thoughts about e-readers and e-books that have been brewing for a while:

+ Portability and durability: Whenever I go on a trip, I spend an hour or more deciding on what I’ll bring to read. Whether I’m on planes or buses or waiting for someone, it’s good to have an escape hatch. I make sure to allot room in my luggage for reading material. The Kindle’s footprint is a bit larger than a mass market paperback and slimmer by far. It fits into the pockets of my coat. Taking it along, whether out of town or out of the apartment, is almost automatic. Why not? And the ten-dollar case I have does a fine job of protecting the device, something I worry about with my physical books. The rain doesn’t seem to bother it, either. I doubt it looks much different from the day I bought it, and though I try to treat my other books well, it’s hard to totally avoid leaving signs of use.

– Rebuilding the library: I imagine it’s always been frustrating when the culture shifts to a new medium. Records to cassettes to CDs. VHS to DVD to Blu-ray. At least when iPods hit you could digitize all your music—sure, it took ages—without having to spend more money. But with e-readers, you start from scratch. You want something accessible, you either buy it or wait for a freebie. There’s no used e-books at Goodwill or online. I believe in paying authors and publishers, of course. And libraries remain an option. But I wish my personal library transferred to my digital one. I get that they’re different media, but I still don’t like paying for something twice.

+ E-books = cheap: I’m not particularly diligent about searching them out, but I’ve easily amassed a collection of over a hundred free e-books, all through publishers, website promotions, and/or specialty sites (Project Gutenberg is terrific). I regularly see e-book offers for less than the price of a new paperback. Of course, not everything that’s free is worth the time and not everything is available in electronic format, but you have plenty of good reading for almost nothing. (This isn’t even mentioning Overdrive.)

– The physical experience: Just counting the ones I’ve bought because I wanted to read them, I own over six hundred books. I love browsing friends’ shelves, to see what they’ve read, if they have any titles I want to borrow. I love bookstores, libraries. So while e-books have their upsides, something’s missing. I can’t loan them out. I can’t get them signed. The excitement of downloading a new file can’t ever compare with the feel of a new book, arranging a place for it in the bookcase. There’s something sterile about e-reading. I find that I don’t remember the e-books I’ve read as well as the physical books. Maybe some of that’s due to my tendency to invest objects with memory, but to me, reading an e-book is filtered, like my body isn’t involved in the experience. It’s an odd sensation, one I don’t especially like. Maybe I’m just being resistant to the medium.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say at a later time, but this is enough for now. I didn’t want to leave [sic] derelict for too much longer.

Beginnings And Endings

Posted on 12.01.2015 at 10:54
Tags: ,
I have a strange habit: When I buy a new novel, I make a point of reading the first line, regardless of how many other books are ahead of it in the queue. I’m not sure when I started doing it, or why—or at least, I’m not sure I had a reason at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I can probably venture a hypothesis or two.

I don’t know if I can speak for all of book/literary culture, but first lines are something readers pay attention to. Just look at the various lists of memorable opening sentences. One book I’ve seen in the library collects first lines from eleven thousand stories. I’m sure you can probably recite a first line or two from something you’ve never read. (I’ve seen the opening to Pride & Prejudice enough to know it more or less by heart, though I still haven’t read any Jane Austen.)

And I get it. In my class this semester I’ve been talking about the seduction of the reader if a piece isn’t something people have to read, unlike when professional or civic or academic obligations compel them to read. The writer establishes a contract with the reader that promises some kind of pay-off—action, knowledge, mystery, something. Otherwise, why keep reading? While readers have different thresholds for when they’re willing to give up, it makes sense to get their interest as soon as possible.* For some, that’s the title. For many more, it’s that first line.

The reader perspective makes sense, but for me, my fascination with beginnings—of which the first line is kind of a big deal—comes out of a writerly curiosity. It’s easy to wonder about the choices the writer made in deciding to start a story in a particular place. Why begin with that scene or image or sentence out of all the ones available? What do we get in the opening—setting, dialogue, action, character, abstraction? What sense of language do we get a glimpse of—like, is there any rhythm in the prose even there at the start?

As you may or may not know, I really didn’t like reading when I was younger, so a huge swath of my childhood was devoid of formative reading experiences. I didn’t have books I read again and again until they disintegrated. I didn’t consume print in huge quantities during what were probably my most impressionable years. I’ve been working to make up for lost time, and so, because of that sense of time slipping away, I rarely revisit books. Though I’ve read hundreds, only so many beginnings have stayed with me. Some of them are so short that it’s hard to forget (like Fahrenheit 451’s “It was a pleasure to burn.”). Others I’ve seen repeatedly, often in craft books or books about books, that the memory becomes more solid (1984, Lolita). And yet, for all the specific sentences I recall, for others books, the thing that stuck is an image (Cassel Sharpe on a roof at the start of White Cat) or an idea (The Time Machine introducing the fourth dimension in a way that’s totally reasonable). And these aren’t necessarily the stories I remember best overall, just some pieces. So while an intriguing start is great, it’s not essential. Obviously you don’t want a story to feel like a slog from the first page, but the bulk of books I’ve loved didn’t floor me right away. That stuff arrived later—though probably not too much later.

As I was thinking about beginnings I remember—and the legion I forget—I realized I have a similar relationship with endings. Personally, I feel that endings are the hardest part to write, whatever I’m writing. My respect to those who figure out the destination then reverse-engineer a story from that. I can’t work that way. I’m not confident I know, even after all these years, when the right time to end a story is. I tend to not linger much once the conflict’s resolved; beyond that, I don’t have much technique for my own endings. I mean, exhortations of writing a “surprising but inevitable” ending don’t exactly help a whole lot in terms of actually putting that into practice.

But forget about principles. Let’s try for induction. Which endings (or near-endings) have stuck with me? (Brief, fairly vague references to Fahrenheit 451, The Road, A Wizard of Earthsea, Life of Pi, I Am Legend, and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear follow. I’m not sure if these qualify as spoilers, but in case they do, you’ve been warned.) Sometimes the ending hits hard with a vivid image (A Wizard of Earthsea, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear). Sometimes it’s a revelation that casts a new light on everything that came before (I Am Legend, Life of Pi). I admit, I’m partial to hope (The Road, Fahrenheit 451). And then there are the closers that demand slowing down by virtue of the cadence, so you savor the shape of the sentence (my go-to here is Neil Gaiman). But I’m sure that a number of books from my past would tick at least one of these boxes, so I guess I have no definitive pronouncements, just possibilities.**

What beginnings and/or endings have stuck with you? Any thoughts about why they persisted while others fell away?

* Throughout the writing classes I’ve taken, I’ve heard it emphasized again and again: Start off strong (though that doesn’t mean with a figurative explosion).

** One reason I likely have less to say about endings is their power rests on the preceding story, whereas a beginning doesn’t need the same amount of context to make sense. Jeff VanderMeer expresses a similar sentiment. In Wonderbook, he writes, “The truth is that it’s harder to talk about endings than beginnings.” Plus, y’know, spoilers.

Assorted Thoughts on Comedy, Drama, and Brevity

Posted on 08.31.2015 at 09:12
I’d consider myself devoted to short fiction. About a sixth of my personal library is made up of anthologies and collections. Each year I read over a hundred short stories. I look forward to new releases from my favorite authors as much as anyone, but I get a special frisson of excitement when the next publication collects their latest short work. But for all that, I don’t entirely get flash fiction.*

Maybe it’s because I don’t read enough of it to develop an appreciation for the form. After all, I certainly didn’t fall in love with short fiction with the first story I read—or even the next few. Maybe it’s because flash pieces rarely give me what I most value in a story: characters I feel like I know or a plot that leaves me eager to know what happens next, though when it comes to stylistic or structural experiment, flash can succeed. Maybe it’s because I can’t write it and so I feel shut out as a reader as well as a writer. I mean, even my short stories tend to run longer than the publishing norm (~8000 words), and I gravitate toward drama more so than comedy; to me, pathos seems more difficult to pull off in a short span.

What made me think of brevity in relation to comedy and drama was a live storytelling performance I saw earlier this month. Familiar with The Moth? Well, Philadelphia has its own version—StorySlams, care of First Person Arts. Five minutes to tell a true story in front of an audience, no notes, judged by random people from the crowd. As a listener, I thought it was a lot of fun. For the storytellers, I imagine it’s a special kind of hell. (I’m not really fond of talking about my life or of public speaking, so maybe it’s hellish only in my eyes.) If you get the chance to go to an event in this vein, I recommend it. People can really impress with their memory and the way they shape ordinary experiences into micro-arcs.

I noticed something at the end of the night. Of the ten storytellers, only one told a more melancholy story; all the rest were played for laughs. On some level, I get that. Remember this is a live performance—if no one’s laughing when you hope, you can tell. In writing, there’s no instant feedback loop. And even for a live performance, you can’t necessarily tell if you’ve got someone by the heartstrings. Feeling sympathy or pity or whatever doesn’t always result in an outward display.

I’ve got a theory. Comedy can be condensed. Witness the one-liner. I’m not sure if Twitter has been a blessing or a curse for comedic writing, but I see more people going for wit than, say, profundity. (Not that the two are mutually exclusive.) But what about something like the six-word story? For sale: baby shoes, never worn. They can achieve pathos, right? Sure, but while I think micro-stories can elicit some of the emotions intended, I don’t think they can be nearly as powerful as a fully dramatized story, where you get to know and bond with characters, inhabit a world for more than a few minutes. I’ve gotten more laughter from someone else’s pithy observation than from some entire movies. So maybe there’s something to my theory. Maybe not. It has me thinking, though, which is good. I haven’t been in the headspace of stories for quite a while. I need to find my way back to it.

* A possible post for the future.

I’ve had an idea sitting on the backburner for years now. Ever since I started keeping track of my reading in a given year, I’ve found that one or two books often stand out among the bunch. I’ve wanted to devote a post to each of those books but, to do any justice, I wanted to revisit those books and really immerse myself in them, give myself time to enjoy their textures and styles even while contemplating what made each of them, for me, special. But I’ve realized that I don’t now have the time to do so, nor will I in the near future. And keeping thoughts stored up until “the right time” isn’t easy, especially when so many other things currently compete for headspace. Instead of putting it off further (and thus building up the finished product in my head and making me even less likely to ever start for fear of failure), I’m putting those thoughts down now, inspired by a friend’s post(s) on writing mentors. Imperfect, but better that than unwritten.

I met Cat Valente through her work, specifically the first volume of her Orphan’s Tales, In the Night Garden. It was the spring of 2009. I was winding toward the end of my first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program. As a cursory attempt to dive into the breadth of speculative fiction, I’d spent the previous few months familiarizing myself with some of the genre’s different strands: steampunk, interstitial, space opera, slipstream, and cyberpunk. By that point I was several years removed from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman; I knew I wanted to read more work that drew on myth, fairy tales, and folklore so that those influences would find their way into my own writing. Saving the best for last—so I hoped—I chose Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Valente’s In the Night Garden as my semester’s final readings.

I can say without exaggeration: those books changed my life.

It was only an odd kind of luck that put those books on my radar. At my MFA residency that began the semester, everyone seemed to be talking about Angela Carter. I like to think of myself as fairly well-read, so the fact that I’d never heard of her before, even in passing, rankled. I decided there and then to remedy the oversight. (Maybe I’ll write about Carter in a future post.) As for The Orphan’s Tales, I vaguely remembered all the praise the books received when they debuted a few years prior, and I thought they had something to do with fairy tales. They did indeed and I could, so went my thinking, read another new-to-me author, a bonus that squared well with my goal of exploring spec fic. When I think now of all the fairy tale fiction I could have stumbled upon instead—the anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, the vast number of retellings, and of course the wonder-tales themselves—I reel with the possibilities.

It’s been six years since I’ve read In the Night Garden, so my memory has unsurprisingly grown hazy with time, but I remember my reactions to it. I felt a kind of intoxication with her prose, to the point I found myself occasionally wishing for a page without a simile or metaphor. (I’m sure the book had plenty of such pages, but to me, I felt saturated by the richness and density of it all.) The frustration, though, was infrequent; far more often the beauty of the language struck me so much I could only read a little at a time, the better to process, to digest. I was dizzied and dazzled by the structure, nested stories within stories, each distinct enough that I rarely felt lost. (For a visual breakdown of these interconnections, see my friend Robert’s insightful post.) I could not then, and cannot now, totally comprehend how she envisioned that, let alone how she pulled it off so it felt natural. And I was amused by her sly commentary on fantasy’s tropes and mechanisms, touches of meta that felt of a piece with the world she’d created, luring you in with its (false) sense of familiarity only to up-end the whole thing time after time.*

No sooner did I finish the book than I had to start preparing for the MFA summer residency and line up classes for the fall (the life of an adjunct!). So I didn’t—still haven’t—finished the series. But I found a writer I wanted to know more about, to read more from. I was a fan.

I didn’t immediately seek out more of her work because, being enrolled in the MFA, I tried to expand my horizons, which to me meant finding other authors, other books. But three important events followed my encounter with Valente’s work. One, when the MFA director encouraged students to recommend visiting writers, I suggested Valente since she lived in Maine (not far from the program’s main site) and she wrote fiction and poetry, which seemed to go well with Stonecoast’s cross-genre emphasis. Two, I started following her LiveJournal. And finally, I met Valente, if only briefly.

I’d gotten some sense of Valente’s preoccupations through her novel, but her blogging felt so much more direct and raw. Though not as prolific now as she used to be, Valente imbues her nonfiction with the same qualities as her fiction: a gift for metaphor, a fascination with the stories we tell and how and why (which also means taking them apart and putting them back together with new bits), a compelling voice, and a refusal to flinch from harsh truth or sensitive material. I’m usually wary of published work that’s also available online, but when she announced she’d release a collection of her posts in book form, I knew I’d add it to my shelf because I wanted her work at hand, tangible.

Besides the movement of her mind, her journal also offered glimpses of her relationship with fans. Her comment threads could reach into the triple digits, and many of the comments were hers, engaging with her fans’ questions and expressions of gratitude for articulating something they didn’t know they felt. I got to know the puppeteer, and that made me more eager to attend her next performance.

That next performance wasn’t long after I’d read that novel. Stonecoast, my MFA program, is magic. As proof of that, one of the students helped set up a salon with the Interstitial Arts Foundation in the same town as my first summer residency. One of my friends, a fellow Stonecoast student, had recently gotten a story accepted for the IAF’s second Interfictions, so he’d be reading along with—you guessed it—Cat Valente, who’d had a story in the first Interfictions. I found this out days before heading north, so I packed my copies of The Orphan’s Tales for her to sign and tried to keep my anticipation in check.

When I did meet her, I practiced extreme restraint. I asked her to sign my books, thanked her, and shut my mouth to keep from gushing. Sure, I wished I’d said more, felt like I could have without self-consciousness, but to my mind I’d made the right choice. I much preferred subtlety to histrionics.

The next year, as far as this particular story is concerned, was unremarkable. I read, I wrote, I taught. I read Valente’s blog regularly and kept my eyes open for anthologies she appeared in. When she decided to self-publish a collection of short stories, I bought myself a copy right away—I really got started reading spec fic with short stories and even today they’re all I feel confident writing, so I try to read whatever I can and support writers who also work in the short form. But aside from that, nothing major until late in the fall.

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my MFA thesis, I found out that Samuel Delany, who directed the creative writing program at Temple University, invited Valente to read from her latest novel. I’d also discovered that the suggestion I’d made so long ago was taken up: Cat Valente would be a visiting writer at Stonecoast in January, just in time for my final residency. As I read over the e-mail with her name on the residency schedule, I shook my head and laughed in disbelief. Friends of mine, fellow writers I’d grown to love and respect over the last two years, would get to know first-hand Cat Valente’s awesomeness. “Excited” didn’t begin to cover it.

Yet somehow when I went up to Valente after that Temple U reading, I managed—if memory serves—to conduct myself like a normal human being. We talked about the book she’d read from, the collection I had her sign, and how much I was looking forward to her Stonecoast visit in a few short months. She was gracious and charming; I didn’t feel a moment’s dissonance between the writer I read and the person she was.

That final residency was one of the most emotionally intense experiences I’ve ever had. I presented research and read fiction to my friends. I said (for-the-moment) goodbyes. And I introduced Cat Valente at her reading. Introductions are a little weird. You say nice things about someone present to other people. And, while it’s not about you, you want to do a good job, to do justice to the person you’re setting the stage for. A lot of people dug her reading and seminar; she fit in smoothly with everyone, like she’d been there for months instead of hours. She mentored a couple of students the following semester—a terrific surprise I’m unsure anyone expected—and I can only imagine what that must have been like.

If that was all Cat Valente had done for me—bookending my Stonecoast experience, two years I’ll never forget—that would be enough to earn her a place of honor among the writers I’ve encountered. But it goes beyond that. When I’ve seen her at reading since, she’s always willing to chat, patiently signing the small stack of books I’ve purchased in the interim. The more of her work I’ve read, the more I appreciate not only the richness of the prose and the uncanny way she reinvigorates old stories but also the optimism, the feminism, and the strong sense of empathy pervading her work**. I admire the productivity she manages: her first book was published in 2004 and since then she’s released about two dozen others. (The only other author represented nearly so well on my shelves is Ursula Le Guin, which I’d bet Cat would appreciate.) I admire the honesty and enthusiasm in her posts on her blog and on Twitter. The way she is in the world and the ways she encourages others to find their individuality and to own it—it’s advice we all need to be reminded of occasionally. Cat Valente may or may not be magic, but I believe she has access to magic. Read her work, speak with her, and maybe you’ll find that out for yourself. I count myself very lucky to have met her and her work.

*This review from Strange Horizons does a great job discussing how the book seamlessly handles exposition, another of its impressive feats.

**Her work would need a lengthy post to itself, if I could ever find the words for how powerful I find it.

It’s been nearly a year since the furor over the How I Met Your Mother series finale. I had thoughts about it then, but the rest of the Internet did such a good job grumbling that I saw no need to add my voice to the chorus. But while I saw some of my ideas given shape—Chunk Wendig’s write-up is pretty spot-on—nobody said just what I wanted to say. So I’m saying it all now, in the hopes that pinning my ideas down on the page will exorcise them from my mind.

Spoiler alert, just so you know.

To be continued...Collapse )

Why I Need To Submit Fiction More Often

Posted on 01.06.2015 at 11:04
For the past few months I’ve essentially lived in a bubble. I read little outside of my school work, virtually ignored online news, so I’ve had only the faintest idea of what’s been happening in the world. But as the semester ended I started returning to the surface for air and discovered that several spec fic magazines had emerged since I’d last kept tabs on anything beyond school. The lifecycle of publishing deserves its own post; for now, I’ve got submitting work on the brain.

It’s been a while since I’ve sent out anything for publication. Part of that’s because I haven’t had the time or opportunity—it was probably my busiest semester in years, hence the bubble. But composing a cover letter and hitting Send doesn’t take all that much time. The bigger issue is that I have nothing in good enough shape to share publicly—or at least, nothing that hasn’t already been rejected across the board. So I have to get something ready for publication.

But which one(s)? The stories I wrote most recently need less revision—I hope—compared with those I wrote earlier, since the older ones no longer accurately represent my writing now. I could in theory polish those up to the point where they do showcase the way I write now.

Still, I only have so much time. The obvious solution is to focus on the stories I think are strongest and/or most appropriate for the venues I’m interested in. But. I like the old stories and think at least a few of them deserve a home; if I didn’t, I might not have been able to write them in the first place.

This, then, is why I think I need to be better about submitting work: Because I can tinker indefinitely with a piece, judging it not ready.* Because I can dismiss an older story languishing in the digital drawer because it’s not reflective of my work now. But for writers, there is no now. Like photographs, the work we produce can never illustrate who we are, only who we were. I have a sense of my own private history as a writer, but there’s no public history. Nothing to tell others where I’ve been, how far I’ve come.

So the work needs to be out there, searching for a home, becoming part of something larger. Otherwise, it’s easy to continue telling myself not yet, not yet until it’s too late.

*Works of art are never finished, only abandoned.

The Reading Habits Of Foxes And Hedgehogs

Posted on 10.21.2014 at 09:49
Tags: ,

I hated reading for a good chunk of my life. I didn’t struggle with it or anything; I just didn’t enjoy it—until I discovered science fiction and fantasy, that is. By degrees, everything changed after that. I looked forward to reading, I started buying books, I found my way to writing.

But, despite trying to make up for lost time and all my education in the various wings of English departments, I’m not nearly as well-read as I’d like to be. For the bulk of my active reading life, my diet has consisted largely of fiction, typically of the speculative sort. I can count on two hands the number of poetry books I’ve read. Only three years ago did I start reading nonfiction for pleasure in addition to information. I’ve managed only a tiny, tiny fraction of the canon, however malleable that is.

In the last post I wondered about the proper balance between reading and writing. Now I’m narrowing it down: if you’re a writer and you are reading, what kind of reading would be most useful for your literary growth?

Isaiah Berlin wrote that there are two kinds of people. (I’m always skeptical when anyone tries to simplify the world so neatly, but go with me on this.) You have foxes and you have hedgehogs. Foxes know many things and hedgehogs know one big thing, which I’ve always interpreted as breadth versus depth. Writers—and other artists, for that matter—seem to embody both. They need to know their craft well, but they also need to know about whatever they’re representing (or want to represent) in their work. In both cases, that knowledge comes from living, but it also comes from reading. Writers are often exhorted to read both widely and deeply, which can present a challenge.

I’ve read a lot of SF/F. Not doing so would be ridiculous—I’d have no idea what stories had been told, how the tropes had been used, what spoke to me and what left me cold. But reading only SF/F can become a closed-circuit. The ecosystem—in this case, my brain—doesn’t allow new elements in, which leads to stagnation and so a kind of death.

How, then, do you balance reading deeply with reading widely, especially when there’s so much material and not enough time? I guess with a contradiction: being experimental and conservative. If you know what sparks your interest, by all means, go there. Read your fill. But don’t confine yourself to that. Think of certain authors, genres, or whatever as home, a point to return to even as you venture outward, exploring. Sometimes you have to stick with something that doesn’t immediately hook you, because the new can be strange and, at first, uncomfortable. Still, not every experiment will be successful. And you have to be willing to draw up boundaries. Too many failed excursions probably means that something isn’t for you. That’s okay. Move on. Keep moving. Pick up something familiar to recharge you.

There’s enough work out there that you’ll never reach the end of what you love or what you haven’t discovered yet. That, to me, is exciting.

The Reading And Writing Balance

Posted on 09.03.2014 at 10:04
Tags: ,
As the previous post makes clear, I can go for depressingly long stretches of time without writing, but I’m unable to function if I’m not reading for fun, even sporadically. Which got me thinking about the trade-off of time spent writing and time spent reading, what the golden ratio is.

Stephen King*, who admits to being “a slow reader,” manages to read “seventy to eighty books a year,” which to me is an astounding number. I’ve been keeping track of my reading habits only since 2006, when my average reading speed increased to the point that I couldn’t feasibly remember a given year’s reading. So I started an inventory. My highest tally was 2007, when I had an office job, so an hour for lunch and a ninety-minute commute translated to a lot of reading. But like King, I’m not an especially fast reader. I’m fairly picky about the books I read, and I savor my books, mostly. If I can work in somewhere between thirty and forty books, I’m happy with that.

Sticking with King as an example, he writes that his goal for every writing day—virtually every day—is two thousand words/ten pages. “On some days those ten pages come easily; I’m up and out and doing errands by eleven-thirty in the morning, perky as a rat in liverwurst. More frequently as I grow older, I find myself eating lunch at my desk and finishing the day’s work around one-thirty in the afternoon. Sometimes, when the words come hard, I’m still fiddling around at teatime.”

King doesn’t command that his habits become someone else’s. And even if he did, his circumstances are not yours are not mine. Writing is his job. No commute. No required overtime because it’s some particular business season. Not even an eight-hour day by the sound of it. Meaning he has a not-insignificant amount of time freed up compared with someone with a more traditional job and who makes routine choices about whether to read or write off the clock.

I look back at my own situation over the past few years, as both a reader and a writer. Books: In 2008, I just hit thirty books, my arbitrary minimum, and barely passed that the following year with thirty-three. Over the next four years I read forty books or more, with 2011 being an outlier at fifty-six. As for writing, my record year was 2009, my first at Stonecoast; I wrote ten stories. No other year even comes close. I wrote four in 2008 and 2011, three in 2007, two in 2010, and one each in 2012 and 2013—and 2014 if I can finish a draft.

What I expected the numbers to tell me was that as I read more books in a given year, I wrote less. And vice versa. That isn’t quite the case. My most productive writing year was only my second-lowest in number of books read. My second-highest year for reading was also my second-most productive writing year.

The numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. For one thing, my book totals represent sheer number of books, regardless of whether they’re children’s books or novellas or comics trade paperbacks I can breeze through in an afternoon. The number of books doesn’t reflect the actual quantity of words read. It also ignores all the other reading I do, especially as a teacher. I leave the books I’ve read for the PhD off because, if I’d had a choice, I wouldn’t have read them. For the MFA, the books I had to read counted toward the total because I’d wanted to read those anyway, which was awesome.

As for the writing, being enrolled in an MFA was a huge motivator. Besides being accountable to a mentor, having a deadline, and paying money for the whole experience, I got work done because, when it comes to school, I take it seriously to the near neglect of other responsibilities. When I’m just writing for me, it’s easy to prioritize other things over my fiction. So no wonder I wrote ten stories. But the numbers represent finished drafts, however terrible. I’ve lost count of all the random snippets and opening pages I’ve written only to put aside, or stuff that informs a story without being an explicit part of it. And besides, this is all just quantity. Heaven knows how these stats matters in terms of quality.

It’s intriguing that the year I was neither teaching any classes nor enrolled in a post-grad program was one in which I read and wrote a good amount. I’m sure that’s not the sole reason, but it makes me ponder.

What are your daily/monthly/yearly goals as a reader and/or as a writer? What do you consider a good balance between them for you?

*All quotes taken from On Writing. That’s all the citation you’re getting from me.

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