Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I Read vs What I Write: Michelle's Take

What Do I Read Versus What Do I Write?

Not the most finely crafted writing prompt *glances at prompt skeptically* but it suits our needs. Knowing me, I may not even answer it. I’m certain I won’t answer it directly. But in this early getting-to-know-you phase of Inside the Pod, we peas thought it would be helpful to give our imaginary readers a glimpse into who we are as writers and readers, what turns us on, and why we make the choices we do. After spending an afternoon together pitching blog topics to each other over bird sandwiches this seemed like the natural place to start. So it begins.

So what does M read versus what does M write?
Five years ago I would’ve given you a different answer. I was a college undergrad reading assigned Literature (yes, with a big L) and selecting titles off ten years of Booker Prize and National Book Award lists for my next bedtime read. My how things change.
The more demanding my course load became…(ie: that infamous semester I mistakenly took 20th Century American Novel, Shakespeare’s Tragedies, 19th Century British Novel, two upper level philosophy classes, and a writing workshop—all together totaling thirty-eight assigned books in one semester)…the more I wanted to read something “not hard” (I will qualify that in a moment). I didn’t read much outside class assignments during the semester, but when I did, I learned to love a $6.99 paperback romance or paranormal thriller from the spinny-rack at the bookstore (you know the ones serious Literature students and college professors rarely admit to colleagues they read? those). Those books were easy—like salve to my brain—evoking no impulse to write a fifteen-page reflection or map out how it might correlate to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in some obscure way.

A Few of My Favorite Reads. Photo Copyright M. Ladner
Also during those early university years, in the writing workshops, I was hell-bent on writing the book of my life—a book about growing up Asian American and how my existence seemed lost in translation. I wanted it to be The Joy Luck Club meets Kaftka’s Metamorphoses. Multiple drafts emerged where I fictionalized my mother in short fiction and novel starts, before starting a memoir project melding excerpts of my mother’s writing with essays of my perception of her; all very deep, heart on sleeve stuff (and I wanted desperately to write a meta-fictional postmodern mess).
With all those classes and all that weighty subject matter, I started reading “not hard” books—something not hard intellectually; something not hard emotionally. I found myself drawn to authors of popular fiction (or genre books), which were often fun, fast reads. Books for pleasure, yet books not so deep or thought provoking that I was emotionally and intellectually taxed. My professors assigned plenty of that kind of book (you know the ones where the authors find le mot juste and Lit professors discuss the eighty-two possible meanings and six philosophers’ writings that give a five line passage two hundred pages of subtext? those).
Part of me loved those—in class.
At home, I loathed them. I wanted fast, tight, page-turners. Stories I could lose myself in and not have to think about what the author might have meant or feel compelled to write a paper on it. “Not hard” books, you know the kind, the ones that suck you in and you read them in their entirety in one night because you read like a reader instead of a writer or critic. Like J.K. Rowling’s body of work—where you go to a store at midnight to buy the book on release day, read through the morning until you collapse on the last page, and then, have to reread it before the next book releases because you didn’t think about it, you just read.
That was why I started reading YA fantasy and romance.
I could read one YA Paranormal Romance (because, as a rule, they were shorter than the adult variety) on a Saturday afternoon and still have the evening with my husband, leaving Sunday to rough out my literature and philosophy papers for the week. I wanted more and more “not hard”—because I wanted to turn off my critical brain. Not that YA doesn’t engage that in a reader, but YA (of any variety) has an intrinsic ability to bring me back to my childhood. Not only because YA has a young identifiable protagonist and bildungsroman element that reminded me of a younger me. It was that long lost ability to read away my afternoon with no thought of responsibilities hanging overhead.
An interesting thing happened.
I set aside the book of my life.
I couldn’t even pinpoint the “aha” moment if you asked. It was such a natural progression for me as a writer. I wanted to write what I was reading. I saw something in those authors that I admired. The reader in me began to let go and the writer wanted to learn how it was done.

Manuscript Edits for My Current WIP. Photo Copyright M. Ladner
In the last year of my undergrad, I wrote an eighty-page literature thesis project whilst imagining my first YA paranormal romance.
Because I flew through these “not hard” books and loved that consumable quality in them—the writing student in me had to ask, why? What magic are these authors (YA authors, popular genre authors, commercial bestsellers) wielding on readers that I didn’t see? That I don’t possess? (And, incidentally, Dickens doesn’t possess—gods knows Nicholas Nickleby is not your average one sitting read, despite its “popular fiction” status in 1839).
Somewhere during those first two years of university courses, the flood of “not hard” escapist books, and the mentorship of Carolyn Haines, I learned to seek a well-told story versus a perfectly calculated turn of phrase. I could write a pretty sentence and even string a few together, making layers of subtext. But the magic of storytelling (the kind that sleep-deprives) eluded me. The power of a writer to keep someone awake reading five hundred pages while making them believe they can’t risk laying it down is immense. It changed the reader I am, and the writer I am.
These days, I read fantasy and romance YA novels for craft. I read slower, analyze them—ask myself why it works, map turning points and plot devices, and try to intuit why the author made the choices he or she made. But, I often still take a Saturday to read for entertainment.
Frankly, I read as a reader for the love of a well-told story. I read as a writer to learn all I can about the craft. Most people read for multiple reasons. Many read multiple genres. It’s the nature of reading—pleasure and information exchange. But ask me why I write what I write? I guess it’s because one day I hope to find an audience of readers like me—and, honestly, I want to keep them turning pages until morning.

Next Tuesday J answers Pea Prompt #1.
I anticipate at least one brief reference to apocalyptic zombies.

Peas out,


  1. Hear, hear, M. When I think about storytelling, I always go back to the one person sitting around the fire who had the ability to enthrall the rest of the group with a tale. Yes, literature can and does give us history, tell us things about ourselves, and prompt us to ask questions about existence, but good god, it can also knock our socks off. That's what keeps me up at night.

  2. Exactly the point I hoped I got across. Thanks for commenting. There is magic in books that keep us turning pages until sunrise. It is its own writing art form, I think. And you hit the nail on the head... it brings us to the campfire, asks us to suspend our disbelief, and touches on something other than what we're taught to appreciate but what we already innately do.

  3. I agree the desire to gather around the fire and listen to "Stories of Old" is an innate and even primal desire. Those oral stories were the cultural histories as well as the entertainment. Storytellers were often held in high esteem and it took years of intensive education to learn the stories in order to pass them along. That's why I also think the need for some to tell those stories is one that we are either born with or not. Those who have that storytelling need are the ones who will read not just for entertainment but for craft, seamlessly blending the two as they read. They won't limit themselves to any one genre, whether it's considered "popular," "literary," or "educational" makes little difference because it's all the same on a some hidden instinctive level.

    (Yes, I know. Deep thoughts from J. The world may end soon.)

  4. Yes. Deep and a little broader than what I think I managed to get across. I feel as if I should work harder on the prompt response next time.