And I’ve never read The Red Tent, or The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, and I gave up halfway through my second Joyce Carol Oates book because you know what? I don’t cotton to her. I no longer feel the need to try and keep up with the frantic pace of books released in this country. It’s faddish, like everything else, and I was very surprised when I learned this, because books have always seemed permanent to me, more lasting, but it just isn’t so. The book everyone’s talking about will be forgotten in five years. I have never enjoyed an Oprah book. If a book crosses my path that looks good, I’ll read it, but I don’t have a To Be Read pile anymore because there are just too many books. Every book in the world would be in that pile if I was honest, so I’m not going to keep a pile, I’m just going to let books come into my life as they will.
I refuse to feel bad about this. Most of the time. But I'm in a writers' workshop right now, and a lot of folks are talking about books they've read and books they recommend, and I haven’t read a good many of them because I don’t keep up with contemporary lit this way. I feel ashamed. I’ve spent a lot of time re-reading Skeleton Crew, I am reminded. I could have used that time to be up on my market.
But you can’t read them all. You just can’t. And maybe if I was in a graduate program or didn’t have a day job I would have the time and inclination to feel bad about this, but aside from flashes of “haven’t I read anything?” when I read these comments from my co-workshoppers, I don’t.
(If you want to know how I learned this lesson, it was from Ha Jin’s Waiting, which, halfway through, was boring me so desperately that I gave up and read the end to find out what happened. It was a thoroughly disappointing ending. The critics loved that book, it won a National Book Award, and I haven’t the faintest idea why. When I returned it to the library I looked around and saw the skazillions of other books on the shelves, not all of which were likely to be as disappointing as this one had been. So after that experience, I was determined no longer to let the books boss me around. I can decide how I want my time to be spent, and no author/critic/talk show host will decide it for me.)
Over the weekend, this idea has mated with another idea in my head and they’ve produced an interesting notion about my own writing. I told my husband the other night that recently when I sit at my laptop, I have begun feeling not, as always, helpless before the grind of events, as my characters tell me what’s going to happen (or sit there and refuse to do anything), but more muhua-ha-ha-ha, more like the dictator of my own little empire, drunk with power over my little fictional people. Dance, puppets! You’ll do what I tell you to do! I am your creator! I am the WRITER!
It doesn’t mean I have an easier time cranking the words onto the page, but it does mean I am far more capable of thinking outside the box than I was. Just because I’ve never read a book where a character had X quality doesn’t mean I can’t create a character that does. Just because Y usually takes place in tandem with Z in many books I’ve read doesn’t mean I have to write the two together as well. I can do whatever I want. It’s all coming out of my own head.
This may seem obvious, but to me it wasn’t. I guess I believed that stories come from somewhere, some other dimension where they are fully formed by the fiction gods and transmitted here, and that they can’t really be written any way but the way they appear in my head (or Kevin Brockmeier’s head, or wherever). Having to invent plot for my Greenland novel when absolutely nothing was springing from my mind like Athena from Zeus has been an interesting lesson learned. I’m just…makin’ shit up. It can go this way, or maybe it can go another way; if I look back and see that it didn’t work, I can just write it over again a different way. It’s my book. I wrote it. I can change it to be whatever I want it to.
So. Fictator + Can’t read all of the innumerable books in the world = …I don’t have to be attached to anything I write. There are limitless metaphors out there, endless permutations of the two plots. No matter how fragile and spectacular a unit of writing seems to be, there is always a way to make it better (or to make it worse, for that matter). No sentence will be exactly like this sentence, true, but there are other sentences, other words, even made-up words and obsolete words. Maybe it won’t be perfect, but nothing ever is, and being attached to paragraphs I write will only hold me back from better paragraphs. Just like being intent on reading all six Dune books meant that I missed out on reading other books I might have liked better.
I feel about 80,000 times better, and far more energetic about writing in the future, after this epiphany.
And hey, if you thought this was interesting, you should read what I’ll have to say soon about how knitting test swatches is like rewriting. If you didn’t think this was interesting, go be your own fictator. It’s my blog.