Reading / Writer's Life / Writing

Reading as Writing Research

still alice tell you more

For kicks, just say the title of this post three times fast. I just finished reading  Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss to Little E, and it appears my mind is now warped to think in tongue twisters. This may be worse than hiccups. I’ll let you know.

In the past year, I’ve intentionally read two fiction books for the sole purpose of getting some perspective and insight into the book that I’m writing. The first book, I Want to Tell You More by Jamie Quatro appealed to me for it’s structure. The second book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova, caught my attention for it’s subject matter. Both books sparked ideas and reflections – sometimes positive, sometimes not. Neither book was on my beloved To-Be-Read pile, but when I discovered them I knew I had to read them for what they could teach me for my own writing pursuits.

I Want to Tell You More is a compilation of short stories loosely based in the same geographic area. I initially thought it might be a situation similar to The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachmann where each character’s story is a stand-alone chapter/story and only at the end do they all come together. It wasn’t. I wanted to read it because I was still waffling on whether mine was going to be an attempt at one novel or whether it would better be told as a series of short stories. By the end of reading this book, and after a few more tweaks of the little bit I had already written, I ruled for a novel.

But, I learned more than just what structure was going to fit best and how it would work. Using only sex to describe intimacy over and over and over is cloying – which is sad, because in a couple stories her portrayal of how sex is a part of intimacy was appropriate and thoughtful. I learned that I have a visceral reaction to the stay-at-home mom stereotype that we are inane, needy, and sexually-starved. And I learned that grouping short stories in a book can be tricky – too much of one thing is boring, but in this book there were a few that were so outside the style of the others that it gave me reading whiplash.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova had a very obvious connection to what I was writing. As it stands now, one of my secondary characters will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Still Alice is a first-person-point-of-view fictional account of the impact the disease has on a person. The increasing intensity of the disease, the desperation of the diagnosis, and the unhindered devastation it dumps on a person and the people around them were all there. In words.

I have known several people in the last few years who have watched as mothers and grandmothers succumb to Alzheimer’s, but my role is to be a friend not an investigator. This book allowed me a glimpse of the various ways the disease manifests itself and the implications that it can have. It provided me with terms and words and organizations and considerations. It was worth the read for those alone.

But not everyone is interested in reading a book about Alzheimer’s just “for pleasure.” One of the initial criticisms I saw in a review was that it came across as too preachy or heavy – trying to get too much information across at the sake of the story. I disagree. I was looking for the information and appreciated where it appeared, but the story was center stage. It was a quick read. I imagine it had to be – if you choose the first-person perspective and then that perspective is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they don’t have too long to get the story out reliably. So, maybe this wouldn’t be one you’d pick up for a beach read. But it’s a powerful story and heartbreaking.

My only observation was that because I knew from the description that this was a book from the perspective of a woman confronted with the disease I immediately identified those initial trigger incidents – from chapter one – forgetting a word, forgetting a colleague’s name, getting lost, and repeating herself were not merely lapses of an aging adult, they were going somewhere. I knew where. She didn’t. I felt like I had a dirty secret.

I have always maintained that writers should be readers and that reading makes you a better writer. In this case, I was doing the reading with intentional expectations about how it would link to my writing. I was not disappointed – reading is still stimulating and enjoyable even when you’re doing it for something beyond the act itself.

What books, other than how-to books, have you read intentionally to influence your writing? Good results? Frustrating? Bad news?

2 thoughts on “Reading as Writing Research

  1. I don’t think there’s a book I’ve intentionally read to use as research and/or guidance for a book I’m writing (excluding non-fiction books I use for research on my topic), but reading a wide variety of books certainly helps me with my writing in general. Since I write thrillers, I probably pay more attention to the structure of those types of novels while I’m reading them than other genres. For example, right now I’m reading a Nordic thriller, and I find myself dissecting the author’s scenes. It’s kind of annoying because I just want to read it, but it’s always good practice to try and uncover what makes a book so good.

    • I can see how the dissecting part can be annoying. I’ve found myself inadvertently doing that even if it’s not specifically for writing projects. Such problems 😉

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