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A series of articles have appeared over the summer about the ways that the pandemic affected us as human beings. One of the most obvious is that people have forgotten how to behave in public. Vox did a long article on this, citing various examples, including many that featured concert goers throwing things at performers and actually injuring them.
Here in Las Vegas, we hit a lot of this behavior earlier than other communities. We’re a destination entertainment site. Some of the behavior I witnessed during the pandemic from people who didn’t believe in it was quite appalling, from hitting security guards who wanted them to walk through metal detectors to throwing drinks at bypassers on the sidewalk. These were mostly on my early morning runs in the heat, when I wouldn’t go anywhere near the gym.
In 2022, at a musical, I shamed some guy in intermission. I was sitting in a great orchestra seat, with friends across the aisle from me. The guy behind me was cracking jokes at the top of his voice throughout the first twenty minutes, so I finally turned around and told him to shut up. He did for a little while, then started again before intermission.
Intermission hit and I got up. My friend across the aisle thanked me for shushing the guy, and I said in my loudest voice, “Well, it didn’t work. The idiot seems to believe we paid to hear his truly awful comedy routine rather than the performers on stage.”
He was blissfully silent during Act Two.
As Vox noted in their article, shaming works.
All of us ended up with behaviors and coping mechanisms and various means of surviving those years. One of my survival mechanisms is to pay attention to everything, which is probably why I saw those people fighting, worrying that they might get too close to me, or felt I needed to shut the idiot up at the theater. (Okay, full disclosure: I would have shut him up pre-pandemic.)
But being on that level of alert for me meant that I couldn’t sink into story in any form—not all the way, anyhow, unless I knew I was completely safe. When we moved to a different condo in 2021, I got an office that has windows all around me and a clear door that I can see through.
This little space made me feel safe. It felt almost hidden even though I could see everything around me if I wanted to. I was able to sink into my own storytelling and get back to writing things that required my full concentration.
But with very few exceptions, I couldn’t sink all the way into someone else’s story in written form. I didn’t realize that I had lost the habit of going all the way into someone else’s book until this summer, when I had to recover from two different surgeries.
I took a stack of books with me, sat on the couch, and lived in a very dark and funny version of London for days. I sank so deeply into Mick Herron’s Slough House series that I can’t tell you much of what happened in my condo, let alone Las Vegas, during that period of time.
Oh, did it feel good.
I have long believed that fiction writers need to read fiction in order to write fiction. Not just the fiction that they read growing up, but now, today, as they continue with their craft. Part of learning is to see what other writers are doing.
It doesn’t matter if those writers are producing fiction in 2023 or if they’re long dead and their books have lived beyond them. What matters is the act of reading itself, the act of sinking into the story and letting it take you somewhere else.
A writer friend of mine has said for years that he doesn’t have time to read fiction anymore. I keep waiting for him to tell me that the stories in his head have dried up. I know he’s having a rougher time writing right now, but that could simply be because of shedding his pandemic skin.
I have heard writers say that they slowed down or stopped writing as they got older. In the next breath, they would tell me that they had stopped reading for pleasure years ago.
One writer actively told me that he’d seen all the stories and all of the plots and there was nothing new for him.
I’m very sad about that. The best writers make everything new. I recently read a time travel novel that had me on the edge of my seat because I had no idea how it would resolve. I’ve read a lot. I too see patterns and know how many stories will end.
That doesn’t bother me, maybe because I’m a romance reader. Romance carries with it the expectation of a happily-ever-after ending, so we readers know the couple will work it out in the end.
The key to a great romance isn’t the ending. It’s the journey.
That’s the same for me in many other genres where I see the patterns. It’s the key for me in lots of other books.
Reading informs writing. We get to live different lives by opening a book. Right now, I’m reading a lot of fiction by writers half my age. Their world is different from mine, and their perspectives—while familiar—are a product of the time in which they grew up.
Granted, I get some of that by taking a few classes at the university every year, but it’s not the same. It’s not that visceral understanding of difference. Difference and common humanity.
But I don’t just read for difference. I still read for entertainment.
I have spent and continue to spend a lot of time in my in-person classes teaching writers how to enjoy reading again. How to shut off that critical voice and just float along with the story.
You don’t understand a story if you read it critically. Stories are written to be enjoyed or, at least, to be experienced. If you launch into them based on technique alone, you actually miss the technique.
It’s like trying to exercise while thinking about each movement your body makes. Try walking on an uneven surface while thinking about your balance, the placement of your foot, the way your knee moves, the feeling in your thigh.
Or, on second thought, don’t. Because, most likely, you’ll trip doing that. You’ll tangle up in your own movements. If you don’t believe me, watch a toddler learning to walk. Often, when you praise the little person for walking, they fall over. Why? Because you called attention to what they were doing.
Reading should be as unconscious an action as walking. When you read, you should be in the middle of the story—deepest darkest London with very witty people, say, instead of on a couch in the middle of a weekday afternoon with ice pressed against your face to bring down unwelcome swelling.
Frankly, I was worried that I could no longer slip into a story. I had the voices of older writer friends in my head, telling me that ability would dry up over time. I had consciously worked to avoid it, and then the pandemic hit.
I hadn’t realized that I had returned to survival mode on reading until this summer. Which meant that I was trying to find a way to lose myself in books (and some just required me to), but I couldn’t solve the overall problem.
Then I figured it out. And voila! The reading improved, life improved, and the worry has gone away.
I didn’t want to be one of those writers who was constantly revisiting what she had done before because I couldn’t refill the well.
Other storytelling venues—from the theater to television to the occasional movie—helped, but not in the same way.
I’m relieved to be back on my reading couch, so lost in a story that I’m unaware of the world around me. That feels good.
It’s essential to writing. But, as every single reader knows, it’s also essential to living.
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“Business Musings: Reading and Writing,” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Choreograph.