Business Musings: Reading And Writing

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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.

11 thoughts on “Business Musings: Reading And Writing

  1. Re. writers who’ve stopped reading:

    That happened to me too. Sometime before 2000, I gave up reading new fiction, for the most part. I’d found that, for every form of fiction I read, some form of non-fiction was a superior replacement: science for science fiction, anthropology for fantasy, true crime for mysteries, and so on.

    The strange thing was that I still enjoyed older fiction. Just not much written after 1990. But it wasn’t until I discovered fan-fiction that I realized how impoverished and repetitive print fiction today is. I think we’re in a terrible literary slump, one that’s been going on for 30 years. But it isn’t one in which writers aren’t writing great fiction–my forays into fan-fiction have proven they still are. It’s one in which great fiction doesn’t usually get published; or if it is, it doesn’t get promoted. Commercial fiction is squeezed into narrow genre definitions based on self-perpetuating myths about customer demographics and preferences. Literary fiction has degenerated into about three frankly bizarre anti-literary patterns, all of which are mostly just taboos against using any literary techniques that have worked in the past, like having plots, likeable characters, and resolutions, or being serious and brave instead of ironic and trendy. They’re the literary equivalent of non-representational art: hated by the public, mandated by the elite, devoid of significance to either. Political “relevance” has become both indispensable and insipid; no one dares to question their own views, or to stand outside the culture war. No one dares write about ordinary life anymore.

    1. Well…agree to disagree. There’s a lot of great fiction out in the world. You should probably stop reading traditionally published books and look at what indie writers are doing. They’re being exceedingly creative. I’m quite inspired by all the good fiction in the world right now.

  2. One of the best gifts of running for me has been discovering audiobooks. I still read constantly in ebook, but adding so many hours of reading to my day is such a joy. I’ve set it up so my reward for putting in the miles is built right in!

  3. Oh, reading for escape is the best, even when the book isn’t the best. I’ve beta read some pretty garbage books lately, and man, they make me not want to read anything else. So on a whim, I picked up a mediocre-looking book from an ad just because my friends were making fun of it, and spent all day yesterday reading it. I’m sick this weekend and can’t do much else, but that book was a welcome little distraction. Just a sword and sorcery, guy has to kill a dragon, except politics make everything not what it seems. It reminds me of when I was a teen and had had four wisdom teeth out. I was sick and in pain, and asked my mom for a book that would take my mind off it all. She handed me The Yargo by Jacqueline Susan. I still think I ought to go back and read it. Maybe it wasn’t a super amazing read without pain meds mixed in. 😀

  4. I keep track of what I read, so I just looked at my list.

    Wait, I thought I read that book a couple of months ago, and it was really two years ago?

    – Silence…

    Oh, that’s what’s wrong. Okay, alright…

    At least I know what to do. Read the way I did before the pandemic.

    Thanks…

  5. I call it reader’s block. It hits me sometimes and I can’t find anything that appeals, even my old favorites. Sometimes that means I need live entertainment or spending time outside my comfort zone to reboot myself. I’ve been an avid reader all my life. It always comes as a shock when I’d rather while away my precious reading time with solitaire or sudoku.

  6. Hi, Kris.

    I can’t thank you and Dean enough for introducing me to Mick Herron’s Slough House books in one of the craft workshops earlier this year. I’m hooked.

    I also got my brother hooked on them, which got me griped at. He was visitng from out of state last month, and I suggested them to him when we got together. About a week or ten days after he went home he called me up and fussed because he was hooked and binge reading them through his local library.

    And then he reached the book the library didn’t have and he was going to have to either buy it or skip to the next one. This was my falut, it seems, for suggesting he read them. 🙂

  7. I experienced this immersion just recently, when I read _Tale of Two Cities_ for the first time. The only long Dickens novel I’d read was _David Copperfield_ forty years ago. I didn’t get into it, but this one, this time, wow. So for me, it’s “new, fresh” books, but it’s also what I now see in old books that I didn’t see as a young man.

    (I reread part of it with Dean’s _Depth_ class in mind. Hm, a twenty-page description of a sunset, with opinion, instilling increasing anxiety and ending with a murder; and riveting. Uh huh.)

  8. Exactly! As an (ahem) older writer I realized I had nearly stopped reading fiction for fun. And it showed in my writing,or lack thereof. I am making a conscious effort to seek out entertaining fiction and give myself time and space to fall into the story. Still struggling with it, but now that I am aware, I’m making it a priority.

  9. I don’t understand folks who don’t read.

    I really don’t understand writers who don’t read. There’s new brilliant stuff every year, and we all missed some of last year’s brilliant stuff.

    I’m reading Mary Balogh’s “Survivors Club” right now. She took a genre that’s been around for literal centuries, and defibrillated a lovely dark life into it–while remaining entirely in genre. How can anyone say they’ve seen it all?

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