I am certain that everyone has stories. I’m equally convinced that everyone is capable of writing these stories up into novels, short stories, articles, letters, notes, emails, blogs, texts, bumper stickers, billboards, songs, or graffiti. Writing is the legacy of our opposable thumbs and our ridiculously labyrinthed brains.
However, just as not all runners are equal, nor all athletes, all writing is certainly not equal. At some point during my college years I promised myself to never, ever waste my precious time reading junk. Never. Unless it’s a magazine. Then it’s all bets off.
For several years I only read the classics. Only the names bound in those Literary Anthologies you read in college: Hardy, Whitman, Woolf, Shakespeare. Under my definition of “classic”, Steinbeck was a bit of an upstart. Then after living in Nepal, I went through a long bout of only reading Indian writers—preferably ones who used magic realism. Do you know how difficult it was to make a steady diet of this writing? Salmon Rushdie hasn’t written that many things, nor has Gita Meeta, nor Tagore. It was like eating a very limited diet of only orange vegetables. Yummy, but limiting. My creativity, like a body on such a diet, was grinding to a halt.
Then I befriended someone who existed on a diet of everything, with a generous helping of sweet reading candy. Marianne read several books a week, reading them to sleep and waking to them before work. She read whatever was in front of her, whatever she found, whatever, whatever, and loved it. Marianne was a sweet novel addict and, as such, had the enviable ability to talk books with whomever she met. She called me a book snob and I called her a book whore. We were best friends. We parted—listen up Red and Blue voters—by mutually respecting one another’s views.
After meeting Marianne, I expanded my views. Here’s my adjusted creed: If for entertainment purposes only, and if (this is my caveat) the reader is intelligent enough to know the difference, and game enough to throw in superbly written novels, then the average reader may read crap. The aspiring writer, though, is an exception. To become exceptional, a writer must read more like an Olympic athlete in training. A great writer must, like an Olympic athlete, read a well-balanced, varied diet. I know, I know: it works for Billy Bob Thornton to only eat orange food (okay, to set the record strait, he eats only raw food, not necessarily orange. Big difference), but not for the writer. Sorry. Even a straight genre writer should cross train.
With my new creed in mind, I joined a book group. It was kind of like the Nutrisystem for me. A prescribed diet of someone else’s food, just enough to pry me from my old habits, and get me on the road to a healthier diet. I’ll admit that I didn’t like all the books my group chose. I don’t care if he does write a pretty sentence; Jonathan Franzen struck me as a pubescent boy stuck with a nasty god complex. Mostly, though, I read wonderful books I never would have chosen with my own sensitive nose. I was introduced by Mandy to Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea, by Maureen to Peter Carey’s Parrot and Oliver in America, and by Tracy to Jennifer Vanderbe’s Easter Island. The camaraderie of a group to gush over or trash a book is added fun I didn’t take into account when I joined.
Like many people who have kicked an eating disorders, I maintain my Nurtisystem support group, but I also go on my own hunts. These days I’m like a reformed meat-eater who now leads groups on urban mushroom foraging. I will spend my late hours on the Internet searching the Independent Publishing sites such as Dranzen Books, Algonquin Books, Other Press. This search has led down some strange paths, such as The Mullet: Hairstyles of the Gods, or Shitting Pretty. It has also put some gems in my hands. On these excursions, I have found Galore by Michael Crummey and The End of the World by Sushma Joshi.
While most of my college promises to myself (big hair, stonewashed jeans, cheap beer, Nihilism) are better off dead, my promise to stay away from bad writing has solidified like cement beneath the post of my own writing. I have many coaches. Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf will always be there, but so, too, will Louise Erdrich, Orhan Pamuk, Gao Xingjian, and Cormac McCarthy. I may not make great art yet, but with the help of these Olympic coaches, I can strive for more. Who knows, with time, practice, and lots of good reading, I could break the record–or put a deep scratch down it so it won’t play on the record player any more.