I got a book in the mail today. The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner. Its subtitle is “an editor’s advice to writers” (Riverhead books, New York, revised 2010). I’ve been waiting with slightly worried breath for the mail-lady (the best and nicest mail person I’ve ever met) to drive dustily down our dirt road and deliver this nugget of wisdom to me. Today she came through…even sooner than Amazon.com said she would.
I opened the box. I took out the book, feeling slightly nauseous. I sat down with the book on the couch, legs curled up, coffee at hand. Now allow me to explain something here. I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction books. I don’t curl up and devour them the way I do fiction. Typically, I avoid non-fiction like the plague…which happens to be a huge topic of the most recent non-fiction tome I checked out of the library (677 pages, including index). I’ve skimmed 37 pages…not sure I can take any more. (Yes, I was trying to broaden my horizons. Trouble is, my horizons have a way of tunneling my vision until all I can see is the new Alexander McCall Smith novel on the end-table, tantalizing me with its Scottish dry wit.) I find the middle ages – and its plagues, excesses, and sins – to be a fascinating topic. I often do enjoy history…but I just can’t sit down and read it. It’s not cozy reading. And, to me, that’s what reading is all about.
Reading non-fiction makes me feel like I’m back in school. Yes, I liked school. I even voluntarily went back for more of it after the mandatory 12 years. 4 years of college PLUS 3 years of grad school. I’VE HAD ENOUGH TEXT BOOKS TO LAST ME THE REST OF MY LIFE, and that’s what non-fiction feels like to me: an assigned book which I have to write a report on, and nothing else is as good at stealing your book-reading joy than having to write a report on it. Yes, I enjoyed the topics of my degrees. No, I’ll never get my PhD. Enough already.
SO…imagine my amazement at finding that this book I bought as a type of research towards selling my book (hence my nausea at opening the box) is actually proving to be FUN to read! I’ve been researching how to write a query letter/book proposal, should I get an agent or not, which publisher should I begin with, etc….this is not exactly titillating reading. Not for me, anyway. Colin, my husband – he’s a researcher. He enjoys this stuff. I ask him, “What’s the population of such and such?” and, rather than giving me an off-hand guess, he finds out…right then. (Ah, the power of the internet.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research from time to time. HOWEVER…the definition of hell in my book (figuratively speaking!!! Ha!)…or, at least one of the definitions in the book of Gretchen, would be to be stuck in front of a pile of dry research material at 3:00 in the afternoon with no coffee.
So, anyway, this new book…I’m only on page 37 and I have already had all sorts of, well, epiphanies! Here’s one of the most profound, to date (I may write on more in the future!): writing is lonely work…but it is done with the ultimate intent of sharing. (Note, I am not quoting her directly as I’m not entirely clear on the legality of doing so. I hope my summary is clear!) My first thought upon reading this concept: YES! I write in isolation, things that I hope to share with the masses. Writing is NOT a group effort (I HATED group projects in college!) – I mean, people can collaborate…but the actual writing of a thing comes from ONE head at a time. It’s a lonely event. It’s a solo.
AND YET…the whole point of writing anything down is for it to then be read by someone else…for it to COMMUNICATE ideas with people other than the writer. For it to be read and enjoyed/debated/appreciated. I do concede that there are types of writing that are private. These are written to clarify something to yourself/to exorcise ideas/to journal one’s private thoughts – though doesn’t any journal-keeper find themselves wondering at some point, “What will someone think if they ever read this?” But, these private diaries aside, we write for others. At least, people in my “profession” do. (I’m trying to think of myself as a professional…it’s a bit of a stretch, I know, but it all begins with attitude, yes?!)
We sit and write in secret…but with the purpose of later sharing those ideas together. In other words, leave me alone while I’m writing!!!! BUT PLEASE, pay a lot of attention to me once my book comes out.