Tuesday, July 1, 2014

BEARS, COWS AND FLIES, OH MY!

Photo courtesy of the
motion-activated camera at Uncle Cleve's cabin :)
When it comes to my reading habits, I'm as omnivorous as a black bear in August.

Here’s a recent sampling:
The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (third time through, first time in last decade)
Married Into It by Patricia Frolander
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland by Cathryn M. Valente (Young Adult)
Writing Wild by Tina Welling
Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
Tinkers by Paul Harding

As for my reading tempo, I am more like a cow. I read at a grinding pace, ruminating over the story/information and writing about it in my journal. I am a bovine moving its cud from stomach to stomach, making sure to absorb all the nutrients.

Photo of Swiss cow by Lynn Carlson
I’ve heard—you have too, I'll bet—that a writer must be widely read and up-to-date on current trends in their particular genre. The good news is I’m pretty widely read due to the fact that I’ve been a life-long reader, my undergraduate degree is in English/Journalism, and I come from a book-loving family. My husband and I like to read out loud to each other. I read books to my vision-impaired mother. All of this has accumulated over time.

But staying up-to-date? I read recently that in the 1600’s, a reader of the English language had access to about 2,000 books. I have close to that many in my house! Then there’s the library, the internet, my Nook, my generous family and friends who keep giving me books… how’s a writer to keep up, and still find time to write?

Plus, I’m still leapfrogging in my writing from creative nonfiction to fiction to poetry, so staying up-to-date in “my” genre is impossible.

I give up.

But there are these flies buzzing around my ear that say, “When you try to get published, you’re going to be laughed out of the room because you haven't read X, don't know anything about Y, and haven't even heard of Z.”

Okay, dear reader, help me out here. What’s a bear-like, cow-like writer to do with these pesky flies?




13 comments:

  1. Swat them down, of course! The concept of keeping "up to date" in one's genre, is an artifact of the academicization of creative writing, to its great detriment. While the idea of keeping abreast of one's field makes some sense in scientific fields, it makes no sense in writing. To me, what's vastly more important is reading stuff that helps one find one's own true voice. Trying to copy the latest trend is at best a distraction and at worst a danger.

    By the way, have I told you about my latest passion, for an English writer named Kate Atkinson? Add "Life after Life" to your list of must-reads.

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    1. That makes so much sense, I hadn't thought of it that way - the "academicization of creative writing." Leave it to my favorite "recovering academic" to notice it :-) Thanks. I feel better already.

      "Life After Life" eh? I'll add it to the list.

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  3. This may sound a bit...obvious, but I think telling your stories in language you use is the way to go, regardless of what anyone else is doing (with exceptions for historical fiction perhaps). A couple of examples, or counterexamples: When I was in college I was still in the throes of classes like medieval literature, American romantic lit., etc. and I wrote a poem, in which I used the word "e'er." I thought it fit. The feedback I got from a journal editor/professor, however, was that the language (such as "e'er") didn't fit, as nobody says that anymore. I was miffed...obviously I just said it! But whatever, he knew what he was doing. And now, back in my contest-judge chair, it brings to mind a story set in the 1800s in which a character uses a phrase that sounds more like the 2000s (something like "that's just not right"). I don't know when that phrase really came about, and I thought okay, maybe someone could have potentially actually uttered that phrase, as it is so commonly used now such as in response to a really bad joke. But you don't want to distract your reader with an internal argument like that either. At least I don't.

    So, I recently read a friend's novel and it made me really, really excited for him because I feel like he has taken an accurate picture of the situation of a huge part of the population today--recent college grads struggling with the career prospects available to them. I feel like readers 50 years from now will be able to read the book and see what our time was like, what people are going through, how they talk to each other, what they're thinking/worrying about. And when I think about my favorite old-timey books, that's what they do for me too--carry me to a time I'll never get to know firsthand and let me see it through their eyes. I can still relate to the "human tendencies" in the stories and therefore see myself with them, even if they're living in a different time.

    I dunno. The way I see it, the writer's job is to write and you just have to write what's in you. If anybody should be up to date it's the publishing houses and agents, as that's THEIR job to worry about the market. If you're a writer whose main goal is selling stories and finding a commercial niche, then sure, it would be good to know. But if you're writing because you just need to write, then you can borrow my fly swatter. :)

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    1. Ha! I will borrow that fly swatter. I get what you're saying, and I also pretty much lean toward the "write what's in you" side. It's not like I can write anything else, right? Thanks for commenting!

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  4. I got this comment via email from author John Calderazzo:

    Lynn---My answer is, Just keep reading what you please, as your lists indicate, and not what you think you should read to "keep up". I no longer know what it means to keep up, and really nobody else does, either, esp. with all the zillions upon zillions of writers out there, and writing in so many voices on so many topics, in so many genres and subgenres. Impossible to read "everything" and do anything else with one's life, I say. I know a number of extremely terrific writers who have huge gaps and don't feel ashamed about that. For instance, when I spent some time with Tim O'Brien in Cheyenne, time I really enjoyed, as he and I, close in years but certainly not literary accomplishment (I would hardly be the only writer to fall short of him, since I think he is the best "war" writer in the world, basically), I mentioned that he might like Scott Sanders essays. I think Sanders, a friend I deeply admire, writes as good an essay as anybody in the country, and he has appeared in MANY Best American Essays, etc. Guess what, Tim had not heard of him. This astounded me. At the same time, I have heard versions of this story many times over the years, from many different highly terrific writers, many of whom you have heard of. The point is that one reads with discrimination and enjoyment and with an eye towards what's going on aesthetically and in structure as well as towards content. I suspect strongly that you do this already. By the way, Tinkers by Paul Harding IS AS good a book as I have read in years.

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  5. I read in most genres plus a lot of non-fiction...and I don't pay any attention to what other people or even the "experts" say I should be reading. Next week I'll be unplugged and on a trip, so I have lined up one Vietnam War novel, a nonfiction about the nurses imprisoned by the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II, a selection of short stories based on conversations overheard at a coffee shop, and one or two of over 175 books on my Kindle.

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    1. That's a passel of reading for your trip--love the variety you have planned! Thanks, Pat, for the wise words and I love that you put experts in quotation marks. We should all be dubious about that designation :-)

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  6. Write what you write. Put it out there with sincerity, craft and pride. Your stories will resonate and with hope, sell.

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    1. Good advice, I would say. Story has to resonate with the writer before it resonates with the reader. Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. Inspiring words, J.C. - the writing always comes first. Thanks!

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  7. Well, I'm late to this game (responding to your post), and you've gotten many words of wisdom above, but I have two thoughts: 1) When the flies taunt you, do they tell you WHO, pray tell, will be the ones laughing you out of the room? Have the FLIES read everything? Evidence: John C's example about Tim O'Brien.

    2) Put some sugar water, really sugary, in a wide shallow bowl and put outside your writing room, just outside. Now stand next to the bowl, and imagine the flies (you can blow them as a transportation aid) leaping into the sugar pool and DROWNING. Take the sugar/and/flies to the sink, rinse and repeat until you can't hear the ugly buggers anymore. An exercise in visualization. Fun, and often effective.

    My buzzing voice sits on my shoulder sometimes, and I actually reach up and FLiCK the creature off, imagining her tumbling over and over and landing unconscious on the floor.

    Good luck with all of that . . .

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  8. Love the visualization suggestion and I will try it out. It's all in my head, after all. Might as well put that head to some good use. Thanks!

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