Why Read Fiction?



St-MaloI had an interesting conversation with someone recently, a conversation I have actually had with this person several times before, about a novel she was reading. She remarked that she didn’t know how the author knew the things he has written. In this case, it was how some Germans had behaved in WWII. The author of the book in question was born in 1973, and would have not had personal experience in 1940’s Germany. In my side of the conversation, I tried to explain that fiction writers do research, but that they also depend on the power of their own imaginations. The person with whom I had this conversation did not, and had not ever really understood this.

I do not know how Anthony Doerr wrote All the Light We Cannot See, but I do know how I write, and how a number of other people write. I can imagine that Doerr “saw” an image or a scene before the whole story came to him, the grotto beneath the St. Malo wall and the snails that lived there, or the model of the cities that the father builds for his blind daughter. Once I have an image like that, the story unfolds around it, and it could well be that Doerr’s experience was similar.

I once heard Cormac McCarthy talking about how he came to write The Road where he said that he had seen a landscape with devastated smoke stacks and cinder covered ground, and that scene pushed him to write the story. What literalists do not understand is that the story spins out of our heads in ways that are both magical and hard work. Science fiction and fantasy writers know this well because they take us to places that are not “real” in the sense that my literalist friend would believe. Interestingly enough this person has never liked stories that are not “real.”

But what is “real” when it comes to stories? I am not sure writers need to answer this question, but I do think perhaps some readers do. While characters exist on a page and really only on a page, once we read the story, those characters live in our own heads, we carry them with us. When I was a child, I am told, a dear elderly neighbor read to me and she told me once that I used to say to her when she read Mary Poppins to me, “Is it believe? Let’s pretend it’s believe.” Already, although I didn’t know it at the time, with those words, I demonstrated that I had the heart of a fiction writer. Let’s pretend that this fictional world is the one that exists.

In a time when an angry young man shoots nine people in a church simply for the color of their skin, we desperately need stories that tell us that humans can behave honorably, stories where children can learn that bravery is admirable, that kindness is worthy. Reading fiction can introduce us to experience that is different, to the ideas, thoughts and cares of “the other.” There is good evidence that reading good fiction can teach empathy. Anthony Doerr’s book shows us both the worst and the best of humankind. Cormac McCarthy shows us love in unrelentingly awful situations. We need our fiction writers, we need to be teaching reading and writing, we desperately need to be teaching young people that it is possible to imagine a better world because the world in which we currently live is often so full of anger, of hate and ugliness. Fiction can teach us again and again how to human beings should and can behave.


Summer Reading List

lawnchairThis month on Write Some Whatnot, we ask the question “what are you reading?” This would seem to be an easy question, but I struggle to know what to write.

Many people picture teachers, instructors, and professors spending summers reading on the beach or on a lawn chair. My lawn chair remains empty, however, as I spend time teaching summer classes, writing grants for a non-profit organization, and writing technical documentation.

A few weeks ago, I attended a writing conference in Cheyenne, and there I gathered another stack of books and added to my reading list. So, I share with you this list and hope that we will all find some time to read peacefully.

  • By Tina Ann Forkner, Rose House, Ruby Among Us, and Waking Up Joy.
  • By Laura Pritchett, Red Lightning and Stars Go Blue. She has written several other novels, but these are the two that intrigue me the most.
  • By Craig Johnson, Dry Bones, the latest installment of the Longmire Mysteries
  • By Alexandra Fuller, Leaving Before the Rains Come
  • And finally, Talk like TED by Carmine Gallo. This book will be required in my Spring 2016 Composition II courses.

Someday, I’ll ask you to read my own books, too.

Until I have time to dive into those books, for now, I’m reading grant application requirements, technical manuals, student essays, and from time-to-time, my own and friends’ writing. In the midst of this busy time, however, I do find time to do some fishing and bike riding. I only wish the summer would slow down a bit. It’s moving much too fast.

Happy Reading!
~ Keri

Garbage In, Garbage Out

reading and rafting

One of my favorite reading spots.

In his book Mountains Beyond Mountains, writer Tracy Kidder reveals that his brilliant subject, Partners in Health founder Paul Farmer, reads People Magazine on airplanes. Farmer hid his magazines and referred to the rag as “The JPC” (The Journal of Popular Culture). Sometimes I’m proud of the books I’m reading – right now Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life looks impressive and heavy. I’ve spent hours with Homer and Lobachevsky. But I also love junk – The JPC and home decorating catalogs, summer beach reads and fashion blogs. I feel like I should hide my guilty pleasures. It also seems possible that my junk reading vice is harmful.

It is difficult to teach writing and to write at the same time. I whine about the time I don’t have, the energy I don’t have, the ideas I don’t have. I spend all of my time grading, I moan. I’m too tired during the semester. I use up all my good ideas on my students. I sound like a one woman pity party short on beer. But my favorite justification is a theory borrowed from the computer science world: garbage in, garbage out.

They call it GIGO (pronounced “guy-go”). The idea suggests that because computers use only “strict logic” that any “invalid input” will “produce unrecognizable output,” i.e.: complete garbage. Whiz-kid programmers know better than to open a binary file in a word processor (shout-out to my TX family!). They know what will happen if they enter “a string” when an “integer” is called for – it won’t compute.

I’ve been operating under a variation of this theory for a while; if I am reading beginning level compositions all of the time, it’s difficult to produce anything beyond my own beginnings. That’s not to say that my students’ work is garbage, but I do read a fair share of rough drafts. So I might conclude if I’m reading ‘bad’ writing, I will produce ‘bad’ writing. It seems like a good place to lay blame.

So the obvious antidote is to read good stuff too, right?

Easier said than done. I search every day for accessible but challenging readings for my students which means I read a lot of good, even great writing. I know the books and articles I teach inside and out, but I read with the mind of a teacher looking for a lesson. I don’t always have the time to sink deeply into every article or novel that I run across. I keep (both literal and virtual) stacks of articles in my office that I’ve skimmed while lesson planning. I always intend to spend more time with the essays and stories I collect on my literary hunts. But the fact of the matter is I do spend a ton of time grading freshman composition papers. I am tired by the end of the semester. I have used up a slew of good ideas in my classroom. Sometimes I feel like I need a break from analyzing words and ideas.

So I escape into the world of popular novels. I watch movies and formulaic TV shows. I read magazines and my facebook feed. I tell my students that I read everything – I love glossy, gossip magazines and Homer, Wendel Berry and Stieg Larsson. My one true skill is reading well. It is central to every part of my life – work, parenting, even my social life are all informed by reading.

In the end I’m not sure I buy the writing version of garbage in, garbage out. To write well my brain has to function well – it must be clear and creative. Writers cannot operate on “strict logic” like a computer or a statistical data set. We must pull from every part of our bookish research – from the trash and from the top shelf. Writing is not a linear equation, so our best preparation for writing well – reading – should not be linear either. We cannot experience both the ancient world and the modern paparazzi, so we have to read widely. And for fun.

When I whine about not writing well I am usually hiding from the harsh reality of the task – its hard work. Even to write poorly is difficult. I will always seek inspiration from practiced, literary powerhouses, but I also need the blank slate that comes with the pure escapism of popular fiction. I can justify my writing avoidance and procrastination, but in truth it comes down to that other acronym writers throw around so often: BICHOK. Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard.

~ Sarah

” I Believe in Books”



My granddaughter, who is in year six, at the primary school in her English village, participates in a Philosophy class in which the students, ten and eleven year-olds, engage in complex and difficult discussions. Recently her class was invited to hold their discussion on the stage in an auditorium filled with attendees at a Religious Education Conference held in a nearby town. (This being England and not the United States, there is no separation of church and state. Queen Elizabeth is, after all, called, among other things, “Defender of the Faith,” just as Henry the XIII was.)  These students decided on the question that they would be discussing, “Do people choose religion or does religion choose people?”  At the beginning of the discussion, the children introduced themselves and gave a small description of their own religious experiences.  My granddaughter was the first to introduce herself. She gave her name and then she said, “I have my own religion.” She stopped there and did not elucidate further.  Later in the car on the way home, her father asked her what her religion was. She answered that she believed in books, and then she went on to say that sometimes she asked characters in books to help her if she had questions about something.

Aside from the fact that she is my granddaughter, and I might be prejudiced, I actually think that this is quite profound on a number of levels. First, when children read books that have characters who get themselves out of difficult situations, or solve interesting problems, they see  examples of admirable behavior. I remember reading Little Women and thinking about a passage in which Jo asks her mother if she has ever been angry. Her mother answers that she is often angry but she has learned how to (and I am paraphrasing here) temper that anger, she has learned how to say nothing when what she has to say would be said in anger. This passage has stayed with me much of my adult life.  But we don’t need to read work as didactic as Little Women in order to learn something.  Many children have learned to be resourceful by reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and certainly Harry Potter shows us ways to grow up, even without magic wands.

My granddaughter is also participating in a far larger community than she realizes, since the Abrahamic religions that predate Islam, that is Judaism and Christianity, have both been called “People of the Book.”  Not only does this tell us that these religions have sacred texts, the Torah, the Bible, but also that participants in these religions understand that there is something important to be gained from reading, thinking about, and analyzing texts. Hermeneutics, or the analysis of text for meaning, was originally applied to sacred texts, the Bible in particular, and so what my granddaughter was saying about her religion being books really connects her to a far older tradition.  When we think about the stories in the ancient text, we think about what they teach us. What many ideas can we take away from the story of Ruth, for example, or the story of the Good Samaritan?

My granddaughter’s response reminds me again, as if I needed reminding again, that reading is critical, not only to developing analytical skill and understanding what stories have to teach us, but reading is critical  to developing empathy.  Several semesters ago, I taught three books as part of a second level writing course, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, and Winter in the Blood  by James Welch. I wanted to teach the two novels by Native  American writers, but I wanted my students to have some background in Native American History before they read the novels, and therefore, I assigned the Dee Brown book. At the end of the course, I asked students to describe what they had learned in the course of the semester. One student wrote that he had learned to think about his own opinions and to decide whether or not those opinions were based on fact or prejudice. I cannot think of a more important thing for a student to learn. While it is possible that this student would have learned that elsewhere, reading books that took him out of his own experience and showed him the experiences of other people, helped him become a more empathetic person.

So, I, too, believe in books.