Reading Makes Me a Better Writer

Second only to my love of writing comes reading a good book.    When my own pen stalls on the page, I know it’s time to pick up a good book and see what someone else has to say.  There’s always a good tip on style, voice or rhythm that inspires me to keep writing.   

The last few months, I’ve taken a hiatus from writing my own memoir and started reading more to see what I could learn.  It’s been daunting at times.  No where near a master at this boldest of writing genres, I quickly learned that memoirs are as unique as the authors.  Some cover long periods of times, even since childhood, others take hundreds of pages to describe a few weeks of the author’s life.  Some pour forth with emotion and feeling while others titillate, cajole and tease you to turn the page.

From Gail Caldwell’s “Let’s Take the Long Way Home,” I learned that there’s so much more to a friendship than the word “LIKE”.  Caldwell’s depiction of her friendship with another dog-lover and former alcoholic who is dying of cancer is so artfully described I wondered at times if there was a level of feeling for another human being that I had yet to experience.  Their story made me look at my friendships with new eyes, beyond the patterns of mindless chatter and rushed email that seemed to define them now.

Around Christmas, I found several copies of Margaret Shepherd’s “The Art of the Handwritten Note” and bought all three copies in the store.  I was aching for a handwritten note on each of the holiday cards I opened, wishing for more to be said than “Love, so-n-so”.  I gave two copies and a small stack of note cards to two of my dearest friends and urged them to keep the practice going despite their fascination with pecking on a small handheld screen in madeup acronyms like BTW and FYEO.

I traveled the world and swam naked in the Mediterranean with Laura Fraser in “The Italian Affair.”  Her memoir of finding love, and herself, after a devasting divorce caused the literary world to skip a beat, most notably because it was written in second person.  I found it to be a powerful voice — part author, part reader — and learned that even if what we want to say is something outside our reach, the reader can envision a bridge to get us there.  I spent a week with Laura at her fabulous San Miguel writing workshop and found her coaching as solid as her writing.

It was Laura who turned me on to Kaylie Jones, author of “Lies My Mother Never Told Me.”   I’m nearly finished with this book and have so many delightful memories of Kaylie growing up, going to college, finding love and overcoming alcoholism that feel as if I could call her up and have a long chat.  Her anecdotes about life among the literary giants — Normal Mailer, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut — pale in comparison to the tenderness in which she describes her relationship with her father, James Jones (“From Here to Eternity“).  Her writing has shown me that memoirs can go as far back as you want, even to before you were born, if you stay on theme.   To see her use of storytelling over chronological time was truly inspiring — an approach few writing coaches or agents have encouraged me to attempt with my own writing.  I will see Kaylie in person this spring and I can’t wait to learn more from her.

And finally, in my Kindle awaits Dominique Browning’s “Slow Love:  How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness”.   Three people recommended I read it after my job was terminated — seems the author, the former editor-in-chief of House & Garden magazine, lost her job, found love in the wrong places and crept through a recovery to find herself.  Hmmm.  Are there similarities here to my life?  Guess we will see.  Either way, I’m sure I’ll learn a few things about telling your story when writing is the only thing left to do.

What are you reading?    More importantly, what has it taught you about writing?

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