Writers, not new, but new to me

Maybe it’s because reading takes time, or maybe it’s because my particular kind of reading takes time (I’m not the fastest) but for some reason my list of Writers I’ve Never Read is long. I know that part of it has to do with time. Take, you know, the dominant cultural mass-entertainment force of our era: movies. What’s never changed, of course, is the time it takes to consume one. Even the longest is no longer than three hours and most are an hour and a half. And you can watch, if you’re inclined or if you’re snowed in or if you’re sick or if you’re bored or if you’re merely an awake human being, four, five (six?) in a day, right? Services like Netflix make this so much easier, too. And not just the ability to watch any old movies, but what I like to think of as deep cuts, too. Lots of my friends are deeply into movies and so I’ve, over the past few years, been catching up on sort of film-class staples–especially stuff from the seventies–that they’ve long admired. So you can, for example, in an afternoon, watch a Brogdanovich, two Brogdanoviches, a nineties big-budget small masterpiece from a French guy, a New Wave black-and-white from a different French guy, and, I don’t know, a Werner Herzog that’s weirdly great.

It’s different with writers. My list is long. Just look at the writers who, over the past twenty years, have been nominated for National Book Awards. I’m way behind. One of my teachers, for example: Janet Peery. I love her writing, remember actually wooing a girl with her writing in my little apartment in Norfolk, and yet I’ve read only two and a half of her four books (and I feel terrible about it). I suspect most people trying to write share this guilt to some extent or another (though not all; I know some writers who have read at least a book from just about everyone who’s not, you know, Stephen King, though they’ve no doubt read him, too). Do they not waste time, these voracious-beyond-voracious readers? Do they love words more than I do. Both may smell a little bit of the truth.

I try not to be too hard on myself and to merely keep at it. It’s like jogging. Keep at it, and maybe even the books you’re not crazy about will feel good in a way. And hopefully you’ll soon get to one that will blow you away. And so I’m now getting into Anna Karenina. And, when I need a break from that, I’m reading Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. I can’t even begin to get into how many other writers of their caliber I haven’t yet spent much time with. Dear lovely talented mean beautiful writers out there: forgive my tardiness.



To Expand or Not To

One of the hardest things for me, in terms of writing, especially at the outset, is deciding whether or not something’s an actual kernel for a story or if it’s just a fleetingly interesting little thing. For example: the other day I remembered these two brothers who, for a period of about a month back in the fourth grade, beat the shit out of me. So I’m writing something about that, and we’ll see if it’s any good or not. No idea yet.

But then, today, I remembered this history class I took as an undergrad, and how, every week, this old guy sitting up front would, right in the middle of this quiet lecture about American foreign policy, begin clipping his fingernails. This went on for weeks, and though I was always sleepy for that class, I was awake enough to sort of look around, to see if anyone else was catching this, and some people were. There’s no sound quite like the sharp clipping of human fingernails in an otherwise quiet (and crowded, with breath and scribbling) college classroom.

I doubt really there’s much to the fingernail anecdote beyond just that, and of course there’s more naturally built into the bullying story, for a lot of reasons, but the question remains: does the fingernail thing stay that way forever? Just a little thing, a small tangent? Or is it something larger? I don’t know. But they both swim around up there and, maybe, out there, too.