I had the honor of hearing Jhumpa Lahiri speak Tuesday night. She is one of my favorite authors; I love both her short story collections and her novel The Namesake. She spoke through the Cuyahoga County Library Writer’s series, so the majority of her conversation was about writing. The number one piece of advice that she gave to writers was to be a reader. She stressed how important it was to read and read with a never-ending appetite. I’ve been a huge reader my entire life, so I can’t argue with Jhumpa. However, lately my book diet hasn’t been entirely agreeing with me.
I get very emotionally attached to the books the I read. It gets so bad sometimes that I feel like I take on my character’s moods. If a book is funny and upbeat, my mood can reflect that. If a book is serious and thought provoking, I become very pensive. However, if I book is depressing, it can often bring me down. I don’t find this a fault in my reading or way to approaching a novel, in fact, I look at it as an element of good writing. If an author can get me to connect so much to my characters that I feel their emotions, I think that they’re pretty amazing.
The problem is that during the last few weeks I’ve had to stop reading two books that were affecting me too much. I’m not abandoning these books, but I had to step away from them for awhile and put a little distance between the words and the way I was connecting to them. Has that ever happened to you?
The two books were Jenny Downhan’s Before I Die and Dave Cullen’s Columbine. Don’t get me wrong, both books are amazing. They’re well written and moving, and I’ve read at least a hundred pages in each. However, perhaps they are too moving. The subject matter of each is dark and I had a hard time coming back to the words without letting them affect me. I have no doubt that I will complete both of these books, but not right now. I need to put a little distance between the subject matter and my emotions before I can come back to them.
Writing is a lot like this also. There were scenes I wrote in Canary that physical drained me. Scenes that broke my heart and made me cry while I was writing them. I made choices for my characters that I didn’t want to, but the story was leading me to. I carried these choices around with me for days, feeling awful about what I had to put my characters through. There were even times when I had to close the computer for a time before I could come back to it.
Reading and writing isn’t always easy or happy. Characters die. Characters hurt. Characters experience life in ways that we never hope to do. However, there is always the chance for redemption and salvation. Characters, like human, move on from their experiences and grow stronger. I believe readers and writers are the same. The written world takes us on a journey and while the journey may not always be pleasant, I hope to walk away from a book or my computer changed in a way.
Words are meant to move us and make us think, and I strive every day to be able to do that for my reader.
What books have you read that move you?
What books have you read that were hard to experience?