I wanted to call this blog Why Stephenie Meyer Is Single-Handedly Destroying The Universe. Then I realized that might be a slight exaggeration, so I thought perhaps Neil Gaiman Should Be My Starbucks Pal. But that one sounded a shade stalker-like. I'm definitely filing both of those away for another time, but today I'll simply stick with I Want to Be Mary Gaitskill When I Grow Up.
Why Mary Gaitskill? Her writing is beautiful and genuine and slightly uncomfortable. I've read and reread her short story collections a dozen times or more. And when I write, I always hope that I can be that honest and raw in the words I put down on the page. I've blogged about it before, but honesty in writing means more to me than just about anything. And this leads me to my super obvious but utterly vital writer tip of the day.
Good writers surround themselves with other good writers. It's such a simple equation but one that I think people easily forget. I constantly run into folks who either read junk, or worse yet, don't read at all. Can you imagine that? An author who doesn't like to read? Sure there are a million excuses for not reading. It's time-consuming. It's costly. It's a mental challenge that rarely yields the instant gratification of a quick game of Angry Birds. But any reader worth his or her literary salt will quickly explain that those excuses don't matter because they can't live without reading. They need to crawl into the brains of others like an addict needs his or her poison of choice. Life...and reality...are just not good enough for readers when they know that just a hop, skip, and a Barnes and Noble or Kindle away, there are other worlds waiting with arms stretched open. (I also quickly point out the films and television, in their own rights, do very similar things.) But I digress. You have to read to write. It's one of those very clear universal truths. And this is how you discover writing mentors for life.
I note here that you have to read good things or else the equation collapses (hence the nod to Meyer, queen of the sparkling junk). Good stories are chock full of exciting vocabulary, engaging plots, quirky characters, and reading those stories is like feeding your brain with spinach and sweet potato vitamin food. Now I say this fully acknowledging that there is a vintage stack of Sweet Valley High books hiding in my basement. (A personal favorite - Book 2, Secrets. Oh Jessica, you vixen.) In my youth I also read The Secret Circle Series and a few others that made my very academic parents' stomachs twist and shout. But in between those fluff series I read every word L.M. Montgomery ever wrote. And Sewell. And Tolkien. And eventually Angelou, Munro, Hoffman, Palahniuk, Austen, and a million others. And I would argue that I know when I'm reading something quality. Or as my husband will quip from time to time, game recognizes game.
As a writer finding those mentors, in my case the Neil Gaimans and Jennifer Egans of the world, to respect and emulate is crucial. It's as much a part of the writing process as practice or taking classes or anything else. Basically if we can't recognize good writing in others, how can we possibly hope to cultivate or identify it in ourselves? I remember being obsessed with Joyce Carol Oates immediately after college. I underlined every other word in her stories when I read them. I copied down her phrases of wisdom and even tried on a few pairs of glasses like hers to channel the inspiration. And there are faint threads of her style still present in my own writing today. Little moments where making her my idol affected my process profoundly.
It's the one piece of writing advice I give without reservation. Find the writers you love, and hate, because they write so beautifully you want to die with envy, but it's a stunning envy. A fruitful one. Study those authors. Visit their homes if you can. Wear a scarf of their favorite color on a day you lack inspiration. Understand their style. Read their works aloud. And one morning, you'll wake up and realize that they've made a deep impression upon you. And that you've established a relationship with them that will last a lifetime and beyond.
Mary Gaitskill, if you're reading this, seriously give me a call. We have a lot to chat about.