Popping the Hood

I began reading when I was four years old and haven’t stopped since.

Immersive reading was my drug through an unhappy childhood and adolescence, with all the desperate need and avoidance of unpleasant reality that addiction entails. Books damaged my eyes rather than my liver, but they gave far more than they took. I lived more in books than in my hometown. I mainlined stories and characters and other lands, other realities.

There are worse ways to shut out the world.

Studying English at the undergraduate and graduate levels gave me sharper tools and forced me to read works I never would have chosen on my own. It’s inconvenient to get lost in a book you are assigned to analyze. Since the author was dead when I was a youngun (is she resurrected yet? Is there a text in this class?), we spent exactly zero minutes wondering what the author meant and how he went about expressing it. The question itself was considered naïve and uncouth. Instead, we looked for linguistic and grammatical patterns and contemplated their meaning, explored the role of class, gender, and race, mined historical contexts, deconstructed. I won’t say I was good at it, but I could muddle my way through it most days.

After grad school, it took a while to regain the knack of surrendering to a story, but after a few years, I could succumb to the wiles of clever author like a rapturous literary ingenue again. My lifelong addiction felt good once more, and I didn’t need to deconstruct a damned thing

But two years ago, when I began to get serious about my writing, I lost the magic ability to lose myself in someone else’s imagination again, probably for good this time.

I was ready to write a novel, but had no idea how to go about it properly. In the process of trying to learn a thousand new skills at once, I unconsciously, then consciously, started reading for writing lessons. Reading a chapter by Barbara Pym bare of description, but paradoxically rich in atmosphere, I’d re-read it, trying to figure out why I thought I could envision a scene the author hadn’t described. Reading a lush, intricate chapter by A.S. Byatt, I’d try to understand why it didn’t feel boring or overwritten. Reading an inventive, surprising sentence by Michael Chabon, T.C. Boyle, or Karen Russell, I’d unpack it, in search of the fuse that had ignited the explosion. I still love passages that take my breath away, but now, enjoyment is not enough–I want to peek behind the curtain to see how the trick is done.

Here’s a passage from Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue that I read over and over. In it, Aviva, furious at her son’s boyfriend for breaking his word to her, cooks his favorite breakfast while preparing to lambaste him. Coincidentally, at the time I read this, I was writing a passage in which my main character’s mother cooks exactly the same breakfast for her daughter’s boyfriend in the midst of a difficult one-on-one conversation.

She broke the eggs as if they were the spurious arguments of unworthy adversaries. With the contempt we reserve for those who fail to deliver on arrant boasts, she watched the bacon shrink in its own fat. She peeled the bubbling pancakes from the griddle and flipped them over with a sense of cutting off a pointless discussion. In the batter, buttermilk and baking soda enacted their allegory of her emotional pH.

It makes me laugh and it makes me think. Chabon doesn’t ever just describe or narrate; rather, he imbues any description or narration with the emotions of the characters.  The man doesn’t know how to write a dull sentence. This example is a little over the top, perhaps, but so is Aviva’s anger. If he had nothing to say about her emotional state, he wouldn’t bother describing the cooking process.

I didn’t want to plagiarize my own mother-cooking-breakfast-for-child’s-significant-other scene, but I used the technique elsewhere, filtering a harmless scene through the main character’s anxiety. After all, how we see anything depends on how we feel when we see it. In other places, I cut out narration or description that I couldn’t tint with an emotion worth exploring.

I learn from bad writing, too, these days, instead of just getting irritated with it. I note the absurdities of heavy-handed characterizations, choppy rhythms, and boring word choices, then nervously check my own work. The old rhetorical question, “How does this garbage even get published?” has morphed into, “Well, why did this story get published?” The author is giving something to readers in exchange for their money and time, and whatever it is, I need to know how to do the same.

I may have permanently lost the ability to disappear into someone else’s imaginary world, and I still miss it at times, especially when reality seems too grim. But the free, self-guided, no-credit, everlasting MFA program of excavating other people’s fiction seems like a fair exchange.

Most of the time.

Julie Goldberg blogs at Perfect Whole. She is seeking representation for her debut novel, Lily in the Light of Halfmoon and working on her second.