Today I am THRILLED to welcome best-selling author Jenna Blum to Great Thoughts’ Great Authors. Jenna Blum is the New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers. Jenna is also one of Oprah readers’ Top Thirty Women Authors. I had chills when I read this as I could so relate to her obsessive reading as a child. This guest post rocks- read and enjoy!
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved to unplug from the world and read. When I was a kid, that’s about all I did do. I read in bed at night, out in the yard, at the bookstore, while walking to the bookstore. My mom scolded me while I sat with my back against the hot ribs of our kitchen radiator, reading. Put that book down and help me set the table! You’re being rude. You’re being antisocial. I could barely hear her, and I dismissed what I did hear as inconsequential. I was reading. I was in book world. That’s what was important.
Now, more years removed from childhood than I care to count, I still feel that way. If I don’t get reading time at least once a day, I get cranky. Were you to tiptoe into my apartment at mealtimes, you’d find me sitting on my couch, plate precariously balanced on lap, book in hand. I try to re-enact this ritual when on the road for book promotion: in hotels, I unwrap whatever takeout I’ve found. Mute the TV. Sit cross-legged on the bed. And read.
But as many of us lament, an adult’s reading time can get whittled down to nothing by life’s demands. Work. Family. Fatigue. For me, it’s often traveling—after driving to and speaking at a book event, a few pages is the best I can manage. I also read for research and to provide quotes, and while I love the immense privilege of reading galleys, I have scant time to read the way I did when I was a child: picking up a book without any idea of what lies between its covers except for the jacket teaser, promising me some new adventure and, just maybe, the chance to fall in love.
This past week, I fell in love.
I was sitting in a wading pool in a friend’s backyard in Kansas, where I’d temporarily floated to earth. I had a sandwich in one hand and a book in the other. The book was a collection of short stories by Robin Elizabeth Black called IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS. I know Robin from Facebook and Twitter; I often buy books by my online friends—curious about their literary avatars. I’d also, while listening to Elizabeth Berg’s latest novel ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS YOU on audio, heard one of Robin’s lines as an epigraph: “Marriage is a funny thing. Even when it’s over. Maybe especially then.” I love Elizabeth Berg. That clinched it. I took a bite of sandwich and started reading.
About halfway through the second story, I tossed the sandwich into my friend’s grass, set Robin’s book carefully down on my lawn chair, and ran inside. I dug through my luggage like a dog until I found my journal and a Sharpie. Then I raced back out to the pool and started to write.
I outlined a whole short story in that pool. For the first time since 2009, I wrote fiction without a deadline. I wrote because I was seized by an idea. And I was seized by this idea because I was reading Robin Elizabeth Black’s short stories.
I’d forgotten that when I started writing, I started by reading short stories. I love the purity of the form. Whenever I start to write a book, it begins as short stories—sketches to the final painting. An exploration. A limbering up and a way in. And more than that: often the initial short stories are embedded in the book as chapters. They’re the genesis. They’re the book’s heart.
Outlining and writing in my friend’s pool, I didn’t care about any of that. I just cared that I was writing. No, I didn’t even care about that. I just cared about the story. I just wanted to get the story out. Robin’s writing, so clear, so lucid and sad and elegant, so unstinting when it came to chronicling people’s vulnerabilities, had turned a key in the ignition in my head. It was a kind of writer-see, writer-do. It made me think, Hey, I can do this too! I’d forgotten how much a beautifully turned sentence is like a drink of cool water to the fevered brain, how when I was writing my second novel, THE STORMCHASERS, I began each writing day by reading a story. Pam Houston. Amanda Eyre Ward. Richard Ford. An act of warm-up and of prayer. I hope I’m worthy of this. I hope I’m worthy of my characters and their stories. Please let me be as good as this.
This is the gift writers can give to each other. Inspiration. Making it look easy when we know sure as hell it’s not.
Thank you, Robin Elizabeth Black. You helped me get writing again.
What are you reading and where are you going?