#WellBehavedReaderWriter

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There are cafe cultures and there are cultures that are still struggling to be cafe cultures. I’ve written and read in public in four different geographic areas in my lifetime, and lived in five different geographic areas; when I was growing up in rural Ohio there was no writing in public unless you were in school, and even then one needed to hurry up and finish the damn writing so that I could do some kind of domestic work or farm work or sport.

I didn’t start off in a creative writing atmosphere, and insisted on one anyway. The later I progressed in high school the less I used my free periods for music and the more I used them for writing, reading, or combinations of the two. When I left home after high school (and before I was talked into going to college) I went to a local college library and read the “snooty” magazines with fiction: Harper’s Monthly, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I wanted to write and read in public, but doing either at all was a source of attention-drawing that I struggled with; I read at lunch at work and my manager suggested that I go back to college to…read. So reading in public opened the door to that support network, but, again…attention-getting.

Any writer will tell you that attention is the last thing they want. Most readers are defined as introverts. Keeping these things in mind, it’s important to note that I loved college so much because I could read and write in public and could avoid most other activities because of the commitments of homework and balancing full-time employment with full-time course load.

After college, though, I wanted to keep up the practice. I would go to a coffee shop in Springfield, Missouri called The Mudhouse (the owner made his own coffee mugs on a pottery wheel), and I would write in a corner in low light, trying my best to write fiction in the face of fresh memoir material from my mother’s illness and passing. I didn’t receive any kind of attention for it, and started to breathe a little; maybe I could in fact write in the Midwest. I had to give up teaching, though, as my work (due to the compensation), and took a job I hated that required a lot of psychological work to maintain performance. I gave up writing for a bit, I hoped.

Flash forward to 2004 and an opportunity to move to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area there are an acute concentration of book stores and cafes and I was a writer and/or reader at a table again. I joined a book club, I joined a writing group. I found myself among my people, published or not, and talking about books, talking about writing, participating in city-wide literary festivals.

And then I moved to San Diego County.

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See the picture, above.

Shortly after this picture was taken, someone walked past me on the sidewalk and commented on the fact that I was writing in a journal. Something about what a pretty picture that made. I looked up an smiled, which jarred the person commenting, as though I was a performance artist drawing letters as opposed to someone who was tired of writing in the confines of her apartment.

In seven years of residency in San Diego County, I have managed to find a book club in the last couple of years, which has saved my life. However, if I go out in a bar or in a coffee shop, overwhelmingly there will some sort of comment on either the material I’m reading or the fact that I’m reading at all. I love the comments on the material (one man wanted to know if H Is For Hawk was chick lit–not really, sir–and a woman in a coffee shop two weeks ago predicted that I would read My Sister the Serial Killer in one day, and she was right), but the comments on reading at all take me back to the space between high school and college.

There appears to be something abjectly strange with reading in a bar. There are memes about these things. They weren’t strange in San Francisco, but here it makes other patrons edgy. I occasionally take a book into what I call my watering hole, but it’s closing for remodeling in a week and every other bar I’ve read in thinks I’m going to camp on one drink for a day. With writing it’s worse; when I first moved to North San Diego County I tried to continue my San Francisco writer’s group there, but people were upset with the cafe venue (“There’s no place to park”) and didn’t want to give up their cars to take the train, which was two blocks from the cafe. I ended my involvement with the group, and lost touch with them when I got a different day job.

But writing in public now, particularly at chairs and tables on the sidewalk or (gasp) at a bar, makes other patrons and people passing believe that you are writing about them. Honestly, sometimes I am writing about them, but most of the time I am writing what I would always write about, I’m just getting out of the house to do it. But I don’t want to make everyone else uncomfortable, so…I “behave” myself. I put the book away. I put the notebook away. I tap ideas into my phone, like the rest of the folks at the bar, or the rest of the folks in the coffee shop, and go back to hiding my passion under a bushel or book club.

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#ComfortBooks

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My apartment is one big To Be Read pile. There are very few books there that I have read before; when I finish reading a book I place it in a basket by the front door to be donated to the library.

Still, I do save some books. If I’m given a book as a gift, I keep that book. If the author has signed the book (either in front of me or I just happened to buy it that way), I keep that book.

And if I deeply loved the book, if it were to somehow make it to my list to read again someday to soothe me, then that book gets to stay, too. I don’t have a whole lot of time to re-read books, but when I do, here are the books I’ll sometimes pull out and read around in for comfort:

  • In the Distance, by Hernan Diaz:  I discovered this book last year in my book club, and the isolation that the primary character experiences created such a connection for me that I come back to it when I feel misunderstood.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith: I read this book for years, through high school, college, and various moves whenever I felt emotionally off or physically under the weather as well.
  • Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen:  Like Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail, I find myself lost in the language and on pins and needles about the precarious nature of whether Lizzie and D’Arcy will get together. (On a related note, I have also been known to watch the cinematic versions of this book over and over again to soothe myself–both the Colin Firth version and the Keira Knightley versions.)
  • Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott:  Hey, my middle name (and pseudonym) is Jo, so what better place to pull my writing and reading strength from?
  • The Enchanted April, by Elizabeth Von Arnim:  This book is a timely comfort; I read it every April, as though airing out the linens in my soul.
  • Books on writing by writers: Some of my favorites here are Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, The Deer On a Bicycle by Patrick McManus, On Writing by Stephen King (it’s the only Stephen King I’ve ever read…don’t kill me), Draft No.4 by John McPhee, When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, and Letters to a Young Artist by Anna Deavere Smith (even though I’m not that young anymore). These books remind me of the struggles ALL writers have and teach me as much technique and empathy as a novel does.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams: This book has been soothing me about being different and overly sensitive and about love for nearly 40 years. Without it I would be beyond jaded.

Writing up this list takes me to that safe place that these books create; I think it is time to crawl back into one of them for a little while.

 

 

#WhosWho

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Last week I finished a memoir by Reyna Grande entitled A Dream Called Home. Grande is a naturalized U.S. citizen who journeyed as a child from Mexico to join her parents in Los Angeles, only to discover that her parents and her siblings weren’t too keen to have her there. A Dream Called Home picks up where the memoir of her childhood (The Distance Between Us) leaves off, when Grande finishes community college courses and leaves Los Angeles for her next university adventure at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Grande, who feels far from polished and lonely with no family support, journeys to find her “writing family” in both her remaining years in college and after she graduates and returns to Los Angeles to start her career as a writer.

I picked up Grande’s memoir in the bookstore recently because I could relate to her isolation; I’m not an immigrant in the traditional sense of the word, but I’ve always felt like an outsider (and a burden) in my own family. In the memoir Grande writes of how she finds her family in a world of writers; for years I have been trying to find a family of readers in the city of San Diego, and with the help of my therapist and my community of beloved book stores I finally grounded myself in that “reader family” last year. Now to find the writer family, which, when I thanked Reyna for her inspiring memoir on Twitter, she reminded me was still somewhere out there:

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When I was a kid one my favorite books was a little-known novel of Beverly Cleary’s called Dear Mr. Henshaw. The book follows the story of the son of divorced parents who writes to his favorite author in hopes of connecting with him in Henshaw’s writing and taking that writing to save himself from his situation as a latchkey kid. I thrilled at the idea that writers could save their readers through the back and forth of letters; later, when I was in college, I wore out my VHS tape of the movie Shadowlands, where the fictionalized account of the romance between Joy Gresham and C.S. Lewis depicts more literary redemption.

That romanticized redemption served only as a foothold, though. I found out soon enough through my professors in college that many who love to read aspire to write, and many who aspire and actually succeed at writing for publication love to read. Beginning in college, when writers would have author events on campus, or after college when I would go to author events at bookstores and theaters, I found my question that I loved to ask every author and/or author panel:

What do you love to read?

I’m surprised how often authors are surprised by this question, but even though it surprises them it often delights them, too. They spill the beans, both in titles and authors and in relaxing a little…suddenly the room isn’t full of disciples beaming at a messiah but it is instead a room full of a family of readers. Authors have transformed for me as a group with that question as well; even though I am still star-struck about meeting someone who has written a book (even better, written it WELL), I feel like their readership of other authors makes them human, and as human as I am.

Twitter, for all of its dumpster fires, is still the best place for me to interact with authors, outside of the author events. Since I also write book reviews (and my book reviews are written to point out book strengths and not beat up on the traditional nit-picking aspects) I often reference the author and/or book in my review posts, and sometimes that creates dialogue. Other readers and reviewers that I follow on Twitter may recommend a book in a post, and I’ll read their recommendation and follow the author. Am I still asking the question on Twitter? Not so much…most of the authors have done interviews for the promotion of their books and I can get that information from those interviews (particularly The New York Times “By the Book” series or most Guardian interviews). But also in following their feeds I see which writers render them star-struck, and I read those writers, too, and suddenly I’m recognizing more and more writers on the book store or library shelves, and my reading family gets bigger.

Hopefully, someday, they will be my writing family, too.