Author, Book Reviews, Craft, Fiction, Short story, Writing

How reading great fiction can be dangerous to your health!

No, as far as I know, fiction isn’t toxic to your body. My post title refers to your health as a writer, the health of your ego, your confidence. I have recently started reading two collections of short stories. One, I had read before, the other was recently published. I’ll give my thoughts on one today and the other next week. Although the major part of me is enjoying these books, another part of me wishes I had never opened them. I’ll get to that later.

By the 90s, I was reading more non-fiction than fiction. Then, several years ago, I joined a reading group and was introduced to some of the excellent books I’d missed, but when the leader announced our next selection would be a collection of Viet Nam war stories, I was less than thrilled. I bought a used paperback copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, sure I’d never want to reread it. How wrong I was. I became enthralled. The subject was familiar, of course, but O’Brien’s writing skill was not. He amazed me many times, as I read.

Several months ago, when I decided to reread the book, I discovered it wasn’t on my shelves. I never found it, and never got around to buying another copy until a couple weeks ago, when I bought the 20th anniversary edition in hardback. Now that I’m more actively writing, I appreciate O’Brien’s skill all the more. In the title story, he uses all the “tricks” of the craft to put you right there in the heat and the mud and the chaos and the blood. His words create the cadence of the march, the sounds and silence of the jungle, the fear of the young men trying to reconcile back home with the horror they live in now. He often gives the weights of the things they carried: the weapons, the gear, the letters and photos, the drugs, the food, but into these lists of things they carried, he slips the things that can’t be weighed by ounces, grams, or pounds.

Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often they carried each other, the wounded, or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.

About dealing with death all around them, he writes:

They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it.

They found jokes to tell.

They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn’t cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself.

And he writes that at night, while on guard, they dreamed of being carried away.

They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight, feeling the cold slap of wind and altitude, soaring, thinking It’s over, I’m gone!—they were naked, they were light and free—it was all lightness, bright and fast and bouyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken up over the clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortification, and global entanglements—Sin loi!, they yelled.

Okay, sorry, I’m getting carried away myself, but there’s good writing here. If you’d like to read the story, it’s online: The Things They Carried .

So, why did I say I wished I’d never opened this book again? Well, I’ve contracted a case of I-might-as-well-just-give-up-now-itis by reading both this and the other story collection.  Of course, I could assuage my ego by limiting myself to reading sideways—read only books that are no better written than I can write—but that won’t help me improve hone my craft. By reading up, I see what heights mere words can reach. The problem is, I also see how far down that mountain I am. I look at great writer’s work and think, Now, that’s writing!

And then I ask … so what is it I produce?

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22 thoughts on “How reading great fiction can be dangerous to your health!”

  1. Count me in as a chronic sufferer! I write a short story and think, “man I wish I could write like…..”. So I begin to work on my novel and again think, “but it is still not as good as…..”. Then I turn to poetry and wonder, “will I ever be as eloquent as…….”

    I suspect we will always have these feelings, even after the honor of publication. However, they serve a greater purpose than to destroy our confidence. These feelings keep us from growing complacent. They are the fuel that kindles our desire to better our writing. In some ways, I hope I never become so confident in my own skill that I can no longer appreciate the mastery of other writers.


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