Posted by: Jodi | December 15, 2010

The Terrible Price We Pay

Before I could drive, my mother would take me to the library to pick out a stack of books for the week.  During the short drive home it was almost impossible to keep from opening the first and diving in.  Reading was an escape, a way of entering another world for a while.  I would read for hours, devouring whole books at a time.  The images came so clearly to me then;  it wasn’t reading, it was like stepping into the lead characters body and allowing them to take control, a dreamlike state.

At the time I was also fascinated by magic.  Any magic trick was a source of awe and wonder.  As a family we went to see the magician David Copperfield.  The experience was breathtaking. The performance had me on the edge of my seat so I wouldn’t miss a single second.  I lay awake in my bed that night replaying illusion after illusion unable to sleep.

Time passed, over the years I dabbled with both writing and magic to satisfy my curiosity but never dived into either.  There was school and a series of different jobs to occupy my time.  Reading was still a pleasure, but the stresses of college life had robbed me of the ability to fully immerse myself from the first page.  Instead it took a chapter or two to get warmed up to a story and then I would often lose interest as I remembered assignments yet to be completed.

I married a fellow who lived in the same college apartments, he also loved books and magic.  He even performed magic shows for birthdays on occasion and I went along as the lovely assistant.  I learned that there is a difference between dabbling in magic and practicing enough to perform on stage.  Now, whenever I attend a magic show my first reaction is no longer one of awe and wonder.  I instead watch for how the performer accomplished his feats, which distraction he used to trick the crowd, and then judge how effective it was.  Only the best were able to confound me enough that I could be amazed.

As I enter the realms of serious writing, I’m finding it nearly impossible to find the dreamlike state while reading.  Instead of relaxing into a story, I pay attention to how it is built and which techniques are used.  I pay attention to voice and transitions between points-of-view.  I dissect effective passages of description, trying to learn what makes them work.  It takes the work of a true master to distract me long enough so that my mind can take hold of the story and let me be immersed.   Even then I never have time to spend hours at a time in the folds of a good book, I’m lucky to get minutes here and there thanks to my ever busy kiddos.

It’s an ironic twist of fate.  We pursue something we are passionate about only to lose the ability to feel that passion.  Great chefs struggle to enjoy mediocre food, ice skaters can find every point deduction, gardeners spot weeds and untidy borders, writers search out the art of a story.  They all search out ways to do it better.  It’s like the adage of not being able to see the forest because of the trees.

Is it curable?  Is there anything we can do to reclaim our sense of wonder?  Yes.  Do I know what it is? No.

Advice please.

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Responses

  1. I’m right there with you, Jodi (except for the kids and looking good in a short skirt on stage). I have also been (and remain) a magician, so to the point that I am no longer amazed by magic I see on stage. Magic I see on film I always assume is technically “cheating”.

    The same, too, holds for me with books and stories. I find myself discovering typos, herrings, both red and dead, failurs of plot or characterization, and more. I can still be transported away by writers, but these days it almost always requires a dramatic reading of the work to accomplish that, and as we know, that adds a new dimension to what might feel flat on paper.

    Well reasoned, well written, Jodi. Happy Holidays.

    • It is a relief to know that this feeling is not unusual, that other writers have felt the same thing. A dramatic reading is a fantastic way to get that added dimension back. I started listening to an audiobook the other day for a submersive experience and fell asleep. If it’s not one thing it’s another!

  2. I’ve lost count of the number of times my enjoyment of a book is superseded how the author writes as he or she does. I look for comma placement, editorial typos and continuity issues. I find it hard to dislodge myself from this frame of mind, but when I do, I’m taken back to why I loved reading in the first place. A lot of it depends on who the writer is, though.

    • There are a scant few authors that excel at creating a world that is almost effortless to slide into – I hope one day to be one.

  3. Great post and great analogy. I’ve felt the same way, especially with musicianship. The concert pianist appears to be doing impossible things with her hands, but if I had been present through all her hours of practice, it wouldn’t be so mysterious. As I’ve learned more about writing, I’ve also lost a lot of my ability to enjoy a good story, but not all of it. I don’t enjoy “literary” fiction as much anymore because so many of those writers are simply showing off. I’m no longer impressed much by pyrotechnics and vocabulary, and the story is paramount. Emotion and adventure (physical, spiritual, or emotional) are the currencies that buy my interest most now.

    Thanks Jodi for coming to my party the other night! I truly appreciate it.

    • It was great to finally met you in person. I agree that adventure stories are far easier to be carried away with than standard literary fiction. As for music, even after hours of practice and time spent with orchestras, it will always have the power to sweep me away.

  4. I can’t help you. I have had just the opposite experience . . .

    When I’m trying to analyze why I enjoy a particular writer so much, I get sucked hook, line, and sinker into enjoying the journey (as if reading it for the first time . . . again) and the words and all the technical stuff fade away ~ causing me to never reach the destination of “diagraming” their work and words.

    • You are a rarity Nancy. For sure my appreciation grows when I get closer and try to figure out why it works.

  5. I’m always evaluating the pacing of the books I read, assessing character development, and, most of all, mentally editing extraneous words. “Didn’t someone edit this?” I often say after reading something like:

    “She picked up the phone to answer it,” or “He ran outside of the house into the front yard.”

    As a musician, I can’t simply enjoy the song. I must dissect the arrangement. It’s not conscious.

    My wife thinks I’m annoying. Surprised?

    • I’m guilty of that! I often talk back to TV shows when then writing is not up to par, drives my hubby a little nuts.

  6. I don’t know if you can ever go back, or that you’d want to even if you could. To me, it feels like missing the innocence of childhood, but when I try to imagine myself becoming a child again, I start recalling how limited my power and ability was. Knowledge steals innocence and offers power in exchange. If you’re ready to wield that power, I think it’s always worth the trade.

    That being said, I think there will still be a handful of books that are so good they make the mechanics invisible. I’ve pulled back the curtain to reveal the cogs and kill the magic on most books, but every once in a while I still get lost in one if it’s good enough.

    • I wouldn’t mind being able to reclaim an hour or two of innocence at will and just bask in the beauty of the words. That said I wouldn’t want to remain there.

  7. For reading, I sometimes compromise: I read the book twice. The first time is for the story. If I find myself looking at phrasing or continuity, I mentally shake myself (I’m reading for the enjoyment). The second time is for that stuff. It is particularly helpful to work out why a passage or phrase worked to keep me in the story.

    Most of the time though, I only get once to read the book. When this occurs, I shoot for the story with some critique mixed in. I’ll pause after a chapter & think ‘wow, that was good, why did I like it?’ Or I’ll find myself a little bored waiting to get to the next thing happening. Then I’ll think about what I don’t like or how I would like to go about rewriting it in a way that would interest me.

    The second approach takes a bit more time & practice but it works for me most of the time.

    A few select authors require the first approach. Those are the ones I strive to write like.

    • There are a few select authors that I will read more than once, but like you said most of the time it’s only feasible to read a book once. It takes a lot of discipline to stop after a section and ask what made it work or not. Great idea!

  8. I think this is where writers of “serious literature” get their fondness for obtuse prose. It’s not actually obtuse (if they’ve done their job well) — it’s full of amazing little linguistic tricks that are there to make jaded readers still ooh and ahh.

    Sometimes it works and we get a Vladimir Nabokov or a James Joyce. Other times it falls a little flat and we get stuck with…well, no reason to pick fights here. Just think of whoever’s book you put down wondering “What was this writer THINKING?”

    But either way, they’re trying to dazzle the experienced reader. And sometimes it really does work. Try picking something weird up — I’ve betrayed my prejudices already; I think an “Ada” or a “Ulysses” is a great way to remind your brain that there’s still crazy-impressive, make-you-think-and-struggle writing out there.

    Just stay away from “Finnegan’s Wake.” It earned its spot on my “Top 10 Overrated Books of All Time” list for a reason!

    • I’m almost tempted to pick up “Finnegan’s wake” just to see what all the fuss is about…


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