The Writing Process II, Part 4: Why We Read

books-on-a-shelf4With every post here, I turn my nose up at her who’s bold enough to take minutes of your life. I make her answer, “Who cares?”

Your response has not only motivated me to do justice to your time, but made me contemplate the reading process. In all the talk about how to write, I began thinking about why we even try, backtracking to why we read. According to Stephen King, “The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing.” (On Writing) What I want to understand, though, is not the intellectual benefits of reading, but why we take such pleasure in it. We are preoccupied with Self. Like we’re so interested in the preoccupant who yaps without giving us a word edgewise. But we love a good story, romance or gore.

Among the highest compliments you can earn is that your work made me laugh or cry. A physical response. I watch the guys in the octagon at the gym. Their blows land with impact. To think – words can do just that.  Some time back, a post I stumbled on cut open a deep, quiet wound. Good writing. A chemical reaction between me and the words. If we were able to maintain our distance, remind ourselves it’s just a poem or piece of fiction, we wouldn’t respond with our body, sensibilities, memory. King says, “The object of fiction is…to make the reader welcome and then tell a story…to make him forget, whenever possible, that he is reading a story at all.” That your writing drew someone in is high praise. As a teenager, I sought out this transformed reality in the proverbial escape into books away from my unhappiness. We like to lose this world, our very self, in a good book. But reading isn’t just anesthesia or a verbal trip to the theme park. We’re not only running from something, in many cases, but running to.

King says, “If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” Effective writing often taps our autobiography. It sights the strands in the reader’s own story – of love, sacrifice, heartache, mystery – and yes, we feel the tug. I recently finished Notes from the Underwire, former child actress Quinn Cummings’ account of her adventures from the early years into motherland. You’re hard-pressed to flip a page without laughing but in the chapter on the dog I would otherwise care little for, I couldn’t help tearing up. Through the fun description of the mutt she adopted and trained, she took me through the pain of losing him. Cummings made me care, speaking into my experience of the regret of mistakes, of loss, of coming up short. This response from one who will let her son get a tattoo before he does a pet. It was one of the most poignant chapters in the book.

When we’re happily settled in even the cheap paperback fling, it’s not only because we daydream the thrill of courtship but because it answers our inmost longing to be romanced by life. The horror genre? Apart from how interesting he is to read of, the boogeyman is someone we all know. We’ve all been afraid. Whether of a person who haunts you or the voice in the dark that murmurs you’re not good enough. King says he writes so the reader can lift the truth from the web of his fiction. We love suspense for the unpredictability it mirrors of our life, the questions we live daily. Why is the battle between good and evil a classic theme and not a cliché? We don’t tire of it because justice is the assent of the spirit, redemption its cry.

But we want more than the reflection of our own tale, especially when there is so much of the painful in it. Compelling writing also echoes the story under our story. It is the yearning for the distant country C.S. Lewis saw, the hopeful suspicion that the five mortal senses are not the arbiter of reality. And just behind the familiarity, we discover possibility.

Suffering and beauty lift us out of self-absorption to something greater than ourself. Even humor, a touch of beauty for its dip into joy, helps us get over our bad self for the moment. There is lightness. Life isn’t all about shuffling along under a load. We can set it down. Trust that Someone or something’s got our back – God or friend or peace with self. When we hope or even fear as we ought from the lessons of literature and poetry, we realize a fresh reverence. Privy to the vast range of possibilities ancient and modern tales disclose, we learn new ways of responding to challenges and can exchange the load for a dream.

Why show, not tell? Why go to lengths to paint it in a poem or novel when you can simply say She was beautiful. It was horrific. The universe takes my breath away? Not only do these declarations fall flat, they are inadequate. It is the ironic insufficiency of the human word that has seen writers and sages from the first incarnate Whisper scrambling to describe the fullness of experience so those on the other side of the story can see, hear, feel for themselves. If you take this illustration for egoism, I’ll risk it: I was taken aback yesterday by a comment that my poem — know? was “satisfying.” It resonated with me as a commendation every writer would embrace, while inviting survey. Webster’s top three definitions of satisfy:

1. to fulfill the desires, expectations, needs, or demands of; give full contentment to
2. to put an end to (a desire, want, need, etc.) by sufficient or ample provision
3. to give assurance to; convince: to satisfy oneself by investigation

God knows I never imagined the poem fulfilled anyone’s needs. I considered it decent enough to share when it sufficiently confided my mystified reverence for the Mystery that makes itself plain but remains inscrutable. But my thoughtful reader Monica found the pulse of the human heart. We hope from – even demand of – our reading that it deliver us from the tyranny of the mundane. There is more to life than these four walls. And the soul sings – in reader and writer – to envision something larger behind that corner up ahead. It is the Narnia adults follow kids into.

Writing with you has been magical.

65 thoughts on “The Writing Process II, Part 4: Why We Read

  1. As one Mom to another, I’m sure you know what it’s like to have very little time for reading and writing. Of course, I know there will never be enough time. Jonathan Franzen (whose nonfiction I enjoy much more than his fiction) has a fascinating essay on reading and its importance to the type of person he refers to as a “social isolate.” I immediately connected with his explanation of why some of us are so drawn to both reading and writing as the primary way we connect with people. It’s one of the best essays on reading I’ve ever come across, and as a librarian, I’ve read plenty of them. You can find the essay, titled “Why Bother?” in his book How to Be Alone – Thanks for a blog that is always interesting!

  2. Love your references to CS Lewis. I remember reading once that he dedicated the Narnia stories to his niece, but by the time they reached publication, she was “too old for such stories”. In his wisdom, Lewis stated that one day, she would be old enough to again enjoy them. I didn’t understand that until recently, as in the past few years I’ve come to find the power and truth interlaced within fairy tales.

    • I spent about seven hours planning and writing this post — not counting the prelude of thinking. I poured myself into it. Grateful for your time. And you apparently got it – from your reference to being old enough for Narnia. =)

    • I now see that is such a male thing to feel. LOL. (Sneak preview for you –>) I’m hooked on the art of war … have been researching why men fight, beat the hell out of each other. They’re telling me it feels good after getting hit. And some ask how I’d (in italics) feel after the same…expecting me to understand. Geee!!

      • “He who knows when to fight and when not to, will always be victorious”
        ….and after some time people will ask – is art of war about MMA n UFC ?

      • Woah ! Didn’t see that similarity coming !!!!
        Well, I don’t think that anyone else in my country has followed better than me…and I am damn sure that both of my girls are going to do Taekwondo (I’m into boxing)….and I saved that link for them !

        Thanks !

      • What country you in? I hadn’t wanted to say too much…but have you watched the Korean Zombie? I only the last few wks got into him….I’m working on getting his email address to interview him…omg omg did you catch his last fight???

      • INDIA !!!!
        ..and the last fight for Zombie was a heartbreak 😦
        you got to feel for the guy if you ever had a dislocated shoulder..moreover, he had a stunning route towards this title fight – I don’t see this opportunity coming back soon when guys like swanson-lamas-edgar-petis are waiting.

      • Gee, it HAD to be your classic Korean DRAMA. All this is new to me, though my son’s been doing MMA 2, 3 yrs now (tired mom can’t remember!) We don’t have a working TV so hubby and I went on our 2nd date as parents, off to the gym to watch there on Fight Night. First date was when we visited a friend who had given birth. Yes, Korean man actually had a chance. I was fascinated by the interview clips….they’re what drew me to him. He was intent on winning.

      • Zombie had to take a 30 hour flight to reach Brazil for the event ! Can you just imagine what it does to the body ! Aldo was at advantage unless Zombie went careless…but it was all reserved and calculated…he would surely come back stronger…and let the champ come to Korea to face him – we can talk then !

      • A HA. I knew about the long trip — RIGHT. Tell Aldo to fly that far himself. It wasn’t carelessness. It was one of the those freak accidents. Wrong angle. My son’s/my coach said it was also prolly a reinjured shoulder. Sigh. I wish I could take him chkn soup. Two posts on the burner, instead. After taking self-defense about a yr now, I finally realized I knew the techniques!! Which is why I was wrestling my son when I injured my finger months back – did you see that post? STILL not healed. And I keep reinjuring. So anyway, my hubby had a ball talking technique with me as we watched. =) I plan to take a BJJ class next wk. I realized any journalist would, to experience the rough and tumble before writing about it. 😉

  3. I love that I learn when I read you…it’s actually more than that. I feel that we are talking and for this moment I am listening in rapt attention to the softness of your thoughts which are wrapped in intelligence and grace.

  4. Wonderful thought providing post….I think we are all looking for immersion in our own lives and reading can provide this connectivity, with the added impetus of expansion on whatever levels we are needing/not even knowing we are needing…so it can also be a revelation….reading is so “of the moment”. Our moment.

  5. I think words are very important to Father God; he gave us the Ten Commandments to show us his moral character, Jesus Christ was sent from the father as the Logos (the Word) full of grace and truth, thus showing his love to mankind.

  6. Began my summer sojourn here in the White Mountains reading King’s “On Writing.” Surprisingly inspiring (as are your thoughts on the subject.) And not only because I’m so near the landscape where he lives and writes. Also interesting to read this on the night after seeing a charming musical called Once on This Island that closes with a song called Why We Tell the Story (which I believe you read about on my blog.) I do enjoy synchronicity.

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  8. appreciated your thoughts on writing…it is interesting for I am oft drawn to those poems or writers who are not superfluous with description. May the sentence stand without unending metaphor and creates its own beauty with our everyday language. I do agree with the paragraph on Possibility, which is what G. Battaile alludes to in “Guility” it is suffering that makes us understand living. ~ a

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  13. I read this with interest. One of the revelations I had about reading came to me after I had published my first book. I got detailed feedback about a story I could barely recognise, even down to renamed characters. I even got into trouble for having ‘written about’ a couple I had never met or heard of and who turned out to have nothing in common with my main characters except that one half was sick. I am now more familiar with the passionate need people have to find themselves when they read a story, even if it means bending it here and there. So, yes, recognition seems to be crucial.

    • Just fascinating, Hilary. Something I would’ve quoted in the writing here! I have said that we listen and relate to others autobiographically. It’s all about me (even though it isn’t). And so you bring to light how we read autobiographically as well. Thanks so much for your presence.

  14. Diana, this is very meaningful to me.

    I spent my free hours in my adolescence absorbed in books. It was my escape to a better place than the one I called home. Every week I’d walk four blocks to the library, grab a stack of books, and come home delighted and finish them by the week’s end. Many times before I went home, I walked two blocks beyond the library to the forest preserve behind it, and immerse myself in the calming sounds and sights of Nature before I went home. I revisited that forest preserve for the first time in about 20 years this past summer. I made a long trek deep in the trails and took pictures.

    At the top of my reading list was Stephen King. I immersed myself in his world and drank his words in. I was transfixed and my pain ameliorated. What tragedy I had experienced was nothing compared to the horrors his protagonists’ faced. And in a very important way, his writing saved me from an emotional death. I adored King. I absolutely adored the man for saving me, and he has no idea what he’s done for me.

    I took an after school writing class given by a lesser-known writer in the horror genre, who fashioned his writings after Stephen King. I was thrilled to be a part of his class. Until he crushed me when he critiqued my writing. I was “too descriptive” and didn’t employ enough dialogue. My characters, two-dimensional. I can agree with him now, but at the time, I was devastated. Utterly humiliated. I finished the course because I couldn’t bear to quit, but ashamed of myself and my efforts.

    My creative writing impulse went into hiding for 20 years. Instead, I took to writing letters to my friends. It was a way for me to express myself in writing without having it critiqued. I spilled open in my letters instead. And I have to say, while I enjoy the ease of typing with the computer and my favorite key – the delete button, I miss the art of hand writing letters and sending and receiving personal mail terribly.

    I have King’s book On Writing after I bought it at a writer’s conference three years ago. I have the same book on MP3. I haven’t had a chance to read or listen to it, but your post here has really impressed me and I know I MUST find time to read AND listen.

    Thank you again. The synchronicities are amazing.

    I know the hand of God is present here. I know he sent you to me for a reason. And I’m sure to turn this comment into a blog post soon. I’ve been meaning to write about my experiences with reading as a salve for my soul.



      • Want to know something even stranger? Yesterday I was picking up something on the floor near my bookshelf in my bedroom, and for a moment, my eyes rested on King’s book. And then, to read this post…it was very surprising….

        Yes, I was a fan of King in my youth (as well as Agatha Christie and Phyllis A. Whitney’s books for young adults).

        I also enjoyed to read good pieces of literature and still do, too. And I enjoyed the discussions and the essays we had to write for literature classes and my honors history class (we had no tests, but essays to write). If I hadn’t become a scientist, I would have liked to have gone on to get my Ph.D. in literature or become a library scientist just so I could immerse myself in books. The funny thing is, I had come across an old paper of mine for my genetics class about rheumatoid arthritis and some passages seemed quite poetical.

        I’l take a look at that post…

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  16. You can’t see me know but I am bowing to you repeatedly. Simply because you can’t hit the like button a 100 times. Okay I must stop now. I’n not as young as I once was, my joints not so greased. Again you’ve written just what I needed to read today. I am in the midst of brutally editing my first short story. I am focused on “. It’s the relating back, our need to deepen connections. To tap into the autobiography of another. To create ease and intimacy and let the reader relate.” A friend and my greatest editor told me to ask the big questions and decide if I was a reliable narrator. She wanted me to ponder the big questions of what I wanted to convey in my story. She asked if I could make the reader come to understand the conclusions I draw in my story without directly feeding it to them. Today the two of you have been my thunder and lightning. I even feel the creative seed planted for my next project. So thank you.

    • Getting chills. I have to run, turn my attention to my boy. Thanks so much for clueing me in on your end of things. Cheerleading your project, and excited about the seed.

      You beat me to it. I was going to put up this post on OM’s board soon.

      Talk later.

      Affectionately (or thunderously),

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  18. I had many aha moments as I read. I guess I could summarize by saying I read to escape and to discover myself and others.

    “But the best stories- those retold through generations and translated into other languages – do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call ‘narrative transport’.” – The Secrets of Storytelling by Jeremy Hsu.

    Narrative transport . . . writing that takes me there and makes me care . . .

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