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One of the things I like most about Lighthouse is that a community of writers is also a community of readers. If you carry a book into a Lighthouse event or meeting, someone will surely ask you about it or tell you what they thought of it or announce that it’s among the many books they plan to read next. My reading list expands exponentially every time I have even a casual encounter with members of Lighthouse. Case in point, reading Andrea’s blog post yesterday has me rushing out to get the Jessica Treadway collection, Please Come Back To Me. (I hear it’s sensational!)
Something I’ve learned by discussing reading preferences with fellow Lighthouse workshoppers is that many writers have strict rules about the kinds of books they read while they are writing. I know novelists who stick to non-fiction when they are in the middle of a manuscript, especially during that crucial first draft. I know memoirists who wouldn’t dare pick up the latest Mary Karr while unspooling their own story. I get it. Why take the chance that someone else’s voice will influence you? Why invite comparison, even if the only one comparing anything is you?
It’s probably smart to set some boundaries, but boundaries aren’t really my strong point. You see, I write fiction, almost always novel-length fiction. And I read novels, lots and lots of novels. Oh, sure, I occasionally pick up a short story collection or memoir, but I’m happiest when I’m wading through a long, complicated, completely fictional story. Ever since I discovered “chapter books” in elementary school, I’ve been hooked on the novel. I can’t imagine weaning myself off novels for a few weeks, much less the year or more it takes me to write a halfway coherent draft of my own novel. Recently, however, I made the rare decision to check out a couple of non-fiction books from the library: Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich and When Everything Changed by Gail Collins. Reading these books led me to some surprising insights about a current manuscript and even sent me back to a piece I thought I’d abandoned for good. As a result, I’ve been writing more and I’m feeling pretty good about the words on the page. I don’t know if it was the subject matter or the change of genre that spurred this latest burst of output, but I’ll take inspiration wherever I can find it.
I have no intention of putting down my novels for good or even for very long. The new Franzen is beckoning, after all. However, I do believe that reading outside my usual comfort zone has proved beneficial for my writing. So I think I’ll take a cue from some of my Lighthouse cohorts and read more books that are nothing like the one I’m writing. Heck, I may just dive into a collection of poetry next. Recommendations welcome.