The Pretty Bird reads a whole book at once.

13 Jun

When I was a younger, more entertaining person, I would never have expected a voluntary all-nighter to take the shape of me, in bed, reading a book. I’ve loved books my whole life. But by the time I developed an understanding of what the wee hours were for, I had discovered bands, and boys, and beverages. I tended to be asleep by 2 a.m. in the absence of tormenting anxiety or a persistent sense of all things being possible.

I suppose that last thing–a persistent sense of all things being possible–is an apt descriptor for some reading processes. So Friday night (a Friday, no less!) I crawled into bed at a normal time, 12:30 or 1:00 or so, and started reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. I finally fell asleep, after feeding the cats breakfast, at around 7:45. I was on page 312.

I got up at noon, fed the cats lunch, and finished the book.

I have been a fan of McCann’s since at least 2000 or so, when I first read This Side of Brightness*. I taught This Side of Brightness, sometime around spring of 2002, to a class of freshmen who said they didn’t like books. One student summed up the general class sentiment with something like, “I didn’t think I liked to read until I read this.”**

I’m not really inclined to review books around here. If a book can be described accurately and assessed properly in a couple of paragraphs, there’s probably no point in having written or read the entire thing. So I’ll just say that Let the Great World Spin is moving and beautiful, as was This Side of Brightness long before it. (All of McCann’s work is good, though Dancer wasn’t for me–I was working at a ballet company at the time, and not very happy about it, so maybe that was my problem–and I haven’t read Zoli yet.)

There’s something else going on besides a good book when a tired writer stays up well past dawn reading, though. There’s some need being filled. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction for the past year or so. I haven’t been reading a lot of anything, and it’s pathetic, really, since reading fiction is sort of a core component of who I am and have always been. But for whatever reason, I have failed to remain interested in reading. I know already that it isn’t a reflection on the books themselves, because it’s always been my m.o. to finish books whether I like them or not. It’s something in me.

Reading a great book is transformative, of course. It teaches you something about who you were and who you are and, if you’re lucky, about who you’re going to be. For me, as a writer-reader, it’s been doing something else: It’s been tripping me up.

I write good old character-driven literary fiction. I’ve been finishing/revising/beating myself bloody with my first novel for a couple of years now. I think it’s done, I look again, and the whole thing has shifted beneath me, and I’m back at it with an axe and a hammer. And I understand the process, this is perfectly normal, or at least acceptable, in the course of making a good book. Meanwhile, I’ve been drafting bits and pieces of my second novel for a while now (and am actually on a grant this summer to work on it). And the third book has begun to take shape in my consciousness. This overlapping thing works for me for a few reasons. One, it takes an incredibly long time for an idea to cook down into a writable story for me, so I can sketch and daydream and doodle when I’m not writing and still be working. Or, alternately, I can draft and revise and work on another project while the next one cooks. Two, I don’t appear to be the kind of writer who benefits terribly much from a complete immersion in a book; I suppose I’m not a method writer. I just get overwhelmed and confused. And three, most of my work is set in the same place, a fictionalized version of my hometown that I call Morton. So the map of my hometown that I printed out and doodled on the other day had houses and important sites for all three books overlapping. (It wasn’t until I labeled a road that will be relevant primarily in the third book that I nearly peed my pants with glee. Three is the magic number.) All this is to say that my writing process is chaotic and fluid and incredibly difficult to pin down. Anything that changes its course can either be miraculous or soul-crushing. Even a trip to one of the big bookstores can blow me off course, because I get overwhelmed by all those titles, covers, words. When I’m in a bad way, reading a book that doesn’t thrill me can leave me really flat; reading one that amazes me can intimidate me to the point of hopelessness.

And here’s the thing about staying up all night reading Let the Great World Spin: even though it convinced me, by its sheer beauty, that I’m a complete shit writer who will never be good enough, I suspect that’s exactly what I needed this week. Because what I did later on yesterday, on four hours of sleep, was write. What I wrote was probably crap. I’ll probably spend years trying to make it better. But there it is, on a notepad, inviting me back.

*I’m so happy for the beautiful reissue at this link. I have at least a couple of copies in the house, but may have to buy it just because it’s gorgeous. Also: All the links I can find say it came out in 2003, but it can’t have come out in 2003, since I was back in Indianapolis in 2002 and I taught it in New Mexico. I can’t find much to tell me when the hardcover came out, so that must be my problem.

**The same girl, in an after-class conversation, refused to tell me where she worked because she didn’t want me to lose respect for her. But she was wearing the tell-tale shiny beige tights and orange shorts under her usual baggy sweatshirt. Sigh, on so many levels.


8 Responses to “The Pretty Bird reads a whole book at once.”

  1. Andrew June 14, 2010 at 1:35 am #

    The hardcover came out in 1998, I think, a few weeks before I met him in Dickinson, PA.

    • Victoria June 14, 2010 at 11:20 am #

      Thank you! I figured you’d know. The internet just denies, denies, denies.

  2. ce. June 14, 2010 at 12:15 pm #

    I’ve drummed up a couple of novel ideas now, and I’m terrified of them, I think for similar reasons you write here, but also because I’m not sure of a time where I’ll live and believe consistently enough to shape an entire, cohesive novel.

    This is probably why short forms are such a draw to me. I can at least get the story out relatively quickly, and then spend months on the sentences and the layers. But, a novel just seems…daunting.

    • Victoria June 14, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

      Christopher, I used to say I’d never write a novel. I felt exactly the same way.

      As far as I can tell, this is the secret: You will never shape an entire, cohesive novel all at once (and it would be a bad book if you did). It will shift and shimmer beautifully under your feet, and as you grow as a writer, you’ll go back and make it more and better. And it will shape you. The trick is to let those things happen, and to be okay with it. The day I figured that out is probably the same day I gave myself permission to think of myself as a “real” writer.

  3. ce. June 17, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    And now I come at this from an entirely fresh perspective. I just finished the last book of the Chronicles of Prydain, a YA fantasy series I read once as a kid. I’ve had the books on my shelf for years, tucked away in the case that I were to actually have kids one day, how I’d love to read it to them.

    Last weekend, on a whim, Britt and I bought The Black Cauldron (a Disney animated feature based on the books that I’d never seen) and disgusted at how they butchered it all, I picked up Book 1 and started reading.

    I read like something ravenous, late into the nights, hours at work that my boss would likely not take kindly to knowing them spent reading instead of working, &c, &c, and I’ve put read all 5 books in just 5 days. I was completely engrossed, even to the point of crying at the death of one character, and now having just finished the last book, sitting at my desk at work trying not to cry again, all glow the same way I felt reading them as a kid.

    The whole time I read, I kept thinking actually about this post, and this line particularly: “There’s something else going on besides a good book when a tired writer stays up well past dawn reading, though. There’s some need being filled,” trying to figure out what I’ve been needing.

    • ce. June 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm #

      (a Disney animated feature based on the books that I’d never seen) Sorry about that.

      That’s a horrible clause. “a Disney animated feature that I’d never seen based on the books” is a bit better, though still clunky. Hrm.

      • Victoria June 17, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

        I understood. I bet anyone else who read it did, too.


  1. The Pretty Bird reads some more books, sees a movie. « The Pretty Bird - September 23, 2012

    […] over the holiday weekend, I did that thing again where I read a whole book in a day. I did it twice, in fact, once on Saturday, and once on Sunday. The Pretty Bird does not publish or […]

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