Thursday, May 26, 2005

On being a Reader and becoming a Writer

I’ve always been addicted to fiction books. Reading was my refuge and my excitement long before the idea of writing occurred to me. I’ve always loved books that I could lose myself in. Later, I learnt to love books that I can find myself in. Most recently I’ve learnt to love books where the skill of the author fills me with joyful excitement.

(Joyful excitement – sounds like a pompous exaggeration doesn’t it? Well it may be pompous – pomposity has always come easily to me – but I don’t think it is an exaggeration. I’m not prone to joy and I rise to excitement only slowly – so slowly it’s often retrospective – but sometimes I look at how a book has been written and I slap myself on the forehead and go “Of Course. What a great idea. I wonder if I could do that?” - I am well used to strange looks from those around me who are surprised by my behaviour because they regard reading as a passive experience).

The best of all books are the ones where I can get excited about the content and about how the book was written. Reading those books switches all the lights on in my head.

I browse bookshops with the nervous energy and focused attention of an addict looking for a fix. Just being in a bookshop makes me feel better about the world and it is hard for me to leave without buying something (often, an arm load of somethings).

I’m one of those folks (and there are millions of us) who have pre-ordered the next Harry Potter book. I like to know that I will have it in my hands as soon as it becomes available. When “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” came out, I took it with me everywhere – despite its great bulk. I got sent to a conference in Holland shortly after the book came out. I slipped away from the conference centre to a Mexican restaurant in a tiny little beachside resort for dinner. I sat alone with my book, enjoying the mix of margaritas and magical fiction. When the waitress saw what I was reading, her first question was, “What page are you on?” I knew I had found another addict and for the twenty minutes or so during which we discussed which book we liked best and why the stories where so compelling and which characters had stolen our hearts, the differences in age, gender and nationality melted away as we affirmed our membership of the great tribe of Readers.

Being literate doesn’t qualify you to be a Reader. It’s not enough to be able to read all the words and comprehend the plot. Being a critic doesn’t qualify you either. It seems to me that most critics have completely lost whatever potential they once had to be Readers.

To be a Reader you have to suck the book into you as if it was air and you were emerging from too long a time underwater. You have to let the book possess you. Possession doesn’t stop when you close the book. The book is still with you. You come back to it compulsively: attracted by this image or that piece of language or this plot twist. Readers don’t just enjoy a book as they read a particular page. The book becomes a filter through which they will see the world for a while. They will become sensitised to particular topics or places or points of view. They will review the book, consciously or unconsciously, against what they know about the world and how they feel about themselves and their lives.

I became a Reader about the time that I hit puberty (or it hit me – make of that what you will). I read widely but I kept coming back to science fiction ( Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, James Tiptree Jnr, Ursula Le Guin) and to some forms of fantasy (Rosemary Sutcliffe, Lucy M Boston, JRR Tolkein, C S Lewis and Ursula Le Guin again). The SF books engaged me in the idea that the universe had rules that could not be broken but that knowledge and courage and cooperation could turn these rules to our advantage. The fantasy books helped me realise that the need for something to believe in and to belong to runs deep in most people and the fundamental choice we are faced with is whether we have the courage and the strength to stay true to the right beliefs and loyal to the right people.

I would emerge from these books filled to bursting with excitement about what the world might offer. I was bright enough not to share this information with those around me. I was already enough an anomaly without trying to engage friends or teachers in a discussion about whether there was a bridge between the nature of scientific truth and the nature of religious belief and if so, who would have the courage and the strength to cross it. (Yep, I was, and still am, a fully paid up nerd).

When I picked up the last of Narnia series at the public library, I made the mistake of reading a few pages in the reading room. I couldn’t stop. I read all day and left the library feeling dazed and emotionally drained and for the first time understanding that, in Lewis’s version of the Christianity, good can triumph over evil by denying the win/lose paradigm (hey, I was 13 – this was heady stuff back then).

So, I’m a long term Reader with no hope of or aspiration to ever kick the habit.

For the past five years or so, I’ve also been becoming a Writer. Yep, that would be Writer with a capital W: the kind of person who cannot process their reaction to life and the world without writing something; the kind of person who will give up sleep rather than lose the opportunity to write; the kind of person who hears voices in their head and, instead of seeking psychiatric help, tries to write down what they are saying and work out why they are saying it.

Now doesn’t “becoming a writer” sound twee – hand me that waxed brown paper bag so I can throw up politely - but it seems to describe what has been happening to me.

Modesty is never something that I’ve suffered from. I knew I was good with words and that I could weave stories that carried other people along. But that didn’t make me a Writer – that only meant that I had the potential to write. I didn’t actually start to write until I hit my forties (yes, they hit me as well – hmm writing as a reaction to existential panic brought on by the sure and certain knowledge of the inescapability of death and the daily reminders of the slow but inexorable decline in function and dissolution of form – nah, I don’t think so. I was raised as a Catholic. I’ve always knew that I was going to die). I rationalise this by saying that before then, I had nothing to say. Who knows the real reason – maybe I was just too lazy to be bothered?

Anyway, in my forties, I started to write about sex. So much of what I read about sex (and my research was thorough) didn’t accord with my experience. It was either wank-fodder (yeah baby, do it like that) or ecstatic stuff that said that my consciousness would be altered by the right kind of orgasm or something that suggested that I needed to master sex as if it was sport I need coaching in or an extension of the hospitality I would offer to friends by learning to be a good cook. I wanted to write something different.

Actually, that’s not quite true. At first I just felt the urge to write to just write some porn (go see “Have a Nice Day” and you’ll see what I mean.) But the process of writing started to impose itself on me then. I started to think about all the structural stuff (point-of-view, tense, grammar) linear progression or moving back and forth on the time line, pace and imagery and so on. It didn’t matter what I was writing about, if I wanted to write at all I needed to be able to deal with that stuff.

That helped me realise that what I really wanted to be able to do and what I think I am finally starting to be able to do – is to write the kind of thing that would make the all the lights go on in someone else’s head.

Then what I was writing about became important to me.

I’d grown up with Science Fiction stories where the basic rule is that the story needs to be true to scientific possibility and should not include anything that was demonstrably impossible/untrue. This imposes a world view that most readers of science fiction would take for granted e.g. the universe – mulitverse actually- tends towards chaos (2nd law of thermodynamics), nothing is for free (Newton’s Laws of Motion), something can be two things at the same time (light is a particle and a wave) and truth can only be disproved, never proved (Popperian scientific method).

So if I was going to write about sex, what where the basic rules that should apply?

I’m still working on the answer to that question, but my starting point was that, while sex and lust will cause people to do strange things to themselves and to others, these things are not random. They are based in some kind of truth about what sex means to us and how we experience it.

So I thought I would try and keep my stories in some sense truthful. I don’t always succeed in that. Sometimes I just let myself off the leash and write so good old fashioned porn. My first attempt at an honest story was Kneading I wanted to write something about sex between married people and I wanted to give some sense of what a male orgasm (at least in my experience) feels like.

Over the past few years I haven’t written to any kind of master plan, but, story by story, I’ve tried to write something that will get under people’s skin

At Susannah Indigo’s suggestion, I’ve been assembling a book of short stories. In the process I’ve been rereading my own work and I’ve realised that I’ve ended up writing about four things:

Married Sex: it amazes me how little stuff there is out there about sex between married people (even if they’re not married to each other). Surely most of the sex in the world falls into this category, yet most of the erotica seems to be about young single people.

Humour: I’ve always found sex slightly ridiculous (maybe it’s something about the way I do it – as Woody Allen once said “I’m good at sex, I practice a lot when I’m alone) but I’ve tried to write funny stories that also show that a lot of the humour comes from that uncomfortable mix of vulnerability, intimacy and desire.

BDSM: I’m not a member of the community but I’ve some experience in this area (coughs and shuffles feet) so I’ve tried to write (at least some of the) stories in this area about what it really feels like to be in that kind of a relationship. Take a look at “Other Bonds than Leather” and you’ll see what I mean.

Science Fiction: as a long term fan of SF it still amazes me how often both sex and religion are missed out of Science Fiction. I like to try and write stories where both the sex and the SF are credible. Take a look at “Fucking Forever” and you’ll see what I mean.

So, I’m still moving on becoming a Writer. I’ll keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

On reading: It seems to me that the best books have characters with drape, (empathetic capability? or just a good quality worsted?) - their personalities skim familiar frameworks, their words nestle in the ear, their thoughts expand to fill and possess the mind, the mouth. You could be me, they might say, or you could want me. Reading is escapism, true, but perhaps also an expression of desire? (Do literary rules make that desire safe?)

Of course, the Greeks would say that empathy for fiction forces one to express and relocate one's own desires, either beneficially (Aristotle's notions of emotional displacement) or destructively (Plato's condemnation of drama's rabble-rousing potential.) But what if it is simpler than that?

What if it is about just not being you for a bit, about reimagining yourself as some compatible other, fleshed out in technicolor with all the sensual lucidity of a spring day five minutes after the rain has stopped, with language as the mordant, fixing the moment forever accessible?

Granted, I am speaking of reimagining the self to a man with a literary alter ego - oh, such ironies.

Why do you suppose no one much writes married sex?

W. S. Cross said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
W. S. Cross said...

Nice blog, Mike, from a fellow ERA member!

remittance girl said...


Welcome to the wierd and wonderful world of blogs. I loved this article!



Amanda said...

Hi Mike,
Discovered you now have a blog thru rg's links page. Great :) I look forward to reading you.
Amanda (a former ERWA member)

Galiana said...

I think someday I'll become a Reader like you're becoming a Writer. When I do read, I get so absorbed that my siblings used to amuse themselves by seeing how many times they could yell that the house was on fire before I'd snap out of it and notice.

The only reason I don't read more is that I lose my life when I read. I can't put books down. I don't just lose sleep now and then - I do it every single time I read. I'll ignore friends and responsibilities and leave work early, sleep-deprived and guilty, to finish the story, because I can't get them out of my head.

So either I'll become a Reader when I no longer have to work, or when I find ways to control my compulsions.

Until then, I make do with reading short things (blogs & short stories) and every now & then writing a little something.

But yeah, I think you're becoming a Writer. It's fun to see the evolution. I recently had the chance to see a play written by a Writer friend whose work I've been reading for 15 years now, and I love watching writers develop in real time, which gives interesting validity to the idea of a Writer blogging -- so that those who get more out of reading someone they know can feel like they know the Writer, and possibly get more out of the experience.

Suze Indigo said...

I think that people write _about_ varieties of married/partnered sex fairly often, but that there's little writing from _right inside_ of it all, at the point of emotional truth that often gets lost in erotic writing. You excel in doing that, Mike -- keeping it real, yet still hot, while providing some interesting enlightenment about a man's inner life.

Naked Blogger said...

One of the dangers of being a Reader and becoming a Writer is that it's hard to imagine others getting as swept away by your words and images and you get by what you Read. Because honestly, you think more about what you Write, in different ways. You know backstory and motivation, you can see the metaphors building, you can hear the cadence, and wince when it skips.

What we read isn't what you write, though. Good thing you know that part already.

Nan A said...

I love that feeling of being inside a book, of having the world of that story somehow overlaid my own, where I can't wait to stop for a moment and get back into the story.

For some reason, being a writer means that it is a bit harder for me to get lost in books that way. I have less time to read because there are stories in my head trying to get out, but also, I tend to read stories as a reviewer more and fewer books grab me. One that did just recently was "Dream of the Blue Room" by Michelle Richmond. "The Time Traveler's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger was another.

Mike, I'm excited about reading your blog and hope you'll write in it regularly.