Monday, November 17, 2014

read like a writer

There is a growing pile of books on my desk that is begging for my attention.

Among them is a book by one of my favorite authors (Ann Patchett), a book that was recommended by a friend ("Lila"), and a couple of books that deal with my favorite subjects (medicine, religion, coping with life in general). Then there is a book of short stories by Alice Munro.

I picked this one up because Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013, along with numerous other distinguished awards for her writing. This book won the Man Booker International Prize. Plus, her age, wisdom, and creativity give me hope.

A beginner can learn a lot about technique, characterization, dialogue, and description by reading great writers.  

Here's the problem I ran into. I started reading the book the way I always do--like a writer, with my virtual critic hard at work, red pen in hand.

I could just hear my critique group take on some of these stories the way they do mine. In fact, I was tempted to reproduce one of her stories and present it to them as if it were mine just to see what they would come up with:
"The action doesn't really begin until the fifth paragraph. I think you should start the story there."
"I couldn't be sure who was speaking at the bottom of page two."
"You used the word 'was' six times on page one alone."
I read a couple of the stories this way and these things kept jumping out at me. It made me wonder. How did Alice Munro win the Nobel Prize? The Man Booker Prize? My critique partners never would have allowed it.
Then, it dawned on me. These stories stayed with me long after I finished them. Why was that, I wondered, when they concerned ordinary people in commonplace situations? There was nothing scary, or exciting, or suspenseful about them. It occurred to me that they left an emotional imprint because each one ended at a critical point in a character's life--an epiphany, an "aha" moment, or a turning point. It might be the unexpected termination of a relationship, a sudden stroke of insight, or a heart-breaking loss. With that, Munro leaves the reader to wonder what will happen next. How will the character respond? How will he/she get on with life?
It leaves you feeling a little uneasy because you're not told how things will turn out for the you keep on thinking about it. Which, it seems to me, is pretty much how we get through life.
If, like me, you lead an ordinary life in an unassuming place, imagine the stories you can tell! Anything that the reader recognizes, that makes him uneasy, and keeps him wondering is a story that needs to be told.

Are you uneasy about something? A friend's illness? Where your teen really was last night? A bill you can't pay? Tell us what you know about it.
"The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think,
but to give you something to think upon."
~Brandon Sanderson~


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