"After nourishment, shelter, and companionship,
stories are the thing we need most in the world."
stories are the thing we need most in the world."
It's been a wet and windy July and I'm definitely looking forward to the end of winter, but these dark, cold nights have given me the perfect excuse to tuck up in bed early with a warm drink and a good book. I've read some real gems however the stand out for the month has to be, Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owen. Beg, buy, or borrow a copy people because it is fantastic. Set in the marshes of North Carolina, this is a tale of a young girl who is left to fend for herself in the isolated marshes, her only company being the birds and wildlife surrounding her. It is a story of loneliness, belonging, and one human's intimate connection with nature. It's a murder-mystery, a love story, a lyrical, redemptive, coming-of-age narrative, and a page-turner from beginning to end. The descriptions are so powerful, it's almost as if you're right there, in the marsh, with the shells, and the gulls and the insects, and the taste of salty air on your lips. This is fiction with soul. Thank you, Delia Owen, for bringing this story into the world.
Because reading is such an important part of my life, a better question might be - what don't I read? Firstly, let's look at fiction. I struggle with stories that end with no hope. It's not that I want a happy ending, although this is my preferred outcome, but I need to know things have changed for the better, even if this simply means someone has figured out they don't need approval from their mother any more, or that eating a large meal just before bedtime is a stupid idea (okay not a great example but you get my point).
I struggle with stories about atrocities. Wars, genocides, pillaging the earth, senseless violence. When humans inflict pain and suffering on others, I really don't want to read about it in descriptive detail. It keeps me awake at night. Makes me question humanity. I guess it's for this reason I don't read horror. I've read one Steven King and that's enough!
What concerns me is how others can read these books and not be affected the same way. Am I more sensitive than most? Probably. I certainly take on other people's problems and I am only ever as happy as my saddest child as the saying goes. I want stories to linger in my mind in a positive way; to leave me questioning, thinking, or turning out the bedside light with a smile.
I'll read some war stories, but not many. I will put down a book if the violence is too graphic. If I don't connect with the main protagonist, if they have no redeeming features, I'll not only give the book away or return it to the library, I'll avoid any books written by that author in the future. I have to feel some level of empathy towards the central character. I don't have to like the person, but I have to want a better outcome for them.
The exception is poetry and short story. To me these two forms of creative writing are about imagery and mood. Characters can play minor roles, or be entirely absent, and that's okay. The beauty is in the sentence, the white space, the unfinished ending. I read a little poetry and a lot of short stories. Short stories get my heart racing, and make me determined to be a better writer. I admire and love the short story form, but they take concentration and an open mind. Sometimes a juicy novel with fast-paced plot is easier to devour. Or a romantic saga, a baffling mystery, or a book that makes me laugh out loud or shake my head in wonder.
As for non-fiction, I try to avoid reading sensationalised works, be it a biography, magazine article, or self-help book. Scaremongering makes me angry. As does deliberate bias. Sadly, I find it hard to find in-depth, well-researched, unbiased non-fiction to read. It's out there, but there's far too much of the other stuff getting in the way.
I love books that inspire. True-life stories of triumph over adversity, books on empowering ourselves and others, books that give me hope for the future. I'm a sucker for an interesting cookbook, a heart-warming autobiography, a fascinating exploration of some little known place or fact, and any book on improving our happiness, health, and wellbeing.
I try to read widely, but the truth is I'm guilty of perhaps being more selective than I should be. Like most people, I want to read for enjoyment and when time is precious and life is one big adventure, I'd rather read for pleasure than for pain. Books can be a gift or a burden. They can pick you up, or drop you like a stone. Such is the power of the written word.
I'm often asked why I write. Especially why I choose to write fiction. Why on earth do I want to make up stories and spend hours and hours editing and re-editing those stories which, till fairly recently, only I get to read? Obviously it's not to make money, or to become a world-renowned author, both of which are on a par with spending a year living in a French village eating cheese all day, i.e please oh please can it come true but harsh reality tells me more than likely it won't.
I write because it brings me joy. Simple as that. When I can sit down and become immersed in the lives of my characters, when I can laugh and cry along with them, when I can create places and events and - this is the best moment. of all - when I reach a point where the characters are telling the story and I'm typing as fast as I can to keep up with the ride, that's the greatest buzz in the world. I guess it's an example of being in the moment, like catching a wave on my surfboard, or when my children make me laugh so hard I cry, or when I'm standing in a forest of ancient beech trees and a robin lands on the path in front of me and looks me square in the eye.
Which is not to say writing is some carefree, magical moment-to-moment thing. It's hard slog a lot of the time. Some days I will spend more hours staring at my screen or procrastinating than writing. Other days I'll write a load of rubbish and later delete it in horror wondering how I ever thought for one second I could be so bold as to call myself a writer. Yet I keep going, year after year, without considering even for a split second giving up.
I wonder now if a fundamental reason I write fiction is because I have never been one for routine. To me, there's nothing better than taking a different road, trying a new dish, reading another person's story, or discovering something remarkable. Perhaps that's why I keep writing. Not so much for the buzz (though it's awesome), but because through my stories I get to go places I've never been before and meet people who will delight and surprise me. And I get to do this by going nowhere other than inside my head. There aren't many opportunities for adults to use their imagination the way a child does. Perhaps my urge to write is a desire to hold onto the child within me, or to keep the adult from growing old. Either way, I'm glad I've found this writing business, or it found me. Anything to keep us feeling younger, right? I believe creativity is a gift to be nurtured and a sure-fire way to bring us joy. I hope you'll look for more ways to incorporate it into your life.