Sunday, May 3, 2009

Reading by Choice

Last week I had a sort of exciting revelation: not being in school is going to mean that I have time to read things that I choose to read! I know, I know – that’s obvious. But I hadn’t really thought about how much that really means until I got totally involved in – and inspired by – Stephen King’s newest short story collection.

That’s right. Stephen King. Can you think of a less MFA approved writer?

My required reading for workshop – the only class I’m taking this semester – was finished and with my thesis done, my comps exam behind me, and all of my lit credits already in the bag, I didn’t have any papers to write or any books that I needed to read. So I had time during a semester to read a book that I didn’t have to read for school – a very rare occasion indeed.

No, it’s not the best book in the world – it’s not even Stephen King’s best book – and if you’re looking at craft issues it’s nowhere near as well written as the stuff we’re required to read for school. But it was a freaking enjoyable book even so. I got totally sucked in, to use that old reading cliché, and one of the stories in particular (a story called “The Gingerbread Girl,” one which I highly recommend and which I would argue is well crafted and worthy of being studied in an MFA program) really inspired me as a writer.

I won’t say too much in the hopes that you might actually read the story yourself, but there’s a very high tension point where, based on the way a certain thing is described, an image flashed into my mind – a very disturbed image of something that one of the characters could have done to the other. But it didn’t happen; something else happened instead, which made perfect sense for the story, of course, but I couldn’t get my idea of what she might have done in that situation out of my head.

I was so engaged with the story that I wanted to remain in that world even after I finished it. I wanted to see what would happen if the character had done what I had, for that one brief moment, expected her to do. So I started writing my own story. No, it isn’t like fan fiction. It’s not the same world, not the same characters, not the same story in any way. Just a new story about a woman who finds herself in a similar situation and she does what I wanted her to do.

I just wrote and wrote and wrote. And I felt more inspired and more into what I was writing than I’ve felt in a long time. My story is so different from Stephen King’s that I can’t imagine anybody would even see what the two have in common, but the important thing is that I picked a book off my shelf, one which I felt in the mood to read (a luxury we absolutely do not have when we’re required to read X book on X week in school), and I ended up totally inspired to write something new.

It made me really excited about the fact that I won’t be a student next year. As much as I love school, and I love discussing the required reading with others, there’s a lot to be said for choosing what to read for yourself. Of course personal taste comes into play, and your receptiveness to a particular book at a particular time can be greatly altered by whether you happened to be in the mood for that sort of book, and ultimately I feel that reading something by choice can be a much more fruitful experience than reading something because you have to. And so I’m actually starting to feel that (as much as I praise and praise and praise some more the value of MFA programs) I’m likely to grow a lot as a writer in the near future by not being in school anymore. Hurray for the silver lining!

1 comment:

Justus said...

That's similar to an experience I had with the new story I'm working on, where there was an element of a story I read that got me thinking about something else. Actually, I often find that my best ideas come from two unrelated things that spark together and make me think of a new possibility. With my new story, the idea came from a story I read and something unrelated I saw on TV. Or, for instance, I once saw a Daily Show segment about an obsessively passionate mime who wanted mime to be an official Olympic sport, and I also heard a Dennis Miller joke about the traditional family Thanksgiving and a son coming out of the closet. And those two ideas merged rather nicely.