currently reading: new books on the shelf

new books on my bookshelf

Sometimes I read the books I’m unable to write because they inspire the kind of stories and books I can. The other night my friend tells me that she wants to write a book. She looks at me, pauses, and says, Well, not like you. Not the kind of book you’re able to write. We tell stories in order to live, Didion once said, and I remind my friend that this would be a dull world if we all had the capacity to tell our stories in the same way. Years ago I sat in a Columbia writing workshop and someone regarded one of my short stories with disdain, spat out, Family stories are over, Felicia. After I cried into my sleeve in the hallway, I realized her comment was ridiculous.

Every story has been told. The beauty is in its retelling. The magic lies in all the ways in which artists can interpret love, loss, heartbreak, joy, anger, rage, despair. Therein lies the art.

I don’t know how a lot of writers do it. I don’t know how they have the ability to consistently conjure new characters, architect new worlds, so swiftly. Before I sat down to write my latest novel (you know, the brilliant, dark thing that publishers love but are frightened of publishing), I’d already been thinking about these characters for years. While they didn’t have the same names, shapes or features, I was slowly coming to know them much like how I’d know real people, so when the time came to write about them (Kate, Jonah, Gillian, etc), their world came at me like a torrent, fully-realized. I love these characters because they feel like old friends, and I’m struggling to fashion a new world so quickly as all these articles on writing would have me do.

While we try to sell that dark thing over there, my agent tells me to write something new. I thought I had something but it’s nothing substantial, nothing worth occupying my time, so I read and write these small things here wondering if and when something will spark.

I read the spectrum. From Sarah Manguso’s thin but potent meditation on the art of journaling to Katherine Heiney’s razor-sharp and fully-drawn stories about young women tangeled up in love and betrayal, I oscillate between extremes in form and style. I read Bardur Oskarsson’s The Flat Rabbit (a children’s book that tackles death so beautifully) because I want to remember that the power of a good story lies in the and then what. It also reminds of economy, how writers need to be deliberate, downright surgical with the words they choose. When I was working on my novel I would spend DAYS on a single page, reworking sentences, because every scene, every line, had to be like a koan; everything I write has to be a container filled with multiple meanings.

“I don’t know anything.” It might seem counterintuitive but I try to tell myself this every day when I wake up. It’s quickly becoming my daily mantra. Now, this isn’t some exercise in self deprecation. I simply want to remind myself as soon as I wake up to see the world with clear eyes. —Jory MacKay

And I read Elle Luna’s magical book because I have to remember that I must write, always. I must gather experiences up in my hands so I’m able to write about them because I’m only able to make sense of this life through writing about it. There’s no other way.

And the rest? They’re meant to awaken, inspire me to what’s next. What’s down the road, just beyond my reach.

13 Comments on “currently reading: new books on the shelf

  1. I just finished reading four short story collections by Antonya Nelson. Tell her that “family stories are over.” What a stupid comment. I don’t know why people say absolutist shit like that. A friend had a meeting with an agent a few years ago. I’m not sure but the comp for her pitch may have mentioned Nick Hornby and Richard Russo. The agent said, “Nick Hornby” is so over. Last I checked, Hornby was doing quite well. Very few things are ever “over.” BTW, the same agent didn’t even know who Richard Russo was and this was the year Russo won the Pulitzer for Empire Falls. I’m reminded of this sixth sense parody

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love that…”what’s down the road…what’s beyond reach”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A NY Times review of Jenny Offill’s remarkable The Dept. of Speculation made a similar point: her themes of marriage and domestic life may be considered passe, overdone, mined for every last nugget of insight. But her spare and seemingly random scenes are so wonderfully fresh and poignant and memorable for the way she tells her story: she is, to use your words, “downright surgical with the words” she chooses and in the way she dissects experiences to lay bare the feelings and reflections within. Beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love both the way you push back at the ‘party line’–(Family stories are over? Family stories will only be over when the family, all versions and incarnations of family, are obliterated and forgotten)–and how you write tentatively into the future.

    I’m in a similar place, writing-wise. I’ve slammed the full force of who I am, and what I have, into my novel manuscript (into characters who have been my companions for nearly a decade), and while I let the latest draft breath, I’m finding myself reading voraciously, and needing to write–even when I struggle to find whatever that is. What you’ve written here is both hopeful and commanding.


%d bloggers like this: