on my bookshelf + some thoughts on writing

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For four years I woke and came home to a blank page. Writing was a failed series of stops and starts, an epileptic fit of random ideas gone nowhere. We write what consumes us, whether we like or it not, and our work is a reflection of what we’re tethered to. Arguably, I could say that I spent four years bound to an idea of a life that I thought I wanted. I had my publishing time. I had my freelance time. Now, it was time to get serious, as they would say. It was time to climb the ranks, have a title for which one could live up to, or any such euphemism for binding yourself to a computer for ten plus hours a day. Living as a barnacle under the undersides of planes and behind the desk, where lunch was what was ordered online. Conversation was the exchange of pleasantries and minor personal effects, but never too personal, mind you, between you and strangers, people whom you’d spent more time than those you loved.

You also write, as I’ve learned, when you have perspective, room to breathe. And in those four years I had neither — I chased what was in front of me, rather than conceiving of what could be beyond me. Beyond the next pitch, deck, meeting, endless and exhausting conference calls.

Honestly, I was worried. This ability I had to put words together in unusual ways felt like it had atrophied. It was a muscle gone slack and weak, and every time I came to the page, I kept saying the same old thing. Kept relying on my certain stock of images. I wrote a younger version of myself in an aged, experienced body, and I couldn’t quite get the two to reconcile. So instead I wrote about food. I wrote short blog posts, told some stories, and called it a day. But I’d soon learn it wasn’t enough. I wanted the shape of people. I wanted their voices in my head, constant, constant, like some sort of metronome. I craved a world that was unlike my own, but familiar in some way so I had my in. I had my compass, I would navigate.

And then there was the issue of the reading, or the lack of it. I used to have a blog where I’d document, over the course of six years, all the books I’d read. I stopped doing this because I went from a woman who voraciously devoured 60 books a year to one or two. My diction wasn’t what it was, I didn’t get inspired, I didn’t have space and time in which to read and learn. I grew irritable and impatient with longer books, because I was taught by society that we like our content succinct, manageable, efficient — like a machine of sorts.

So when I flew to Europe in April, I packed nearly a dozen books and read all of them. I read them on the flight, on the TGV, in the hotel room, on the metro, in the parks, on the beaches, in the many, many restaurants where I took meals. I read, folded down pages, took down words I liked. In the case of Nabokov, I took down words to look up in the dictionary.

And then it came. Like a torrent. I sat in a hotel room in Biarritz, the last leg of my journey, and wrote what would become the thing that consumes me, my new novel, Mammoth. I didn’t know what I was doing, or where I was going, but I let the hand play out and kept typing. Hopeful that the larger narrative would get pried out of my subconscious, and months later, after death, loss, more books, and an awakening, I’ve got a clear direction.

The two halves are now one, and I’m reading and writing more than ever. There are stacks of printed drafts in my living room. Books on the floor, on tables and in my closets. I’m reading everything I can get my hands on, and this week I’ve got these four books in play.

Mastering the Art of French Eating: Lessons in Food and Love from a Year in Paris | Doctor Sleep: A Novel | The Lowland | The Paris Review Book: of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, … and Everything Else in the World Since 1953

10 thoughts on “on my bookshelf + some thoughts on writing

  1. Have I told you how much I love the title of your new novel? :) I’ve been trying to read more this year. I have half a dozen ones I’ve started earlier this year and just now slowly coming back to and finishing one by one. I feel like I’ve left some good conversations with friends hanging.

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  2. I love this post.

    I’ve been wondering recently if I’ve some form of ADD. I don’t believe in ADD as a ‘disorder’ but more of an overstimulation of the introverted, creative mind. I too find myself at times starting several books and tossing them to the shelf in annoyance, as if they’re too much of a challenge to surmount. Not because they are difficult to follow, but because they aren’t always engaging enough to keep my interest. I’m learning that satisfaction in reading comes not just from being fully immersed in an exciting moment (thought we love those too) but also from the joy you get from sticking to something and finishing it even when it proves to be a challenge.

    Completion. Achievement.

    I’ve also decided to keep an Evernote list of words to look up in the dictionary. That’s a fabulous idea! I list everything else in life, that’s a far more useful thing.

    With a creative mind that’s led me to things like reading, writing, painting, drawing, interior design, photography, and cooking (this one for a living)… I often have moments utter confusion in trying to decide what to truly DO with myself. But in the end- reading and writing brings out your truth and helps you find the way.

    Ashley.

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  3. Gahhh this is what I needed to read. You seem to capture precisely what I’m feeling and thinking but can’t muscle out the words to articulate it. I similarly went through a phase of not having the time or mental space to read more than a couple books a year but now, if I don’t have a book with me I feel helpless. And I truly believe what other writers insist about the craft – ready everything, in various industries and let your mind wander. That your come to Jesus moment came during your travels is hardly surprising – there’s something to be said for a fresh environment that allows your mind to explore its greatest creative expanses.

    I cannot wait to read your new book.

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    1. Lindsay — I think you’ve said it eloquently, as well. I think we’re so often taught to FOCUS, to consider the task at hand, that rest is time wasted, that it’s in the moments of lost thought do we find clarity. I know for a fact that I haven’t been able to write for this long simply because of the fact that I was too focused on something I didn’t love. xo

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  4. Love that France inspired you, this country helps us to slow down and linger over things and appreciate and reflect, so good for writing. Reading your vignette, it all seems like a natural progression and that the trip was the moment when you realised it, those years of writing about books, the period of reflection, then reading in Europe stimulated your lexicon and stilled the chatter enough to let the subconscious have some space.

    When in doubt about your writing, come back to France. :)

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