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Writing as a Way to Read Life

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Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself, which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature, which is turn makes us better readers of life. —James Wood

Since starting this blog about writing—well, mostly about writing—I've been trying to read more, particularly read more about writing. You're already familiar with two of my favorite books, On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, and Stephen King's On Writing. I quote from them a lot. There's also the classic The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Zinsser and King quote from that a lot. In grad school I read Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir for a creative writing class with Joy Harjo, the 23rd United States Poet Laureate. (She left U.T. the next semester. I felt so privileged to have had her as a teacher!)

More recently, I picked up Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird from McKay's, a fantastic used bookstore in Knoxville.

Anne Lamott is an American novelist and nonfiction writer who lives in Petaluma, California. (Crazy! I used to live in Santa Rosa, just twenty minutes away.) I came across her name for the first time on Facebook only a few months ago. She'd written a long, touching post about the messiness and heartbreak that is life, and her writing struck me. It was raw and beautiful and sardonic and funny. It was so human.

So I liked her page and remembered her name, and when I saw her book, I knew I had to have it. Bird by Bird is a book about fiction writing. I've never considered myself a fiction writer, but so far the book has been wonderful and worthwhile, anyway. . . After all, as any good writer will tell you, the best way to find your voice as a writer is to read.

“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner

Below is a clip from the introduction of Lamott's book that points out the importance of reading in her early life (and ultimately, her career), as well as one of the most important things that writing, unlike television or other media, can do for you:

I grew up around a father and a mother who read every chance they got, who took us to the library every other Thursday night to load up on books for the coming week. Most nights after dinner my father stretched out on the couch to read, while my mother sat with her book in the easy chair and the three of us kids each retired to our own private reading stations. Our house was very quiet after dinner—unless, that is, some of my father's writer friends were over. My father was a writer, as were most of the men with whom he hung out. They were not the quietest people on earth, but they were mostly very masculine and kind. Usually in the afternoons, when that day's work was done, they hung out at the no name bar in Sausalito, but sometimes they came to our house for drinks and ended up staying for supper. I loved them, but every so often one of them would pass out at the dinner table. I was an anxious child to begin with, and I found this unnerving.

Every morning, no matter how late he had been up, my father rose at 5:30, went to his study, wrote for a couple of hours, made us all breakfast, read the paper with my mother, and then went back to work for the rest of the morning. Many years passed before I realized that he did this by choice, for a living, and that he was not unemployed or mentally ill. I wanted him to have a regular job where he put on a necktie and went off somewhere with the other fathers and sat in a little office and smoked. But the idea of spending entire days in someone else's office doing someone else's work did not suit my father's soul. I think it would have killed him. He did end up dying rather early, in his mid-fifties, by at least he had lived on his own terms.

So I grew up around this man who sat at his desk in the study all day and wrote books and articles about the places and people he had seen and known. He read a lot of poetry. Sometimes he traveled. He could go anywhere he wanted with a sense of purpose. One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.

Writing taught my father to pay attention. My father in turn taught other people to pay attention and then to write down their thoughts and observations . . .

I recently pointed out to a blogging friend how great he is with description. This is because, like Lamott's father, he notices his surroundings and practices writing these details down. He also reads a lot. Writing teaches you to read more closely. How did he (or she) do that? I can't read a book without a pen in hand. I underline text, write notes in the margins, and re-read passages over and over again in the attempt to absorb them, and then I try to apply that same eye in real life. If I'm ever stuck waiting somewhere, for example, rather than pull out my phone, I try to observe the world around me. Who's waiting here with me? What are they doing? How are they dressed? Are they talking to anyone? What are they talking about?

And so on.

If I don't force myself to stop and pay attention, I often find I can't remember any of the details of my day, let alone write about them later. And somehow, paying attention to these details makes life seem richer, its colors, more vibrant.

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