Reading is Fundamental

When I arrived three years ago for my first residency at Wilkes University’s MA program in Creative Writing, I had my doubts about whether I was even worthy to be there. In other words, I questioned whether I even qualified to be in the company of my peers and the great writer/teachers who made up the faculty. However, the first workshop I attended quickly allayed my fears when Dr. Michael Lennon, who is Norman Mailer’s official biographer, took a survey about our reading habits. I quickly found myself raising my hand almost every time he threw out a classic title: James Joyce’s Ulysses-read it, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude-been there, read that, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass-yep…

            The whole point of Dr. Lennon’s exercise was to reinforce the fundamental lesson that writers read, and readers write (or at least can if they so choose). I still wasn’t sure if I was going to make it as a writer in this prestigious and challenging program, but at least I was now confident that I had the reading part down pat.

            I had been a voracious reader since I was five years old when my dear mother took me to the library (actually bookmobile) to sign up for my library card. The first book I ever read was The Little Engine That Could and I still subscribe to its theme “I think I can.” Over the next fifty years or so I would read several thousand books for both pleasure and as a means of escape. However, it was in graduate school that I learned to “read like a writer.” In fact, I had a course called Literary Analysis where I read a dozen by authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Vonnegut and learned how they crafted their great novels using all of the elements of literary craft like character, setting, voice, image, and theme. While this analytical approach to reading could feel tedious at times, it also gave me great insight into writing. Since I graduated this past June, I have taken somewhat of a hybrid approach to my reading. I still read for enjoyment, but will stop and write a note in the margin of the book when I come upon a particularly well-crafted passage with the hope that I can someday emulate it in my own writing.

            In last week’s blog “Blue Collar Writers (INSERT URL),” I referenced a number of authors who fell under this category. Today, I’d like to mention a few of my favorite contemporary authors and their novels which I have enjoyed. In addition to William Kennedy, I admire Michael Chabon (Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay), Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn), Rick Moody America), and Richard Ford (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and Canada).

            Some non-fiction authors whom I esteem include Peter Biskind (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Films) who I met at a book signing at a great LA bookstore called Book Soup. (I plan to focus my next blog on great local independent and used book stores). For history, I particularly like William Manchester  (The Last Lion and American Caesar). In the true crime genre, I enjoy reading George Anastasia (Blood and Honor and The Last Gangster) and T.J. English Whacked and The Westies).

            As you can see (read), I enjoy reading both fiction and non-fiction. I habitually have at least one of each going at once. In fact, what I like to do is to read one hundred pages of a novel and then switch over to the non-fiction book for a hundred pages and so on and so forth. As I write this I am reading John Kennedy O’Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces. O’Toole is a story in himself, albeit a sad one. He committed suicide before this novel was published and it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The lesson for me here is to never give up because you may actually be only five minutes from success. The non-fiction book I am currently reading is Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song.  It is a tome at one thousand pages, but is so well written that I am breezing through and am up to page 700. I can’t wait to finish both and start the next two.

            Books are great conversation starters. Therefore I am curious to know what you are currently reading and about your favorite authors and books. Please go to my website’s Contact page and write to me.