I’ve been thinking lately about the kinds of books I enjoy and I’ve come to a conclusion: Reading is a lifelong search for self in fiction. Oh, I am capable of enjoying a book for purely academic reasons, books about horrible people doing horrible things, but even those books inspire a measure of sympathy from us, don’t you think? That could be me. If life had turned out differently, if I wasn’t raised by good people, if I was desperate, that could be me.
If I’m completely honest with myself, though, the books I love, the books that meant the most to me growing up, the ones I re-read over and over are the books about people like me — but more. Maybe they are slightly braver than I am. Maybe they’re more adventurous. Maybe their world pushes them to the absolute limit, but still, they survive. The characters I fall in love with are people I identify with, and people I admire.
That’s not to say they don’t have flaws. I have flaws, and so I want them to, as well. I want them to make bad decisions sometimes, lose their temper, be too scared or too shy or too self-conscious. But by the end of the book I want them to use, or overcome, those flaws to achieve great things. I want to see my own emotional journey, my own hopes for myself, reflected on the page.
That’s why I’ve never liked the TV show Seinfeld. I just don’t like and can’t identify with any of the characters. Friends is different — I see myself, my strengths and weaknesses, in every single character. As they grow, I grow.
I want to know that it’s possible to overcome. I want to know that it’s possible to be loved exactly as I am. I want to see my deepest fears and highest goals, and I want to see characters who can go beyond them. That’s what satisfies me as a reader.
I’ve been thinking about that adage: Write the book you want to see on the shelf. I want to modify it. Write the book you want to pick up and read obsessively. Write the book you can’t put down. Write the book with characters who stay with you and stories you can’t stop thinking about for days afterwards. Write the book you want to re-read a hundred times (because, as the writer, you’re going to).
Writing, for me, has been a similar search for self. I think becoming a better writer is about getting closer and closer to that ideal book, the one that fits so well alongside your favorites on the shelf. That’s why reading is so important as a writer. As you learn about what kind of reader you are, what kind of stories speak to you most clearly, you can start to recreate them in your own unique voice.
If a beginner writer asked me for advice, this is what I’d tell them:
- Find your own process. Read advice from other writers, try different processes on, but the only right way to write a book is the way that gets it done.
- The only way to find out what kind of writer you are is to WRITE. Butt-in-chair mon frère.
- Read, read, read. What you like to read is a good indicator of what kind of stories you should be writing. Identifying what you love about those stories will give you the techniques to recreate them.
- Write about the things that scare you on a soul-deep level. Emotional resonance is key.
Really, it’s all about finding out who YOU are. Both reading and writing are about finding yourself in fiction, pulling at the threads of your psyche and using them to experience and create great stories.