I’m in the middle of a really challenging project. One day, I’m full of beans, the next I’m in despair. But over the years my creative routine has become very familiar and comforting to me. And one of the things I do a lot more frequently when I’m in the throes of a project is read.
Yes, that’s right. I read a lot while I’m writing. I read both new material and old. Currently, on my desk, I have these books:*
- Speaking with the Angel, edited by Nick Hornby
- The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby
- The Good Mother, by Sue Miller
- Writers on Writing, Collected essays from the New York Times
- Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
- Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
These aren’t necessarily all my favorite books, but they’re the ones I want at hand so I can I dip into them as I work, just to remind myself of the kind of writing I aspire to. Over the last 20 years, I’ve read The Good Mother four times, because the pacing is exquisite and the human drama so poignant. The Diving Bell is heavily thumbed: oh to be so spare with words and yet so eloquent!
When I finished reading it, I wanted to muse for a day and then pick it up and start all over again. I learned something—about craft, about the world, about myself—on every page. Here are some writing truths that it brought to mind for me:
1) Character is everything
Walter’s characterizations are among the best I’ve ever read, whether he’s writing about fishermen in a remote Italian village in 1962; a surgically enhanced movie producer whose face looks like a 9-year old Filipino girl’s; or a hapless young wannabe with his fake cowboy shirt and cheesy self-empowerment tattoo. I believed in them all. Specific and unique characters make a book come alive. And despite a vast cast, this book retains an intimate feel. That comes from the reader being truly invested in each character.
2) But plot counts too
Whether I liked them or not, I cared about what happens to the people in this book. I turned pages because I had to find out what their dreams were and whether or not they came true. Even though Walter constantly switches point-of-view and genre—including long sections of a screenplay, war novel and memoir in the middle of the primary narratives—this isn’t distracting. It doesn’t interrupt the flow, despite interrupting the story. This is a feat of genius.
3) Snappy dialogue creates character
This is, of course, obvious but can’t be stated often enough. Here’s one example: “I was thinking about Larry.” Richard Burton looked at Pasquale. “Olivier, lecturing me in that buggering-uncle voice of his.” Richard Burton stuck out his lower lip and assumed a nasal voice: “ ‘Dick, you will, of course, eventually have to make up your mind whether you wish to be a household word or an ac-TOR.’” He laughed. “Rotten old sotter.” And, yes, Richard Burton is the beautiful ruin of the title, which refers to this Dick Cavett interview.
4) Every scene should have a purpose
There are not many pyrotechnics in this book: no one gets shot, there are no explosions or big reveals. It’s a slow build toward a devastating overall commentary on the human condition. Yet while many of the scenes seem small scale, each one has purpose: it unveils deeper nuances in the characters.
5) Readers want to learn
A huge part of the fun of reading is being taken to unfamiliar places and learning about something new. While lying in my bed, I travelled to Cinque Terre, Italy; Los Angeles; Edinburgh; Sandpoint, Idaho; Seattle—and elsewhere. I learned about movie-making, music, fishing, geography. Ultimately, we read about the lives of others for the insights this gives us into ourselves. A great book teaches us about worldly happenings as a way to teach us about the mysteries of our own selves.
A deeply romantic book at its core, Beautiful Ruins is also cynical, lacerating, exuberant and timely. It asks the question: what do any of us really want from life?
This, then, is why I read when I write. So that I keep aiming high. Readers deserve it.
May the Force be with you,
* Links are to interesting info about the books, not Amazon. Just saying.