ASSOCIATES (2022, March, v. 28, no. 3)


Why Do We Read and Write?

Allison Sloan

So why do we read and write? Sometimes non-fiction, as in an Associates article, a book review, the minutes of a meeting, a note to remember to pick up milk. Sometimes fiction, upmarket, literary, fantasy, mystery, romance, the remnants of a dream, a hero’s bedtime story.

We think we can just write and it will burst with fascinating commentary, brilliant insight, or meaningful morals. My grandchildren are enamored of the tale I tell about Strawberry Girl, the little girl who only ate strawberries heedless of her mother’s warnings that someday she would turn into a strawberry. And she did! And the sequel about her sister who seems to have missed the lesson, Blueberry Girl. Grandparenting seems to have rekindled the opportunity to invent new story lessons. A new generation of eager listeners, ready to grasp the meaning, shout out the inevitable outcomes: And her hair was red with little green dots! And the kids at school laughed at her.

When I’m not popping up with entertaining stories for the grandkids, fiction, I’m recounting the drama of being a library trustee or talking about family plans for a trip to Disney World over school vacation, non-fiction. And that’s the oral history and desire to share and connect. Some of us talk it, or paint it, or act it, or sing it, or play it. And some of us write it.

I write it. Frustratingly it doesn’t pop onto the page as insightful literature. But I can’t carry a tune, and I no longer own a piano, and the most I can paint is a straight line, if I have a ruler. And along with lots of starts and stops, and unfinished pieces of ideas, I wrote a couple novels, as the publishers say: complete. I didn’t stop until I got to the end.

One is 37,000 words which adds up to about 150 printed pages. It’s a light-hearted romance with a little twist. The other is a family saga, where not just one person, but the whole family is the protagonist, and it’s told from the voice of an omniscient third person narrator. That’s a term and a style learned in writing classes. It was a thought-out choice, and it’s actually easier said than done. But I did it, all 86,000 words, 320 pages of it. And then tense got cranky. Sentences were filled with words like: he had been working, or he would have been working, or he was working, or will have worked. Perfect continuous, future perfect continuous, past continuous, or future perfect. Bet you don’t remember all those tenses from 5th grade grammar. In a moment of post-meditative clarity I gasped: simple past. He worked! I think I eliminated an easy 3000 words with that edit.

What they can’t teach in a writing class is the authenticity of the voice that tells you a truth. It doesn’t matter if it’s a truth you never knew or understood, because then you say ah, I never thought of that before and take it into your understanding. It might be an old familiar truth that expands your heart because here it is in words, made clear and real. The problem for a writer is that can’t be faked. If it’s not the raw stuff, probably stuff you never dug deep to dredge up and understand, or stuff you try not to think about, or stuff that’s pained and hounded you, then it’s not authentic on the page either.

As I write, I learn these things, usually from failure to bring them into my writing. Then I rewrite to bring what I learned into the story. It’s a lot of rewrites because the lessons are all around for the taking. So I wrote books, then edited and rewrote books. And I’ve gone to conferences (see how that present perfect sneaks in), like Book Expo at the Javitz Center in NYC and ALA Midwinter. I lined up to meet and talk to published authors, to ask them the important question: How do you know if what you’ve written is good? Can you guess what every one of them replied? Each author answered: You don’t until someone reads it and tells you.

So in April, not for the first time, I will meet with agents and editors who have read a sample of my writing. A few chapters of my novels with a non-fiction synopsis. They will get a sense of my writing style, judged through their expertise as a reader. Fingers crossed that they say it’s good, because otherwise, how will I know?